Twitter isn’t the Holy Grail and book videos are not for everyone. We find out what sells and what doesn’t as authorpreneurs trend in the country.
By Surya Praphulla Kumar
Writing a book is the easy part—whether it takes two months or two years. Drumming up enough interest around it that people actually pick it up, that’s the tough part. Here are some numbers to put things into perspective. According to a 2010 study by Google Books, 12,98,64,880 is the number of unique titles ever published. Now, with self-publishing picking up, there is a surge and over two million titles get added to this universal pool every year. In India alone, we publish around 84,000 titles annually. What does all this mean? “The average number of titles in a book store is around 3,000. So there is no way every book can get shelf space. And once your book does get in, how will you get yourself noticed?” asks Ashwin Sanghi, the author of The Rozabal Line.
The challenges faced by publishing houses—from diminishing marketing funds to a fragmented distribution line—aren’t helping either. “In traditional publishing, the first print run is between 2,000 and 5,000 copies. If a book is priced at `200, the maximum turnover is only 10 lakh. If a publisher pumps 10 per cent of that into marketing, it’s only a lakh, which is nothing,” explains Sanghi, who found his solution by becoming part of the vanguard of a new brand of writers, the authorpreneurs.
Young, with social media savvy, creative ideas and the drive to succeed, they approach their books as products that need to be sold to their target audience. Nothing is too little or too much—offline engagements, social media campaigns, audio-visual advertising, treating books as startups (with its own CMO and COO), and stirring up controversies (think Pakistani cricketer Shoaib Akhtar’s book, Controversially Yours, that sold because of his statements on Sachin Tendulkar and Rahul Dravid). “Publishers can’t give support beyond a point, so authors have taken marketing upon themselves. It’s resulted in many creative ideas being used and it’s turning out to be quite a levelling field,” says Mita Kapur, founder-CEO of Siyahi, a literary consultancy. “The promotion space works like a sub-culture; it’s a monetised small-scale industry. We have moved beyond book reviews and book launches to Vine videos, book trailers, online advertising on portals like Flipkart and Amazon. Spaces in book stores are being bought for extra visibility, creative social media campaigns are increasing, and if a book lends itself to tie ups with retail chains, then so be it,” she adds.
But not everyone is a big fan. Writer Anita Nair believes authors shouldn’t promote themselves in a blatant, unrestrained fashion, and finds the “aggression that has entered the field with the new breed of writers” unpalatable. “The distinction is between an established writer, who lets the world know that a new book is out, and an unknown writer who is going on five gears, trying to create a niche for themselves by stirring up controversy. I am not inclined to that kind of marketing,” she says.
Surprisingly however, this phenomenon of writers doing everything but man the printing press, is not as new as we think. A quick online search gives us plenty of early examples: around 440 BC Greek historian Herodotus paid for his own book tour and declaimed his work at the Olympic Games, Ernest Hemingway posed for beer ads, Jane Austen took out ads in the newspaper and Walt Whitman wrote his own ‘glowing’ reviews. “Charles Dickens was not just a great writer, he was also a fantastic marketeer who serialised his books,” says Amish Tripathi, who approached his new book, Scion of Ikshvaku, with a different marketing strategy. “Since this was about creating excitement for a new series, we ran a ‘What next, Amish?’ campaign six months before the launch. Then, with the support of the Jaipur Lit Fest, we announced the subject at a special event. For every book, you need to identify the business challenge and formulate a marketing plan to address it,” he advises.
Though self promotion is a reaction to what is happening in the market today, the sheer glut of information out there is daunting. The challenge, to stay on top and get noticed, is to be dynamic. “We need to find new ways for authors and publishers to interact with readers. Earlier, social media was thought to be the way to go, but increasingly we are finding it doesn’t necessarily work. With this (authorpreneurship) trend only set to grow, and given the way the marketing is changing, the author-publisher role will have to be more collaborative,” concludes Gautam Padmanabhan, the CEO of Westland publishing.
Startup’s the word
Adhitya Iyer, a 26-year-old engineer from Mumbai, is now an author. And he’s approached his just-launched book, The Great Indian Obsession (`199), like he would a startup. “I have a team backing me. Darshan Ashar, a friend who works in San Diego, is my finance in-charge—taking care of the marketing, testing ad spend, online campaigns, etc—while another friend, Suresh Bommisetti, who is doing his MBA, is the operations in-charge,” says Iyer, who got college students to take up marketing the book (which traces the journey towards becoming an engineer) as part of their college project. One of his biggest impetus was a Kickstarter campaign last September, that got him 14,000 crowd-funded Australian dollars. “Marketing has been going on since I started my journey—every time I visited a place I’d post a photo on Facebook and Instagram, with a story, so that people were aware something was happening,” says Iyer, who quit his job with a Bengaluru startup two years ago to pursue writing. Having identified their audience—18 to 35-year-old Indian engineers across the world—early, they devised ways to target them. “We launched the campaign on World Engineers Day. It was trending on Twitter, so we knew whoever tweeted with that hashtag was a potential buyer and we reached out to them. Facebook has worked for us, too, especially targeting media that people consume on it, like Buzzfeed,” says Iyer, who also made a video trailer, emailed his “immediate network”, and organised offline campaigns, like visiting colleges. Currently they are working with Chennai-based Notion Press on a detailed marketing plan, which also includes merchandising, like hoodies and special-edition books.
In first person
When advertising guru Piyush Pandey launched his book, Pandeymonium, last month, Amitabh Bachchan did the honours in Mumbai. But in this digital age, aren’t book launches dated? “We are still print relevant, TV relevant, and digitally present in our country. So it is your duty to look at what people are consuming in terms of media and what vehicles they are using,” he states, adding that though he didn’t do anything to promote his book himself (besides launches and signings organised by Penguin Books), his team at work had fun making goofy videos and posting them on Facebook. “Why do e-com companies advertise on TV or in newspapers? We are at a cusp, where traditional media is still very strong and new media has to be embraced. If you don’t accept the new, you get irrelevant fast, but you can’t reject the choice of the people either,” adds the creative director of Ogilvy & Mather. A firm believer that your ‘product’ must not be pushed, but presented well, he says books are like blogs. “People want to know why you are writing it, what its purpose is. Who knew Chetan Bhagat before he wrote a book? Nobody. But he presented his work well, they liked it and wanted to meet the man behind it,” he says. Today it’s a time of opportunity. Talkability is high—people share, Google and post—but the tolerance for mediocrity is low. “You share certain things, but not others because there is pressure to share only things that make you go ‘aha’,” he says, stressing that good content and a balanced marketing plan is the best way to go.
At the Jaipur Lit Fest
The last two years, the Zee Jaipur Literature Festival has been organising the Jaipur BookMark (JBM), a platform for publishers, literary agents and authors to meet, talk business deals and listen to speakers from across the world. “In the 2016 edition, we are also planning several sessions and workshops for new authors, which will include a presentation on what it takes to sign a mutually beneficial contract, a session on copyrights law and IPR, and at least three sessions on marketing books,” says Neeta Gupta, co-organiser of JBM, adding, “We will map the changing demographics of the Indian language markets, too, besides looking at the crucial aspect of book design. All these are important aspects to consider while marketing/promoting a book.” Details: jaipurliteraturefestival.org
Tools to know
Wattpad: The app is already at 40 million users and gives you access to 100 million stories. A great forum for writers to launch books and readers to discover them. Success stories like Anna Todd, who turned a New York Times best selling author after releasing her work on the app, just keeps this one going.
The Write Place: Crossword’s new publishing initiative promises to take care of design, production,
distribution, warehousing, logistics, marketing, and sales at Crossword bookstores and online bookstores. Details: crossword.in
Market the book to the industry first, to the people who sell them (offline or online)—it worked for Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code. Then reach out to a wider audience—Amish Tripathi went to at least 30-40 tier 2 cities, if not more, with his books.
Everyone has an unfair advantage: like working in advertising and having access to product placement secrets. Find that advantage and leverage it, like Raghav Bhal, owner of TV18 India, who aggressively advertised his book on CNN IBN.
Explore new avenues. Ebooks came but didn’t really storm the world. The next thing is mobiles and it will change the nature of writing because people will be looking at it as a form for serialisation.
Cross-selling is a popular tool today. For example, a cookbook writer will release a booklet on how to make dal, then make a YouTube video on making dal, then say ‘if you like this, buy my book’.
This is the age of unlimited content creation and very efficient curation,” states Naveen Valsakumar, co-founder of city-based self-publishing platform, Notion Press. The most successful authors are the ones who treat their writing careers like a business, and the first step is to have an extremely well-defined definition of who the reader is. “Both Ravinder Singh and Chetan Bhagat are romance fiction writers, but they have very different audiences. So it’s not about pushing your books into the market, but about pulling the right crowd to your book,” he says. Keeping this in mind, their latest initiative is their Accelerator Programme, where every book is treated like a startup. “It acts as a gamification process for authors. Once they qualify for the programme (300 copies sold and 30 reviews on channels like Flipkart), we chart out marketing budgets, reposition the book, create campaigns like BuzzFeed lists, organise giveaways (send books to readers in return for reviews, good or bad) and contests, and even look at new ideas like launching apps,” he says. And when the author crosses his milestone, he can either choose to let Notion Press pitch the book to a traditional publisher or let them publish hard copies. Another initiative is a series of publishing workshops they are planning for January. “Planned as weekend workshops, it will address writing and marketing, with sessions by writers and industry experts. We will hit the six big metros first, before moving to other cities and towns,” he says.