Betting on Bharat: Pratilipi takes uncharted path in battle for mind space

From left: Ranjeet Pratap Singh, Sahradayi Modi, Rahul Ranjan, Prashant Gupta, and Sankaranarayanan Devarajan, founders of Pratilipi
Nearly two years ago, Ranjeet Pratap Singh, founder and CEO of self-publishing platform Pratilipi, was handed a report. It was a Google Analytics snapshot, which gave him an overview of the platform’s user base. It revealed over 50 per cent of the user base were women in the age bracket of 18-30 and they lived primarily in metros. Everything in this report was unexpected. 

To understand why it was unusual, let’s explain what Pratilipi does. 

Pratilipi deals primarily in Indian languages — nothing is in English. The company encourages both well-known and less-known writers to upload their e-books on Pratilipi. It then reaches out to readers and entices them to read some long-form fiction. These stories can be in any Indian language. A reader gets through one story, then another, then another and before he/she realises it, reading on Pratilipi becomes part of his/her habit. 

Now, replace stories with memes and jokes and you’ll be looking at popular social media platform ShareChat. Replace stories with news and you have DailyHunt. Replace stories with 15-second cheesy video content and you get TikTok. Essentially, smart content with immense potential to be viral and a customer base that is uncomfortable in English — it is the universe that Pratilipi exists in. 

Even though Pratilipi, in concept, exists in that shared universe, it is different. All of its Indian language peers cater primarily for the audience in tier II, III and IV citiies/towns. But for Pratilipi, it is different — it bucks the trend. 
In India, internet access slants towards men as 80 users are men. If the content is not in English, the audience is probably outside metros. That’s not what’s happening in Pratilipi’s case.  “It was not just surprising to us but also to our investors. Except for Omidyar Network because it had also invested in DailyHunt and saw a similar trend,” says Singh. 

Pratilipi has raised $20 million in the last four years with the latest coming via Qiming Venture Partners, which led a $15-million Series B round. Omidyar Network, Nexus Venture Partners, Shunwei Capital and others also participated. 

Pratilipi, founded by Singh, Sahradayi Modi, Prashant Gupta (he is no longer with the start-up), Rahul Ranjan, and Sankaranarayanan Devarajan, was launched in 2014.  


Pratilipi, he says, is actually trying to be a one-stop shop for all regional language content, which starts from the classics to modern fiction. “We want to encourage writers to express themselves on our platform,” Singh says. And then he asks them to share their stories via WhatsApp and Facebook to get readers on the platform. Once they are in, Pratilipi works to keep them there. Currently, users spend almost 33 minutes a day reading. Most of what they read is long-form content with Hindi and Bengali being the most popular languages, followed by Malayalam. 

The platform also allows readers to message each other and writers. But no one needs to log in to read stories.

Road ahead

Pratilipi is experimenting with audio books but that is just a start. “The biggest challenge when it comes to audio is discovery. How do I know if it is good or not,” Singh says. 

Every content on the platform is free right now. “We don’t want to make money right now. Our funding means that we have a runway for almost a decade,” he says. Right now, all he wants is to get user data and understand it. 

There are two possible ways Pratilipi could go. First, investors say, is a pay per chapter model and the other, which excites Singh, is owning the copyright. “The Indian version of Harry Potter will be written on Pratilipi and I want the rights to it and I want to sell it,” he says. Once he finds a big fish, people will pay him to read. 

“Even though Pratilipi is already the market leader across eight Indian languages, there is a significant room for growth. We are support them as they pursue aggressive user growth targets over the next few years,” says Siddharth Nautiyal, Investment Partner, Omidyar Network India.

Things have been easy so far because rivals are few and far between. Singh says that challengers will come sooner than later. He lists Amazon, Tencent and Jio among those which will fight with him for mind space. “They will either be challengers or investors,” he says.  

Currently, Amazon is the biggest rival. It is making inroads in tier II cities with e-commerce in Hindi and video-led content discovery. The next step will be to introduce Kindle. Amazon has the entire ecosystem set up. 

Right now, Singh says he has a head start. And he wants to keep it that way.

Pratilipi helps discover unread literature

Anand Lunia, Founding Partner, India Quotient
Pratilipi is targeting a specific kind of audience and this audience is large. It is collecting a lot of content and a lot of its content is high-quality, visibly timeless literature. India has lost an opportunity in terms of reading. Indian youth were trained to become engineers and take jobs and not read. But it is changing.

The audience is now turning to reading and reading in your own language is easier. And this is not just language, it is also culture. Most English content is written from a Western point of view and people can’t relate to it. There is so much literature that is unread by today’s youth who can discover that via Pratilipi.

Over the last five years, people in tier II India have discovered the internet not only due to falling data prices but also consistent power supply, which means the phones could be charged all the time. This has created an opportunity which Pratilipi is taking advantage of. It is not monetising right now but can use different models, either pay per chapter or per book, whenever it wants.  And that’s where it will be able to take advantage of the scale it is building.

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