AN AUTHOR’S LIFE is often romanticised as one of creative solitude, where an inspired genius dwells in a picturesque writing residency, sipping endless cups of coffee and churns out words that readers are eager to lap up. Reality is harsher than this sunny picture.
Authors have much to do after the writing is done, the manuscript is edited, and their books go to the printing press. They are expected to be actively involved in wooing their target audience. They have to share book trailers, pre-order links and unboxing videos on social media platforms. They must show up for book launches and media interviews, speak at panel discussions and literature festivals, sign copies for readers, and appear on podcasts.
They have to make peace with the fact that their book is a product, and it needs to be sold. Authors who insist that their book will sell entirely on the strength of their writing skills are mistaken. Even a bestselling author like Amish Tripathi cannot afford to distance himself from participating in marketing efforts by publishers because that would affect sales.
Tripathi says, “Authors are no longer competing only with other authors. We are competing with OTT series, gaming platforms, and shopping malls for the time and attention of our readers.”
Publishing is, after all, a business. Authors cannot shy away from understanding what literary agent Hemali Sodhi, founder of A Suitable Agency, calls “the marketing and publicity lifecycle of a book in the run up to publication and after”. They need to build a readership for their work. They have to highlight unique features of their books that would make the purchase worthwhile for readers who want to ensure they get value for hard-earned money.
Readers enjoy listening to authors, getting personally autographed copies, and getting selfies. They crave an intimate connection with authors because, as bookseller Ajay Jain, founder of Kunzum Books, says, “being face to face with someone who has created a fictional universe that takes you away from your everyday life is a precious moment for book lovers.”
Even Amitav Ghosh, who has won the Jnanpith Award, Sahitya Akademi Award, Arthur C Clarke Award and Crossword Book Award among other prestigious honours, recently did an all-India tour covering Delhi, Mumbai, Bengaluru, Chennai and Kolkata for his new book Smoke and Ashes. “It is a privilege to be read, to be loved,” he says. He believes that authors should make time to interact not only with readers but also salespeople, marketing teams, and booksellers. “If they don’t know you and your book, it will be tough for them to sell it.”
Getting a moderator who knows the book well, and can ask meaningful questions enhances the experience for readers who go to various venues for events. Apart from being open to talking about the genesis of the book and backstories of characters, authors build a bridge with readers for responding patiently to queries from audience members who are, at times, keen to write their own books and want tips to hone their writing skills and navigate the publishing industry.
This is tough for authors who feel confident when they write but struggle to communicate coherently when they are asked to go up on stage and address a large gathering. It is stressful for those who like being read, not seen or heard, and are not comfortable being photographed.
The good news is that most publishers have dedicated marketing teams to support authors. They hand-hold authors who are nervous about media interactions, speaking engagements, and using their social media presence and offline networks to boost their book sales.
Authors are no longer competing only with other authors. We are competing with OTT series, gaming platforms, and shopping malls for the time and attention of our readers, says Amish Tripathi, author
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Saburi Sumran Pandit, Marketing Manager at Pan Macmillan India, has found that some authors want to understand tangible benefits of certain social media activities, while others are keen to learn how to shoot a video or the ideal frequency at which they need to post.
None of this is rocket science. Some even begin to enjoy it when they do not see it as an occupational hazard. They get better with practice, and even learn how to monetise these skills over time by offering online workshops, or teaching courses built around their books.
This can happen only when authors get over their reluctance to understand the economics of the industry, and get over the embarrassment they associate with promoting their own work.
Novelist Anuja Chauhan, says, “The proof of the pudding is in the eating but no one will eat if they don’t know that the pudding is out there.” Having crafted campaigns for brands like Pepsi, Nokia, Kurkure and Mountain Dew, she believes that an author-reader relationship needs to be anchored in honesty. “If you are trying to sell a potato, don’t call it an apple.”
Making noise does not help. A well-crafted strategy does. Before Chiki Sarkar, publisher at Juggernaut Books, published Kareena Kapoor Khan’s Pregnancy Bible: The Ultimate Manual for Moms-to-be (2021), she got the Federation of Obstetric and Gynaecological Societies of India to “vet and endorse the book”. For Deepti Kapoor’s novel Age of Vice, she sent out beautifully wrapped advance reading copies with handwritten letters to 100 influencers. “It got massive social media referencing, which is what we needed,” she says.
For serious non-fiction by Manu S Pillai and Tony Joseph, Sarkar worked with the authors to create think-pieces that would go viral, often putting them through five drafts. She considers events and book signings to be low impact “as they might reach only 100-odd people. She directs her energy to “stuff that a hundred thousand people could read or hear about.”
Over the last few years, Juggernaut has brought out some of the most noteworthy nonfiction books, which have become bestsellers. Getting into the number, Sarkar says, “A true bestseller is anything that sells above 25,000 copies for me. We think 10,000 to 20,000 copies is very good. The average book in India sells between 2,000-3,000 copies. Our aim is to sell 5,000 of any serious new non-fiction. If we sell 5,000 copies of a new hardback non-fiction in six months, we are pleased.”
Many book lovers make book purchasing decisions based on the reviews that they read offline and online. Apart from looking forward to new books by their favourite authors, they are keen to discover fresh voices on subjects and in genres that they are interested in.
Karthika VK, publisher, Westland Books, says that reviews in print media make a difference, “especially when the space where a generous review or author interview has appeared has a dedicated readership that can be converted into buyers.” The marketing team’s job is to get more visibility for authors who are not already celebrities, especially people who write literary fiction and poetry as “titles in these genres are slow burners but with a long life”.
Reviews on Amazon and Goodreads hold weight too as buyers go through them to make a suitable choice. Abhay Singh, Senior Publicity and Marketing Manager, Simon & Schuster India, cautions that piracy remains a concern as far as Amazon is concerned because “irate customers who have received pirated copies” leave reviews that unfairly affect book ratings.
However, he does admit that Amazon’s bestseller list can be used as “a sort of benchmark for the success of a book as it provides an ‘at-a-glance’ look at how your book is performing vis-à-vis those of other publishers (both in similar categories and as an overall picture too).”
PUBLISHERS ALSO DEPEND on targeted advertisements known as digital marketing, and shout-outs from as well as collaborations with Bookstagrammers and online influencers such as subject matter experts, celebrities and social commentators to get their books noticed. The number of people who follow an influencer on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, LinkedIn, Threads, and other social media platforms, is not the only way to assess their influence.
Quality of conversation and depth of engagement are important, reveals Aman Arora, General Manager (Marketing) at HarperCollins India. Publishers can tell the difference between influencers who engage deeply with review-copies of books they receive, and those who use books as props in photographs and videos. Influencer lists are pruned over time.
HarperCollins India has begun collaborating with LinkedIn to market their business books. The authors attend online workshops to learn how to use LinkedIn to initiate and participate in conversations that are relevant and meaningful for their target audience. Readers are more likely to feel inclined to buy a book when the author’s voice resonates with them deeply.
This is also true for authors who write on history, science, health, relationships, and investments, and earn the trust of readers who see them as an authority on their subject. Building credibility takes time, and it takes sustained effort on the part of authors. Instead of bombarding people with social media content, they have to be careful about the messaging.
The choice of platform also depends on the kind of audience that an author wants to engage. Saksham Garg, author of the debut fantasy novel Samsara (2022) has been using Discord—a platform that uses voice, text and video to build online communities—to get his young-adult fan base involved in writing his second book. Aniruddha Mahale, who made his debut with the book Get Out: The Gay Man’s Guide to Coming Out and Going Out (2022) has been plugging his book on Grindr, a dating app for gay, bisexual, transgender and queer people.
Authors who have the money to invest in building a brand for themselves hire independent marketing professionals at their own cost when publishers are stretched in terms of marketing budgets, human resources, and time. Rachna Kalra, founder of the consultancy WindWord, which specialises in book marketing and publicity, takes on such projects with authors.
Apart from trying to maximise coverage in print and digital media, her work includes pitching authors to curators of literature festivals and podcast hosts and looking for speaking opportunities. She also finds opportunities for authors of non-fiction books to contribute columns to op-ed pages of newspapers and to appear as commentators on television shows.
PUBLISHERS AND AGENTS THINK about marketability before a book is written.
Mansi Shetty, who heads the Children’s Marketing division at Penguin Random House India, sits on meetings where commissioning editors from Puffin and Duckbill—both children’s imprints that belong to the publishing house—present new book proposals to the sales, marketing and product teams “so that everyone’s area of expertise can be utilised to help the company make an informed decision before a contract is signed with an author”.
Literary agent Kanishka Gupta, founder of Writer’s Side, talks about how marketability affects advances. “Since literary fiction is hard to sell, the credentials of people who write blurbs matter. This is where the author’s personal and professional networks come into play. If the book is already sold in international markets like the United States and the United Kingdom, that makes a difference. Eligibility for literary awards is another important consideration.”
Publishers tend to look at the sales history of specific genres of fiction before handing out advances because horror, science fiction and fantasy are hard to sell in the Indian market. When it comes to non-fiction, Gupta points out that publishers gravitate towards deeply researched books with a longer shelf life because the expertise of the author assures them that copies will sell much after the release and the book will strengthen their backlist. If the book is backed by a prestigious grant or fellowship, that too makes it more marketable.
Today, perhaps, one of the best insights into the mechanics of publishing can be found in the recent bestseller Yellowface by Rebecca F Kuang. The novel that revolves around a stolen manuscript skewers the publishing industry, revealing the extent to which an author might go to ‘make it’, while also revealing that who rises and who flops remains a bit of a mystery.