No matter how hard I try, I just can’t get Savi Sharma, the biggest find in the Indian commercial fiction space in 2016, to tell me exactly when the writing bug hit her. ‘I used to contribute to my school magazine Abhisarg but that was just a once in a year thing. My first write-up was a poem about choices.’ After finishing school Savi, like any other regular, small-town girl her age, opted to study for a Bachelors in commerce at a university in Surat. At the same time, she started preparations for the gruelling and seemingly never-ending Chartered Accountancy course.
‘It was in the first year that I started maintaining a diary,’ she tells me. I am not surprised. These days, maintaining a diary appears to be the first step towards writing a book, that too a bestseller. Ajay K Pandey, author of the bestselling You Are My Best Wife, also started pouring out his memories in a diary soon after his wife Bhavna’s untimely death. Savi also started reading books in her first year, thanks to recommendations from her college friends. ‘I started with Chetan Bhagat, Durjoy Dutta and Ravinder Singh.’ Savi recalls reading another book outside this holy trio: Mandar Kokate’s Oh Shit Not Again, a book that exhorts readers to find out a grandmother’s reaction when porn is accidently played in front of her, or the consequence of spiking the drinks of at least hundred guests at a party, among other things. When I ask Savi why she didn’t consider reading some of the more serious fiction from the library she says, ‘I was new to the world of books and so read what my friends were reading at the time.’
A lot of people, including her most die-hard fans, don’t know that Savi wrote and shelved a full length book before the record-breaking Everyone Has A Story: a stereotypical college romance called Silent Love. A love story about a clueless playboy Atiksh and his long time friend Jianna, the plot, which involves mischief, a temporary parting and an epiphanic denouement, seems straight out of an Ayan Mukherjee film starring Ranbir. ‘Even though my friends liked it I didn’t,’ Savi confesses. ‘The only thing that worked for me were the names of the main characters. I am particularly fond of Jianna, which means ‘God is gracious’ in Italian. In fact, I am going to name protagonists from my future books after them.’ Savi has clearly always had a flair for marketing because she got 5-10 copies of Silent Love self-published to test it out on her close friends.
Disenchantment with the lack of a spiritual and inspirational message in most of the books she read led Savi to embark on her debut Everyone Has A Story, in the thick of her two demanding university courses. ‘For instance, Nikita Singh put in emotions in her novel The Promise, yet it was not inspiring. My biggest dream is to inspire people by writing something heartfelt. I think love should inspire us to become better people.’
When I probe her on what led her to take upon herself the role of the universal messenger of inspiration, she has no clear answer to the question ‘Was it some life-altering episode?
‘No. It was something that came from within. All writers should write things that they feel deeply.’
Savi finished writing the draft of Everyone in four months flat. She was so convinced about the book that she left her CA course after putting in several years of hard work and study. ‘My parents wanted me to reconsider the decision and consult my CA professor and school principal but I had made up my mind.’
Everyone Has A Story features a dreamy Meera who is desperately in search of a story right from the start of the book:
I guess, having stories stuck in my own soul was the reason I needed to hear other people’s stories. But I didn’t just want to hear stories; my heart was aching to tell a beautiful story which would change people’s lives, or at least mine.
Her search ends when she comes across a young corporate executive Vivaan, also in search of something (although not a story!), at a cafe where a well-known author is having an event. The book follows the story of these two characters, told from the alternating POVs of Meera and Vivaan. I found the book unlike any commercial fiction published in India. It was deep, dense, and occasionally bogged down by passages like the following:
It’s not a story and maybe it’s not love. It’s about something more real than stories and more powerful than love. It’s about you. Yes, you. Real and powerful. I have never been happy with someone. I wanted to be with different people at different places with different feelings. I wanted to explore everything, know everyone. But then I explored you. And I found you are not just ONE, you are an infinity. An infinity of love, care, trust, respect, understanding. A universe of inspirations, aspirations, hope and happiness. Maybe you are the universe out there which I explore. Or the universe in me that I seek.’
Did she ever worry about losing out on her readership because of her style? ‘No, I knew I had written something meaningful that would resonate with people.’ Perhaps it was this enviable confidence, and the stories of tardiness in Indian publishing that she had heard that made Savi decide to bypass the traditional publishing route altogether.
‘Not even a single query letter was sent out to any Delhi-based publisher’, says Ashish Bagrecha, Savi’s suave marketing manager and partner-in-crime. In another life, Bagrecha runs the IT CRUX Mobile apps solution, a start-up that has been creating apps for some of the world’s most innovative brands. In fact, he himself self-published a short novella several years ago and will be coming out with his first proper fiction in 2017. ‘Savi’s first draft was in pretty good shape and I only gave her a few minor suggestions regarding the plot.’
The duo then scoured bookstores in Surat, including Crosswords, and found out that most of the books by top publishers were printed by Thomson Press. ‘We had also shortlisted Mahipal press but nobody responded on their landline. The executives at Thomson, on the other hand, were very helpful and cooperative and immediately gave us a quote for 2,000 copies.’ After the deal was closed, a print-ready file was sent out to Thomson. Being a graphic designer, Bagrecha designed the book cover himself. ‘It features the two main protagonists Meera and Vivaan facing each other and looking intently into each other’s eyes. The message we were trying to convey was the search for oneself in the other person’.
‘We set up a seller central account to keep track of the sales and rankings,’ says Bagrecha. The book was put up for preorder on Amazon and a Facebook page was set up for promotions. Their strategy was clear: use inspirational quotes from the book to establish an instant connect. In fact, the first quote that went up on the Facebook page went viral. It went like this:
Everyone has a story to tell. Everyone is a writer. Some are written in the books and some are confined to hearts.
Other quotes include:
If emotions were colours, I know I would have witnessed a beautiful piece of artwork in a few seconds
Yes, you can still love more, learn more and love more than you’ve done so far. You have nothing to lose and everything to gain. Wake up and run towards the beautiful life you deserve
In a country where most books take an agonisingly long time to sell out their first print run, even when they are made available in every bookstore, Everyone Has A Story sold out on Amazon in just 10 days. Savi then ordered Thomson to reprint another 3,000 copies and the latter executed the order in 20 days. Around this time, two major publishing houses, Westland and Penguin Random House India, got wind of India’s first bestselling self-published book by a woman author.
‘Both of them wrote to me at the same time. The mail from Penguin Random House landed in my other inbox so I didn’t see it for a while.’ Savi got offers from both but chose Westland because there was an immediate connect with the editor. ‘Why didn’t you continue to self-publish?’ I ask her. ‘The book was not available in brick and mortar stores and it would also help to have a good marketing budget from a major publisher.’ Westland editors found the self-published book to be in good shape and just weeded out some basic proofing errors.
Everyone has a Story crossed sales of 1 lakh copies in just 100 days. The book was on Neilsen top ten for 24 weeks, 7 of those in the first position, six in the second and ten in the third. It has almost 1,500 reviews on Amazon.
After signing a two-book deal with Westland, Savi signed on for two more books with them for an advance based on a print run of 100,000 copies each. Savi’s family is over the moon and her grandfather is relieved that she hasn’t met with the impecunious fate of his favourite author, the late Munshi Premchand. One of her two younger brothers already wants to follow in his sister’s footsteps and write a book. She is frequently mobbed at malls and bookstores in Surat. The book has had a life-altering impact on her readers, starting with the cafe manager in Surat on whom the character of Kabir is fashioned. After reading the book, he left his job to find his true calling, just like Kabir in the book. A reader even credited Savi for saving him from committing suicide. In a fan mail to her, he wrote:
Dear Miss Writer,
I am Ujwal, 18 and a human who is longing to become a writer but instead opted engineering because it is obligatory for any South Indian guy. That was a brief description about me. I happened to read your book couple of days ago and I found something about you in it. Is the fact that a writer puts hundred percent of his efforts to produce a book true? If yes, then you did it. Everyone has a story is just not a book. It is something beyond that. You said that you were in search of a story that would touch millions of lives. Well now its million minus one. I was a normal guy who didn’t care what people around him are thinking about him. I was this random silent invisible guy in class that nobody cared. Few days ago, I considered suicide to be the only option to get out of the loneliness. And just as you said, I used to search for reasons not to die. And guess what, I was an invisible guy until I read your book. Your book gave me hope. Your book gave me reason not to die. And I couldn’t be more thankful that there are people like you. And in more simple words, everyone has a story and very less people understand it.
Critical reviews of the book have been mixed. In a Goodreads review, author Madhulika Liddle called the book ‘tiresome.’ She said, ‘It lacks depth, the characters are one dimensional, and the story reads like a very predictable Hindi film.’ Blogger Wandering Babu felt differently and compared the young 23-year old writer to Paulo Coehlo. In the review on his website, he writes: ‘Her style of writing and the quotes have lot of resemblance with internationally acclaimed writer Paulo Coelho. I am no way comparing her to such a master story teller like Coelho or exaggerating the fact at the same time. For doubting Thomases, I am reproducing below two quotes, each from Coelho and Savi Sharma.
“And, when you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it.” Paul Coelho, The Alchemist.
“…if two souls are destined to meet, the universe will always find a way to make the connection.” Savi Sharma, Everyone Has a Story, Page 87, Second Edition.
One would expect a book like this to have the majority of its readership in small towns, but the figures that Savi shares with me paint a different picture. “Almost 75% of my readers are from the metros and the remaining from tier-2 cities. The maximum readers are from the city of Delhi.” In fact, Ashish tells me, their Facebook promotions were targeted towards readers from Delhi and Bangalore, which have the maximum readership.
Although Savi is committed to three more works of fiction, she would like to try her hand at non-fiction some day. ‘ I read a lot of self help and mythology books by Devdutt Pattnaik and would be keen to explore subjects such as laws of attraction, spirituality and positivity in my future works.’ When I ask her if she realises that she is probably India’s first writer of inspirational romance, an offshoot of conservative Christian writing in the West that has dedicated readers and publishers, she says ‘I didn’t call it an inspirational romance with that intention but just because I felt like it’.
Savi Sharma ticks all the right boxes. She is relatable (she calls herself a ‘simple’ girl on her website), accessible, social media savvy, and of late has been involved in several philanthropic activities in her home town Surat. She successfully ran the Christmas hug campaign to collect blankets for the poor and homeless in Surat. In one of her recent posts she said:
Last winter, we distributed over 500 blankets to the needful in Surat on the night of Christmas with our campaign #BeTheSanta.
You guys contributed, volunteered and worked hard to make #ChristmasHug a great success.
It’s time we do it again!
Let’s spread love and warmth to the ones who are waiting for us.
Let’s #BeTheSanta again and give #ChristmasHug to the lovely people around us.
Of late Savi has also graduated to sharing quotes by literary giants such as Kurt Vonnegut and Ursula K Le Guin on her Facebook page.
‘Savi’s story is remarkable because no other Indian woman commercial fiction writer, be it Anuja Chauhan or Nikita Singh, has crossed the magical sales figure of 1 lakh’, a publisher specialising in the genre told me. She added that achieving this feat partially via self-publishing is even more commendable, because most self-published books in India vanish without a trace. ‘I get numerous queries from self-published authors to publish their books traditionally since they couldn’t do anything with their books’, she adds.
Savi’s next book is out in February 2017. Here’s an exclusive peek:
Sometimes, you don’t write the story, it writes you. You don’t choose the story, it chooses you.
But would you believe if someone told you ‘This is not your story?’ Would you have the courage to rewrite it?
Shaurya, a CA student. This is his story of following his dreams.
Miraya, an interior designer. This is her story of believing in love.
Anubhav, an aspiring entrepreneur. This is his story of giving life another chance.