It seemed like a normal "Monday" working day.
I logged in and started trawling through my email. I came across a name marked in bold that I was dying to hear from. The email was from a journalist to whom I had pitched an author profile and I had been following up persistently for an answer. You know how publicists feel when they are desperately trying to pitch an Indian author for an interview and then suddenly a mail pops up on the screen. It’s the equivalent of finding a Rs 1,000 note in your jeans when you are absolutely broke.
I manage publicity for a reputed publishing house in India and my forte is promoting writings by Indian authors - novels, narrative non-fiction, commercial and literary. Finding media space for their work is something that I quite like doing. And I tell people happily and proudly that “shrinking” media space in India is a myth. I gloat to my UK counterparts that India is probably the only country that still has lavish Sunday pages dedicated to books, author interviews and websites that happily carry book-related stories.
|Mahesh Rao, author of One Point Two Billion, said, “It does seem like a review policy that is self-defeating in its idiocy."
So, when I clicked on the email, I couldn’t believe what I was reading. The media house in question had asked us “not to send any Indian authors or non-fiction books for review”.
Apparently, the new mandate they had was to only review “international bestselling authors and fiction”. I thought this was ridiculous. Why the distinction? And why should the question of nationality arise while promoting books? And to discriminate against Indian authors. Okay, I am not going into the “Bharatjazz”, but the irony was that this publication is run by an Indian media empire. And the fact that we publish some of the best writing in literary fiction by Indian authors and translations from so many regional languages. Media plays an important role in building an author profile but then consoled and thought what’s new in this?
I had to vent. I was upset and angry and I decided that the best mode of expressing outrage was social media. My status update on FB was fierce and it generated an interesting discussion on Facebook. A lot of authors, readers and journalist friends commented: “you have to be joking”, “seriously?”, “are you kidding?”, “expose them”, “don’t protect them"; "mention their name.”
Mahesh Rao, author of One Point Two Billion and probably one of the most-reviewed writers, said, “It does seem like a review policy that is self-defeating in its idiocy. It might be better to do away do with their books pages altogether and perhaps that is indeed the aim. I was also mildly curious as to how they distinguish between 'Indian' and 'international' authors: nationality, subject matter, country of residence, or perhaps a hastily administered DNA test?"
However, this email did seem to me like a bad joke. It’s like a minister trying to raise an absurd bill in Lok Sabha. Jokes apart, with mandates like this, good books will miss out the game as media plays a very important role in promoting books and writing. Opinion pieces, reviews and the written word do matter. Specially, for novels and narrative non-fiction, where the appreciation sometimes equals the number of books sold.
Yashodhara Lal, bestselling author of three books and forthcoming When Love Finds You, has been lucky when it comes to dominating the media space as well as readers’ attention. According to her: “I can’t honestly think of one good reason why such a mandate would come about. There’s so much talent out there and discoverability is always an issue. It’s basically discrimination of the strangest kind- against the diversity of what our country offers! In today’s day and age, if someone says, 'Oh, I don’t like Bollywood movies (or any form of Indian cinema),' I know a lot of folks who would roll their eyes and think 'jackass'."
As a publicist, I am sad that the publication in question has featured many interesting/diverse authors in the past. For instance, health, self-help and nutrition is a popular segment with this media house and India has a very healthy list of successful lifestyle writers. These authors also contribute to the readership of a publication through interesting-well researched columns. I know for a fact from the responses we get from the readers via social media. So with the mainline media ignoring this genre, another avenue is lost too.
But here’s an interesting perspective and a relaxed author. Best-selling author Ravi Subramanian says, “Apart from newspapers other media channels have opened and now book promotions has got fragmented across channels. So a dedicated medium is reduced. In any case, a newspaper article at best gives you content for promotion on social media... these days there are a lot of avenues for that. Particularly, in the commercial fiction space, the entire culture of book buying has moved from review-based buying to preview-based buying. I personally am indifferent to this approach taken by the leading newspaper.
A good publicity campaign requires an in-depth understanding of the market. In a cluttered market such as publishing and lack of budgets, marketing a book is a challenging activity. And one has to remember that we are not selling an FMCG product but something that has an emotional connect. Unlike an FMCG product, you can either choose to buy a book or leave it. A book seldom fits in your “must buy” list vis a vis other proucts. You will borrow it, but not buy it. Many times, I have heard parents tell their children, “Books! Are you sure you want to by one? There are so many lying at home read no?” Or, "Are you kidding, yaar let’s go and check the silver shop, you will get value for money products.” And, “we have a storage issue so please don’t buy books.”
So, in such a scenario, media is an important publicity tool in getting the word across to so many people. Even more so at a time when bookstores are becoming as endangered as tigers and author discoverability is becoming tough. Media plays a crucial role in connecting debut authors to their audience. Otherwise how would you know what they have written?
According to first-time novelist of A Forgotten Affair, Kanchana Banerjee, “It’s unfortunate that a reputed media house is shutting its doors to Indian authors. On the one hand we have the Write India movement which is encouraging people to write, and on the other hand there is this. Quite ridiculous.”
A book publicist rolls out a marketing sheet by charting out the media plan first. Secretly, we wish to get the moon and the earth for the author. The second step: there are hundreds of books that are sent to media everyday so how do you pitch your book to the media for review. Or, if not a review, an interview or a spin off story.
The media plays an important role in binding the entire publicity plan. For instance, while figuring out marketing collaborations, the first question we are asked by a collaborator is the media potential of a book. Also the book placement and visibility in a bookstore depends on how many news pieces a book is able to secure.
Another genre of writing that constantly struggles to impress the Indian media is commercial fiction. While I do manage to get a decent interview schedule for literary authors, it’s a challenge to organise a media spread for commercial authors. But one such author who has got the best of both - media space and books constantly being on the top is India’s bestselling romance writer, also known as the king of romance Ravinder Singh. “Ghar ki murgi dal baraabar. Nothing new! A lot of Indian media carry the same mindset. Instead of playing a constructive role in taking Indian writing forward they rather welcome what's shinning in the foreign market (irrespective of the fact that Indian readers might not be that keen on reading them as much as they might be on reading Indian writing),” he says.
However, I have always believed in the age old saying that if one door closes, another opens. And with the kind of noise fiction, non-fiction creates, number of awards a book wins, I hope it becomes impossible to ignore authors and give them lavish media space.
Karthika VK, Publisher, HarperCollins India, sums up the discussion perfectly. “It’s not new, this idea of Indian books and writers not needing to be given space in news media. But I think the very nature of publishing has changed to the extent that extracts from books are making it to the front page and there are enough reasons to believe that books will become more rather than less integral to our lives and conversations in every way.”