As a published author, one of the most frequently flung questions I dodge (from people whom I’ve only just met) is, “How many copies have you sold?” Not...”what do you write about?” or even, “what is the title?” Honestly, I don’t know the answer. Perhaps I should write to the publisher asking for a statement – they oblige very promptly. But then, it is not a statistic I’m interested in. No, I don’t mean to be smug...lord knows I can use an income. But right now, I’m more interested in nurturing a loyal set of readers. That’s the statistic I’m more interested in – will I get repeat-readers for my second book?
Adite Banerjie, an author with Harlequin India, writes a superbly articulated and balanced post on the current trend of “author branding”. In the current scenario—and I’ll limit myself to Indian (English) publishing—it is not only enough if you have a branding strategy for your books, but you should also package yourself as brand.
The book marketing game in India is like a glitz n’ glamour Bollywood music launch—movie stars, politicians, journos, contests, freebees...all co-ordinated by MCs. The “pre-launch” buzz includes newspaper centre-spreads and huge posters of the book in the arrivals lounge of the airport.
As far as marketing my books go, I plan to stick to the regular channel – blog reviews and Goodreads presence. These are platforms where readers can critique and comment on your work without inhibitions. Sure I can stretch my limited finances to hire a professional PR. But that would only give an initial fizz, like uncorking a soda. In the end, all that matters is content. If it’s good, solid and honest, then it gets the best form of marketing – word-of-mouth. Yes, it’s tedious, it’s slow. It’s also permanent. To have a stranger talk about your work, nay, recommend and persuade another person to read your book – there can be no greater advertisement for an author.
But it is the branding of the author that I observe with fascination. How does one position oneself as a brand? This is almost in parallel with the image-building of a movie star. You can be the chocolate hero, the action hero, the romantic phenomenon, the thinking man’s hero – so many facades to choose from. In the author-world, we have relationship experts; the pied-pipers of Indian youth; the motivational gurus; the torchbearers for women...the list is endless. You only have to make sure that your image matches what you write. I cannot wrap my head around it actually...especially if one is writing fiction. Just because I write crime/paranormal, I don’t think I can brand myself as Agent Scully.
Right now, the publishing scene reminds me of Hindi cinema of the 70s-80s. They were all “formula-based” cinema, shot on the fly without a bound script. At a certain point, the “lost and found” formula made roaring success...thanks to movies like Yadon ki baraat. Then came loud, gaudy college love stories. Then came the revenge formula – if the hero had a sister, you’d know at some point she’ll get raped and the hero will take revenge in the second half. In the book world, that’s what we are seeing now. A clique of authors connected spectacularly with their readers. It has to be borne in mind that these books have an original voice (the nuances of the language are a separate debate altogether)...and it is little surprise that these books found success in a market starved of genre fiction. But this cannot be seen as a “success” formula...sure you can ride the crest of this wave...but you run the risk of not cementing a lasting relationship with the readers. You will always be the script that is “similar” to yadon ki baraat.
I suppose it all comes down to why one writes. There are no right or wrong reasons...no reason is loftier than the other. But this reason will define your brand. If you are riding a crest, then you need to create a brand for yourself. You have to prise away readers, seduce them, cajole them, convince them that you have something better to say than the next writer.
But if your writing stems from an undefined primal need...trust me, you will never get on to that wave, even if you want to. Indeed, you will constantly be thrown ashore by that wave. You have to make a start over and over again. The only thing that keeps you afloat is your distinct voice. A voice that is only faintly heard by a few in that tidal roar. Those few will faithfully follow your work for the rest of your life. If you define success in those terms, then, your work becomes your brand. When this happens, nothing else matters; you BECOME the wave.
Remember, some of the world’s greatest literature came from authors whose lives were remarkably different from their fictitious worlds. Look at the century’s best love stories—Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, Villette—these came from women whose lives were ravaged by disease, depression, loneliness and bereavement. Not that the greatest literature will flow out of my pen, but when I look at the Brontes, or even some of the contemporary greats...they give me courage and strength...they are certainly my North Star. They remind me that an author cannot be bigger than his/her manuscript.
Indeed the only honest brand I can project is kind of represented by The Son of Man painting by Rene Magritte (it was featured in Thomas Crown Affair). I’m the average, obscure, everyday woman on the street—the one you barely notice; the invisible one. There’s nothing remarkable about my life—no trophies of achievements, no great knowledge to impart, not even a pleasant countenance. As of now, I revel in this obscurity: it offers a wonderful freedom. My readers and I can remain blissfully detached even as they form their love-hate relationship with my words, without being influenced by my personal lifestyle, thoughts, opinions...or well, by the colour of my placemats.
But I admit...there are sleepless nights. After all, the poet Walter Savage Landor said, “As the pearl ripens in the obscurity of its shell, so ripens in the tomb all the fame that is truly precious.” Eeeks!
© Sumana Khan - 2015