Introducing the first in a series of monthly interviews with people in the children’s literature world. We start with the head of a generations-old publishing company. ACK Media, more famously known for Amar Chitra Katha, which kept nearly three generations of Indians updated on mythology, folk tales and history and is still going strong.
ACK Media’s other offering Tinkle and its characters hardly need an introduction. The fortnightly magazine in comic book format has a list of star characters – from Kalia to Suppandi to Shambu and many others – who are household names.
Bookaroo chats with Preeti Vyas, president, ACK Media, and also the founder of FunOKPlease, which focuses on creating contemporary Indian content for children between the ages 2 and14. FunOKPlease is now included in the portfolio of content offerings from the ACK stable. We caught up with Preeti just as she is about to celebrate the completion of a year in ACK. Excerpts:
Q: It will be exactly a year since you took over as president. What are the highs that you would look back upon with satisfaction? What were the plans you came in with when called to head ACK Media as president? How does that compare with now, a year later?
A: What an incredibly memorable and exhilarating year, it’s been!
Over the past year, I am proud of all the new titles we published, like Women Path Breakers of India and Rama’s Ring, the collaborations like Tanhaji and EpicOn, the new signature marketing campaigns we launched – Uncle Pai Day, Shambu’s birthday, Suppandi’s birthday, events like Tinkle Fun Raiser or our National Geographic workshops. But most of all I am incredibly proud of how, we as a team came together, using every ounce of our creativity and belief to become digitally savvy publishers and marketers in the last 3 months, when the pandemic disrupted our way of life.
When I joined, my dream was to enable us to connect our content with a new generation of readers and reach every corner of the world. The content that rests in our portfolio is in my opinion, nothing less than a national treasure and I continue to be incredibly humbled to be entrusted with the responsibility and job that I have.
Q: Fifty-three years of Amar Chitra Katha and 40 years of Tinkle. Two iconic names on which generations have grown up on. Along the way, they have reinvented themselves but nothing as dramatic as in this year. You were one of the first to throw open your digital editions for free when Covid struck – a phenomenal and fleet-footed decision. Tell us about your digital transformation – on all platforms.
A: Fortunately for us, so many of us in the company are parents of school-going kids. When the first lockdown was announced, we realised that this was going to be very hard on children, cooped up at home. Our first thought was to do a comic book about Covid-19. But then we shelved that idea as there was already too much of information and mis-information out there. Besides, we weren’t a medical or health brand to have any credibility to speak about the virus.
So instead, we decided to do what we know best, tell stories and engage with children through our content. We did two things: First, we offered free, unlimited access to our apps for 30 days, allowing children to read all our books for a month and secondly, began online workshops on themes like storytelling, creative writing and doodling with our incredible editorial team stepping in to conduct these workshops.
Both initiatives were brilliantly received and we now have nearly a million signups across our platforms, with readers connecting with us from around the world. In fact, nearly 30 per cent of the new users are from outside India, which is testimony to the tremendous credibility and nostalgia for both ACK and Tinkle with Indian parents around the world. Over the past 3 months, over 60 million pages of our books have been read – a number that makes us feel grateful and proud at the same time.
We also made our foray into podcasts and leveraged all existing digital assets like Alexa and social media (our own as well with other partners) to connect with readers on a daily basis
Q: Eyeing the millennials is what many brands profess to want to do. But how exactly do you see millennials accepting a brand like ACK? Did the offering have to change in any way?
A: Boomers, Gen X, Gen Z or millennials- the appeal of a good story is universal. Amar Chitra Katha is a route to your roots, presenting perhaps the most comprehensive and authentic collection of Indian history and mythology. There is a timeless appeal to this content – everyone feels the need to connect to where they come from.
With ACK, there has been some necessary evolution in the stories we choose to tell and, in the art and language we employ to express them. Beyond that, we need to focus on being available across a variety of platforms, any and all platforms where today’s readers are present. Our apps, e-books, ecommerce platforms ensure this availability.
With Tinkle, there has been a conscious redesign of the content and characters over the last decade. So Shambu is no longer a Shikari, a hunter. He is now a conservationist who uses his camera to shoot animals and works with wildlife authorities to catch poachers and hunters. Suppandi has made the transition from being a servant to taking on multiple professions with his characteristic humour. In addition, many new characters like Wingstar, NOIS, Yog Yoddhas have helped us make the connection with a new generation of readers.
Q: Do you see an all-digital future with e-books and the works or will print continue to hold its own?
A: When e-books came out a decade and a half ago, we feared the kindle as the death knell of the printed book. But print continues to hold its own. In a post Covid world, more and more people will adapt to digital reading, but printed books will never disappear. There is something about the experience of reading a printed book which an e-book is not able to replicate. It happened with music but is not happening with reading, certainly not with children’s books.
Q: Amar Chitra Alive that came up in Hyderabad was an amazing first of its kind initiative. But how has it impacted children – or parents for that matter? Do you see more such centres? What are the obstacles to creating a centre like this across the country?
A: ACK Alive has been a fabulous venue to make our stories come alive. However, in a post Covid world, it’s going to be a while before parents will start taking their children out to public performance venues. That engagement has moved online, at least for now. Such centres are commercially expensive investments and I don’t see too many companies ready to invest in such spaces in the current economy.
Q: Tinkle made a great effort to include diversity with characters from all over the country. In terms of acceptance, how did that go?
A: It’s worked beautifully. Whether it is Wingstar from the North-East, NOIS (Nilgiri Orchid International School) in Tamil Nadu or YogYodhas on Kuruva Island, Kerala, children are noticing children and cultures from other regions and are commenting about it in our feedback. They also appreciate that they can learn about other cultures.
Q: What is that ACK and Tinkle fans can look forward to specifically by the time the year winds to a close?
A: It’s a long list of exciting new books, events and activities.
On the ACK front, we have the Shiva Purana releasing in 4 parts, a biography of Vikram Sarabhai, a new ACK Junior for our little readers, a new collection of simple ‘dancing’ (animated) stories on our app and some other very exciting books. In July, we have the grand celebrations for ACK Day happening on the 17th and the launch of our grand ACK Quiz which is going to be a very exciting online championship.
With Tinkle, we are now going to be a phy-gital magazine, with new content releasing on our app on a weekly basis. This new content will not only include our comic book pages with all our popular toons, but also audio, video and interactive content including a very exciting Tinkle gameshow. In addition, we will be releasing our 40th anniversary special collector’s edition in November, which is going to be a treat for Tinkle fans.
Our third brand, National Geographic Traveller, is also ready with its own app and online travel writing and photography workshops. Lastly, FunOKPlease is releasing a new edition of our bestselling title Your Turn Now with an exciting ‘virtual kindness carnival’ planned as a fundraiser for Covid-19 relief efforts
So, all in all, it’s going to be an action-packed rest-of-the-year!
PS: A comic book on the Tatas that ACK released was a commissioned project. Will this extend to other corporates if they approach you? Is the concept of corporate co-branding comics something that is here to stay?
A: We have been doing commissioned projects for a long time now, for corporates like the Tatas, for various ministries like the Ministry of Ayush, the Ministry of Urban Development and Transport (in association with Uber), with the Ministry of External Affairs (a fabulous book on ties between India and Indonesia). We only take on projects which resonate with our values as a company and whether commissioned or published by us, we are equally proud of every single book we have created.