In America, God sells. In India, not so much. That was the thinking anyway until Amish Tripathi, now a literary rock star in the country, often going by only one name – Amish – hit the circuit. After the first book in his trilogy on the Hindu God Shiva was rejected by nearly two dozen publishers, he self-published The Immortals of Meluha, which landed on best-seller lists within a week of its launch. The Shiva trilogy became the fastest-selling book series in the history of Indian publishing, with 1.5 million copies sold as of this spring.
Earlier this year, Tripathi’s name was in the news again for receiving a $1 million advance from an Indian publisher for his next ‒ as yet unwritten ‒ trilogy, making him the first Indian in the history of publishing to receive this high sum. The Immortals of Meluha was released in the U.K. in January 2013, and the book will be released in the U.S. in the summer of 2014. Negotiations are underway for a movie deal.
You’ve had a storybook rise to fame. How did it all begin?
I was never creative when I was young. I was an academically inclined guy, so like most academically inclined people of my generation, I graduated in mathematics and did an MBA. I hadn’t written fiction before The Immortals of Meluha, not even a short story in school. It took me five years to write the first book because I wrote my first two books along with my job. And then publishing was a different story altogether.
In fact, you self-published your first book because it was rejected more than 20 times.
It was rejected by every single publisher. Those who did get back with reasons said that the youth [of India] aren’t interested in religion, so there’s very little chance of the book succeeding. Some of them advised me to write love stories because that’s what sells, apparently.
What made you continue on despite having heard “no” so many times?
I think the most empowering place to be is when you’re actually detached from the results. The book was so important to me that frankly I didn’t care whether it succeeded or not. I just wanted to do all that I could do for the book. It had become the pure part of my career, of my working life. In a sense, without realizing it, I was following what Lord Krishna advises us in the Bhagavad Gita, that if you get detached from the results, then you become unstoppable. Success will not cloud your mind with pride and failure will not demotivate your heart.
Since you had no interest in fiction, what inspired you to sit down and actually write this story? What’s your writing process?
It began as a pure philosophical thesis, a theory on what is evil. And then that got converted into a thriller. The idea was to use the story as a vehicle to convey this philosophy. As far as the story itself is concerned, I did try to write it in an organized manner, I read self-help books and made a plan on how to write the story and character sketches and story summary, but that was a complete flop. It didn’t work at all. What worked for me is when I surrendered to the story. I just let it flow. I kind of turn on the laptop and the words just flow. It’s as if there’s a parallel universe where these characters are living out their lives, and I just get the privilege of entering that universe and recording what I see. That’s how it works for me. I’m what you may call an instinctive writer.
You wrote through commutes and weekends. How did the transition happen from part-time writing to full-time author?
I never really aspired to write. I don’t come from a wealthy background, so I can’t afford to be irresponsible with my career decisions. I can’t tell my kid to starve because Daddy is discovering himself. Most of the first two books I wrote in my office commutes, on the back seat of my car, but by the time the second book came out, I had started realizing that I can make a living from this, that the royalty check was becoming slightly more than my salary. But even then I didn’t have the guts to resign ‒ I’m a risk averse banker ‒ so it was actually my wife and my elder brother who encouraged me. They said that you’re one of those lucky people who are making a living out of what they like doing so it would be stupid not to do it full-time.
Why did you publish the next two books of the trilogy through a publisher? You were doing well already, why not keep self-publishing and keep the profit?
My first book was quasi-self-published ‒ my agent invested in the printing, I invested in the marketing. It sold some 45,000 copies in the first three or four months, which was taking more and more investment from my agent and me. The publishing industry is a high working capital industry because the payments from the retailers come in a good six months after the book has been sold, which means ironically the quicker the book sells, the more difficult it becomes because your working capital shoots up dramatically. In the long-term you make good profits, but you have to have the working capital to manage that. Which we didn’t. We realized that we needed a bigger partner. And by this point of time because the books had already kind of done well, many of the publishers who had rejected the book earlier came back and paid for it.
Does the scale of your success surprise you?
I think the fact that my books got published surprises me. Or let me pull back. The fact that I’ve written these books surprises me.
What advice would you give authors who are struggling to get books published? How can they keep doing what they love to do?
One: Never write for money. It’s a good idea to have a job on the side so that you’re not forced to compromise on your writing for the sake of money. If you have a job which is paying the bills, then you can be fearless. Two: Write because you have something in your soul that you want to communicate. Which means then you don’t care two hoots about what anyone else will think, whether they will like it or not like it, that doesn’t matter. Third thing, however, is that once you’ve finished the book, then you have to put your pragmatic hat on and become a marketer. A writer has to be, for the want of a better word, schizophrenic. When you’re writing, you have to be completely cut off from the world and not care a damn about anyone else’s opinion and write from the honesty of your heart, but once you’ve finished your book, then you have to figure out: OK, how do I sell this thing?
Mridu Khullar Relph is a freelance journalist for The New York Times, as well as Time and Ms. magazines.