Thursday, January 03, 2013

Net gains: on the trials of the self-promoting author

[Did a version of this for GQ magazine]

“I have no trouble simulating entire galaxies on my computer,” Biman Nath tells me, “but when it comes to putting up a status update on Facebook I freeze in terror.” The first part of that sentence might sound megalomaniacal - if you don’t know much about astrophysics, which is Biman’s area of expertise – but he is one of the most likeable people I’ve met. He is also the author of the historical-fiction novels Nothing is Blue and The Tattooed Fakir, and we are speaking about how writers interact with their readers in the cyber-age. Apparently the social-networking world can be a Great Vast Unknown even for someone who routinely works on the scale of light years and constellations.

Biman and I were exchanging notes just before a panel discussion we were in, at Samanvay, the Indian Languages Festival in Delhi. The topic was “Where’s My Reader?” and one of its talking points was that in a busy literary world – with publishers producing hundreds of books each year – mid-list authors end up doing a great deal of their own marketing and promotion. Some are comfortable with this; others, not so much.

There was a time long, long ago when writers were mostly seen as reticent, unsocial animals, but these days the continuum is much bigger. There are still many authors who slave over a book for years, drafting and re-drafting and re-re-drafting, and then feel caught in the headlights when show-time arrives and they have to sell the “product” – but there are just as many who get the actual writing done reasonably fast and seem to come into their own when doing the self-promoting. (A wag might suggest that some of the latter are really marketing people at heart!)

It is fun to have diverse author types in the same space during a public conversation, because their body language and the things they say are very revealing. Thus, Biman is mildly discomfited about writing becoming a “performance art” – during the talk he joked good-naturedly about that ultimate ivory-tower artist, the Japanese novelist Yukio Mishima, “who wrote the last sentence of his last book, put it down and then promptly went and committed Hara-kiri”. (What better example could there be of someone letting his work do all the talking?) On the other hand, Madhuri Banerjee – author of the Penguin Metro Reads novels Losing My Virginity and Other Dumb Ideas and Mistakes Like Love and Sex – said she often uses online media to promote herself. “I update constantly because if I say something on Facebook that someone finds interesting, that might be a potential new reader.” Madhuri was a little defensive about the snobbery directed at “mass-market” writers – the kind of snobbery that condemns entire genres without looking closely at the individual books in them – but she was also assured enough to joke about how she constantly bullies her marketing team, even calling them up every day to check how many copies have been sold. “I want it to touch a lakh copies soon, okay?”

Self-promotion can be a two-edged sword. There is something pleasingly egalitarian about the fact that the distance between authors and readers has reduced (it’s usually possible now to get in touch with a published writer through Twitter or an official website), but dealing with a relentless stream of feedback can be difficult when you’re trying to get your writing done. Even Madhuri was clear that however much she enjoyed interacting with readers, she didn’t let their suggestions influence her stories and characters beyond a point.
Occupying a middle space between Biman and Madhuri was the fourth member of our panel, Palash Krishna Mehrotra, author of the short-story collection Eunuch Park and the narrative non-fiction The Butterfly Generation. Palash is not exactly a social-media veteran, but he made the point that some of the best reviews of his work come from Netizens who aren’t professional critics. “On the internet I can find readers who engage with my writing more deeply than the poor sucker working for a newspaper, who might not have read any of my earlier books but gets given the new one to review on a four-day deadline.”

The lazy “speed-reviewing” he alludes to often entails reading a book’s jacket description and flipping through the first few pages to get a very basic sense of what it is “about”. This is dishonest at the best of times, but it can be especially problematic in an age when books come with simplistic labels. There is a growing perception among authors that publishers are over-eager to put their books in sweeping categories so that they are easier to market; The Butterfly Generation, for example, is a collection of vignettes about young urban Indians – mostly
from the milieu that Palash himself is familiar with – but the international publisher, expecting a wholesale “India Book”, looked at the manuscript and wondered where the chapter about software engineers was. (“Even software engineers are fed up of reading about themselves!” the author snapped back.)

Given these and the many other complications of the publishing boom, authors are left with little choice but to look for their own ways of reaching people who might be interested in what they have to say. After all, even official book launches are usually seen as vanity events for the “inside crowd”, not really geared to selling books or tapping new markets. “They ask me to arrange a celebrity in every city who can come and do the reading,” said Palash, who emerged as quite the sit-down comedian during our talk, “and I tell them, you know, I wouldn’t mind reading from my own book for a change!

“There are times when I go to a book event wearing a kurta and looking all serious, and then discover it has turned into a dance party.” Little wonder then that the virtual-world tango between writers and readers is becoming increasingly spirited; sacrilegious though it might sound, if Mishima was part of the cauldron of contemporary Indian publishing, he may have been tempted to tuck away that seppukku sword and click on the "share status" button.

1 comment:

  1. will you be revieweing any of the books mentioned here, for example, nath's works? would be great to get pointers on good historical fiction by indian writers!