League was not the name that we had first thought for the magazine.

Our first suggestion for the name, in the year 2005, of a magazine for Ahmedabad was ‘AHEM!’ – reflecting both the geographical identity of the magazine and also the role of the ‘masthead’ of a  publication in attracting attention from and seeking time of readers, prior to saying something significant.

We thought the name fitted like a ‘T’ in our endeavour. Of course, as destiny would have it, we could not carry on with name; and here is the story behind it:

The Birth of the Idea:

The idea of coming out with Ahmedabad’s very own English monthly magazine was born in the year 2005; at the steps outside Screen 4 of Fun Republic (multiplex), Ahmedabad.

The first two proponents of the idea were a practicing doctor and a media professional of the city.

The reason behind the discussion was simple – Ahmedabad, the 7th biggest city of India and home to a globe-trotting, progressive and cosmopolitan society DESERVED to have a mouthpiece, a forum, magazine of its own. The two also believed that the city was ready for a magazine of its own – inspite of the fact that Ahmedabad, traditionally, has  never been known as a city that supports publications – of any nature.

But as they say, traditional wisdom often is a victim of a tradition of propagation of folklore.

So, the question was not about whether Ahmedabad can support ‘a’ magazine, the question was as to which type (nature of content) of magazine was Ahmedabad really looking for. With the money that it has, Ahmedabad can support a million magazines, but the question was more about what Ahmedabad needed; and wanted.

Of course, one vital addition to that consideration was the absolute necessity of the publishers themselves  having a philosophy.

From time memorial and in all cultures, it is this aforementioned requirement of a philosophy on part of the publishers that has produced the most conflicts of conscience. “Should we offer ONLY what they have been used to reading and love reading; something that makes a product successful” or “should we introduce them to newer tastes, philosophies, cultures and thoughts” are two of the many questions that every publisher faces everyday.

There are thousands of publications today that feature ONLY what ‘sells’. Because for those publications, a newspaper or magazine is just another business – like soaps, white goods. To each his own. But what AHEM! desired was to opt for the latter choice of bringing newer thoughts and cultures into Ahmedabad and take Ahmedabad’s best out to the world.

From the very beginning, it was never intended to be a news magazine. While Readers Digest was indeed a reference concept, AHEM! (now League) hoped to become a more interactive and about a particular geographical place, Ahmedabad.

So, if it were to be a magazine for Ahmedabad (and Gujarat), why should it not have been in Gujarati?

Simply because there already were magazines in the language. The vaccum was entirely the domain of English language. A city of 50 Lakhs had just one English publication of any note; and that too was a news daily. Whereas magazines like Chitralekha, Abhiyaan etc have long served the Gujarati reading populace well.

And then Began the Journey:

The first requirement of any publication in India is to apply for the ‘title’ (name) of the magazine. The first part of the process is almost the exact process of acquiring a passport!

With some additions like filing up the application at the District Magistrate’s (DM) office. The application, apart from requisite details of the people behind the publication, had to carry publisher’s choice of name for the magazine.
While filing of the application, we were told of that application then to be forwarded to the police station under the jurisdiction of which the place of publication of the magazine falls. The purpose, as in the case of issue of a passport, was to be the ‘verification’ of the publisher / owner of the proposed magazine.

As it often happens in government / administrative issues in India – especially if you insist on NOT paying a single paisa in bribe – we did not get, even after one full month, any information about the subject from both the DM’s office and the police station.

On enquiring about it at the DM office, we were told that our application was moved out to the police station the very next day of filing of the application. When we contacted the police station, we got told that they did not receive any application from the DM office. After contacting the DM office with the feedback from the police station, we were again told that the application had indeed left the DM office on the second day of filing of the application. Moving out of the DM office’s pillar again to the police station’s post, we again got to hear the same answer, “the application has not reached us”.

People around us told us to pay up and get the matter done. And while one can never be sure of such things, we too started believing that the issue indeed was about a few crisp notes. Fortunately, living just 10 Kms away from the Gandhi Ashram, we had – knowingly or otherwise – imbibed a few of the great man’s teachings.

As ever, we decided strictly against the idea of paying any person anything other than the legal fees, we got in touch with the DM office again. But this time, instead of approaching the unhelpful staff, we went ahead straight to meeting the Sub-Divisional Magistrate of the time.

Within moments, the clerk handling the case was given an earful by the SDM and asked to take up our case properly.
Of course, it still did get us our ‘lost’ application back. After a small matter of filling up the application again, the matter seemed to be on the fast-track. The application reached the police station within 4 days and the process of the verification of the publisher (who already had a valid passport of the Indian Union; issued by the same police station) was completed within a week of the filing of the new application!

But not the publisher was ‘subjected’ to this conversation at the police station:

Police: Why do you want to launch the magazine? (!)
Publisher: (After pondering over the pros and cons of the worth of discussing the real reason – of making use of media in doing good for the society – the publisher settled for a more simple one) Well, it’s my business.
Police: What is your business?
Publisher: Media business
Police: So why do you want to launch a magazine? (!)
Publisher: (irritated) Because, as a part of my media business, I will be launching the magazine.

We are almost sure that the poor police constable, who had to write the same thing over and again 3 times on a crumbling piece of paper, was not convinced of our publisher’s answer.

However, within a matter of the next week, the ‘verification report’ of the police station had reached back to the DM office. And sure enough, the clerk at the office made sure that our application was quickly forwarded first to the SDM (for his signature) and then on to the office of Registrar for Newspapers in India (RNI), New Delhi.

Just the Beginning of the Ordeal:

We could never have imagined that what was in store was infinitely worse than the experience till that time.
Our application had moved out from Ahmedabad to New Delhi 49 days after our filing of the application the first time. When we did not hear about the matter even 30 days after that (79 days since the filing of the application), we called up RNI (New Delhi) to enquire about the status – only to be told of enquiring after a week. A week later, the office was under renovation and hence no one was available.

Meanwhile, a journalist friend from Delhi (working for the biggest media houses of India at that time) made us talk with an ‘agent’ who claimed to know the ‘in and out’ of RNI.

Rs. 5000 was the amount that he quoted to get the work done in 3 days!

“Sab aise hi karvate hain saahab, India ke bade se bade paper aur magazine bhi. Seedhey seedhey kaam karne jaayegne toh bahut pareshani hogi”.

Anyway, it never has been an option for us. We sent emails and all of them remained unanswered. Our Delhi associate made personal visits to the RNI office but to no avail. Two of those visits were for a period of six hours each!
Suddenly, one fine day, we got an official letter from RNI which read the following:

We can’t allot the name of your choice:

The reason? The name AHEM! is already allotted to someone else.

Now, it is not abnormal for two people to have asked for the same name and one of them losing out on it. But what was curious here was the fact that not only had we submitted the name after checking out the availability of the name from RNI’s website but also that the website still showed the name as ‘available’ 15 days after the issue of the letter by RNI.
When, after many attempts, we did manage to talk straight to the concerning authority and ask him about the issue, this is what he had to say:

“No, no; you can’t trust the website.”

That was an officer of RNI, which falls under the ministry of information and broadcasting telling us about the website of the governing body of all newspapers in India!

If the process was not moral-buster, such callous replies and attitude by authorities was truly a major turn-off.
Fortunately, true passion never dies. And since we had developed great affection for the name AHEM! – apart from spending huge amount of money, time and prepared creative work revolving around the name – we asked for the person who had registered the name; so that we could legally buy the name from him.

After much reluctance, we were given the name of a South Indian gentleman residing in the Malaviya Nagar area of New Delhi.

Much to our horror, one of our other Delhi associate found out that there was not even an address like that! We called up RNI again to ask for the phone number of the person and we were told that there was no phone number against the name – before rudely putting the phone down on us.

We assumed that the person at RNI had something to hide there.

We were then again surrounded by advises of paying up a few people and get done with the “small job of getting a name for the magazine”. Those words made the situation even more poignant. Months after filing the application for getting a name of our choice for our magazine, we had made no headway whatsoever.

We had always heard about the dreaded thing called ‘red tape’. Experiencing it first hand made us understand the gravity of the problem. And delays are not the big story by a long shot; the brazenness with which the ‘powerful babus’ operate is what makes one numb. Sample this:

As on October 30, 2007, if you put AHEM in the ‘Title Search’ column of the RNI website, it shows up the following result: “The exact Title Does Not Exist!!!” (The exclamation marks are theirs)

The only result that the site throws up if your remove ‘!” from ‘AHEM!’, is ‘Ahem Ittelah”, an Urdu publication from Hyderabad. Funnily, there is a publication called ‘Urdu League’; and yet, we have been given the title ‘League’. So, clearly, there is not much of logic in the rejection of our first choice of name.

Repeating the Entire Process:

Once it became clear that we had hit the dead-end on that particular road, we went about the whole process all over again!

So, we submitted an application to the DM’s office – this time with 10 names – again. (‘Once bitten, twice shy’, they say, right?) Banking on experience, we did not waste much time on the lower staff of DM at the time of the ‘second round’. We got an audience with the SDM and got a waiver from him about the police verification.

We would here like to publicly state that the then SDM had played a big role in making the process faster for us. We thank Shri Gaurav Prajapati here and wish him luck for his future. The gratitude is not for any favours that he might have done. In fact, with due respect, he did not have to do anything that his office was not expected to do for common citizens anyway. The gratitude is for realising his role as the representative of people and being warm, helpful and receptive to our talks. If every ‘sarkari’ person in government offices – right from the MD to the peon – learns a bit of that, India would most certainly be a better place. Or, a much easier place to start a business anyway.

Anyway, our application, with 10 new names, was sent to New Delhi within ten days of our filing the application. And much to our surprise, within a month, we had got a name of the magazine. League was 6th in the list of the 10 names that we had submitted! As funny as ever, there were more ‘similar’ or ‘related’ or ‘affiliated’ names of League (’Urdu League’, for example) than at least 3 of the 5 names above League that we were not granted!

In hindsight though, League, out of all the other names submitted by us, suits the philosophy of the magazine the best. ‘Silver lining in the dark cloud?’. Maybe.

So, eleven months after submitting the (first) application, we finally had a name for the magazine.

While the spirit behind bringing out a magazine for Ahmedabad was still intact, the entire process had left a deep scar in our heart. All those talks of our being IT superpower sounded hollow (they are hollow anyway) when “you can’t trust a website of a department of ministry of information and broadcasting”. Ditto for ‘research findings’ about Indians being the most optimistic people when the truth is that people here often get surprised when they get a reply from ‘sarkari’ authorities within one month!

All said and done, while it took almost one year to merely get a name for our own magazine, it was a war worth fighting for; and winning it too.

Yes, League is all about propagating good values, which exist within each one of us, far and wide – in a bid to have an ideal society. And it takes immense joy in sharing here that it never, ever gave a single rupee as bribe to move ‘the file faster’. We hope that you appreciate our stand on the matter. Simply because, no award is bigger than a pat on the back for a good deed.

The First Year:

If the pre-labour period was full of angst, the ‘delivery’ and the first year of the infant was no less edge-of-the-seat stuff. From launch dates to distribution deals; from staff hiring to marketing plans, everything seemed to follow the Murphy’s law that says, “anything that can go wrong, will go wrong”.

While most of it were the teething problems that most start-ups face, one of the biggest teaching for us has been in the field of distribution of the magazine:

Magazine Distribution is a Muscle Sport:

While it never is a good idea to paint an entire structure with the same brush, it has to be said that the magazine distributors do throw around a lot of weight.

But what made the case curious in our case was the ABSOLUTE collusion between some the big (magazine) retail joints of Ahmedabad and the distributors.

We thought we were lucky to be able to hire the services of one of the biggest (magazine) distributors of Ahmedabad – inspite of our size. But the honeymoon was to end within a matter of the first two issues.

The distributor would not only not put our magazines at all of the 100+ newsstands across Ahmedabad as per his word (there is NO concept of a written agreement here) but would also not give us the details of his distribution network; the effort put by him for our magazine and, most importantly, his (financial) terms!

As you would expect, we dumped the distributor for the better of the magazine. But, much to our horror, we found out that some of the holy cows of books & stationary retail joints started refusing to take our magazine – unless we go to them via the same old distributor!

“We would not like to change your distributor”

As impossible as it may sound, those were the words of the boss of the biggest books & stationary retail chain of Ahmedabad. In other words, he was trying to tell us – in an extremely curt manner – that it was HE, and NOT US, who could decide the distributor of our magazine.

It is difficult to say which of the feelings was bigger – that of shock or that of disgust.

Of course, anyone who has ever tried to do any business in India knows that such things are just one part of everyday life in the market place.

So, instead of bowing to the immoral arm-twisting tactics of both the distributor and the retail giant, we got down to gradually start building our own chain of newsstands. Unfortunately, every newsstand that owed allegiance to the big distributor would refuse to keep our magazine.

In the meantime, we kept on our hunt of a new distributor, but the situation on that front went from bad to downright unimaginable – with instances such as the one where the head of a very old, big and reputed distributor giving us a long, long sermon about how launching an English magazine in Ahmedabad is not a good idea. And how it was the same reason that he had stopped the distribution business.

Very soon, it was down to our own boys going to newsstands around the city to identify the ones that accept magazines DIRECTLY from the publishers.

Simultaneously, we increased the emphasis on direct marketing – in order to minimise, if not completely offset, the role of newsstands in increasing the readership of the magazine.

Our hard-work started paying; and we started gaining new readership from a wide range of social groups. What helped further in the process was a healthy word-of-mouth that we almost always managed to generate. Being the ONLY English monthly magazine of Ahmedabad gave us an obvious advantage of high curiosity and recall values.

But …

It has to be said that for small groups like ours, which do not have the multi-crore marketing budgets, non-cooperation by big retail joints is always going to be big hindrance in growth.

Also, our advice to anyone who is about to start a magazine would be DON’T GET FOOLED by hollow words of retail giants about their ‘passion for book’ etc. It is a market out there and all that they care for is the bottom line of their balance sheets. It would have been fine if they had claimed only that much. But citing high-profile book reading sessions, while completely bulldozing small, new publication ventures makes them total ‘fakes’.
Based on all of that:

Here’s an urge – If you think that you, the reader and the most powerful link of the publishing chain, can make a difference to the challenges faced by new publication ventures, do make a beginning. All that we, on behalf of every single new publishing venture of the world, urge you to do is to help break the nexus of big distributors and big retail book shops by repeatedly asking for newer publications by smaller publishers too. If the publications are not good, you would not buy them and the small publishers would either get better or close down. But at least everyone would get a level playing field. Do you think the expectation is fair?

The Inspiring Path Ahead:

Just in case any of you take that to be a distress story, let us reiterate her that it has been an immensely invigoration journey. We have loved every day of our association with you. It gave us immense high whenever we got mails of appreciation from unknown friends. It did a world of good for our spirits when almost everyday at least one writer would express his or her desire to write for our magazine.

Pat on the back from eminent citizens of the city, love and appreciation by the readers (in 5 cities) and the support of professionals has ensured that we wait for every new sunrise to get back to the work of spreading togetherness. And if you allow us to blow our trumpet a little, “let’s spend some time together” has undoubtedly become one of the most endearing philosophy slogans of our world. Don’t believe us; come and see the mails that we get about it.

With so much happening in a matter of one year, it is only natural that we are looking ahead with a sense of joyous nervousness.

Childish attitude of some retail joints aside, we have set our sights firmly on becoming one of most recognizable symbols of, to begin with, Ahmedabad. Not through capturing the market, but by making a difference to life around all of us. Everything else would be mere details of a happy picture.

For more about our future story, turn to page 4. It is all spelled out there for you. One final time, come, let’s spend some time together.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Author. Entrepreneur. Filmmaker. Journalist.

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