It’s Not Enough to Just Write a Great Story Anymore…
By Kanchana Banerjee
It seemed like an eternity but was in reality only few months. A rejection email from two reputed publishers dented my confidence and plummeted my morale to an all-time low. I asked myself: do I have it in me? Is my story good enough? Questions that plague the authors all the time. Then I received the much-awaited ‘yah’, albeit not from the biggies or the dream list but from a well-known publisher that has a reputation of being the launch-pad for many a bestselling author. Truthfully, I wasn’t elated, just a tad relieved to know that my story interested someone.
Reading the mail, however, unfolded a different story. Below is what was written:
We find your manuscript very interesting and it’s in the final stage of approval. Meanwhile, could you let us know what marketing initiatives you can engage in for your book?
I was befuddled. What was the purpose of the mail? Was it to inform me that my manuscript had made the cut and they would like to publish it or was it to enquire about what marketing gigs I have up my sleeve on which would rest the fate of my manuscript? I didn’t know how to respond and I did what one should do in such cases. I replied in similar vague words: Thank you for your mail. Allow me to get back to you. Regards.
Thankfully, I didn’t have to depend on the said publisher. My manuscript was accepted by Harper Collins and my book will be out in the summer of 2016. But this led me to a certain reality that seems to be the norm in publishing today. The decision of whether to sign on an author, sometimes, rests on his/her ability to market the book. Many of them don’t desist to ask the author the question even before they have begun assessing the manuscript. Marketing concerns overshadow the manuscript. Thus begins the race to write a bestseller and not a good story. The creative content is relegated to a position of least priority. The chief concern is of writing a tale that’s pacy, juicy, and saleable—in other words, a commodity that will be picked by publishers fast and the readers even faster.
It’s not uncommon to see publishing houses resort to cheap gimmickry to publicize a book. For example: Buy XYZ’s book and the lucky winner gets a dinner date with the author. This post ran on Facebook for a while, much to the excitement of the PYTs (pretty young things) and to the chagrin of those who wanted their work to speak louder than their gym-toned physique. The author in question has penned several bestselling books and publishes with a leading publishing house in the country. He has an enormous female reader-following, many of who have unabashedly said, when asked, what they like about his books: Oh! His dimples.
So, is this what a book’s fate is finally dependent on? The author’s dimples, six packs, and oozing sex appeal. It makes me wonder and worry about the fate of my book. Who’ll be interested in dating a 44-year-old woman who is mother to a 17-year-old boy? Even if I have any takers (most likely men with mommy issues), they will sprint faster than Olympic athletes when I fish out my reading glasses to peer at the menu!
Everyone has a story to tell and every story should be heard, or in this case, read. And books being a commodity need to be sold. But does it need to be sold in the same manner as do soaps, deodorants, condoms, et al. An author’s job is to write and not his/her job to structure a marketing gig. We structure plot, we make characters, and we tell stories. Evidently, that’s not enough these days.
I’m fortunate that my publisher isn’t blatant about the economics of book selling. They are very polite, erudite, and yet clear. The author has to walk the long mile when it comes to marketing. Build an online profile. Focus on garnering a following through blogs, Twitter, and Facebook. QED: It’s not enough to just write a great story. Pull up your socks and sleeves. Get ready for the long marketing battle ahead.
I’m not a woman of few words. I realized this about myself a long time back. I need many words to express myself. So dealing with the 140-character barrier on Twitter makes me feel like Napoleon in Waterloo. Also wit and humour don’t come easy and au natural to me. By the time I have conjured something funny to say about an event, the time and event are long past. Today’s social media, especially Twitter, is all about being in the moment. Clearly, I’m operating with a handicap.
Many bestselling and immensely popular authors continuously post quotes from famous writers, philosophers, and thinkers on Twitter. Some have even hired young college kids to manage their Twitter page. It’s easy to snigger at them and make fun but a writer writes. Writes books. Not sensational, funny posts in 140 characters. A miniscule percentage of authors make enough money to get by writing books. The rest of us—the lesser mortals—have to juggle day jobs to keep the home and hearth warm alongside getting out the story that’s screaming in our heads. Add to that the woes of online media, marketing, and PR.
Blogging is yet another must-do for any author who’s starting out, or so I’ve been told. And it’s the truth. Every successful author posts, if not on his/her own blog, on Huffington Post, Scroll, Daily O, and others. So I set out to examine what different authors are blogging about. The really good and amazingly humorous ones are by those who write about their experiences with literary agents, hobnobbing with lit snoots in lit fests, etc. These make for fabulous copy. I’m just starting out. So, lit fests are a distant dream.
Many blog about writing. How to write a bestseller? How to structure a plot and make believable characters, etc. Again, I’m just starting. My book is yet to hit the stands. Bestseller…I dream and hope and pray. How am I qualified to tell others how to write?
I don’t have continuous profound philosophical outpourings to share with the world. I’m a mother to a 17-year-old. If I blog about my parenting woes, he will poison my coffee. I’m no marathon runner, gourmet cook, ace photographer, or intrepid traveler; so no such exciting tidbits from me. I’m just an ordinary woman who dreams and spins yarns. Why can’t I just do that instead of pulling my keratin-smoothed hair to come up with tantalizing blog posts and sarcastic one-liners to herd readers?
I was chatting with a bestselling author on Twitter and was casually informed that her fourth book will be out in August, her fifth in October, and her sixth by December. I was in deep depression for two days. She’s not the only one. Most bestselling authors in India are serial writers – that’s what I call them. One of them candidly admits: I spend six months writing a book and a year marketing it. Creativity, the beauty of art, is sacrificed at the altar of economics. When I’m not writing, I want to read, learn, and live.
My first is yet to be launched and people are asking if I’m writing my next. I’m surrounded by authors who have multiple books to their name and show no signs of slowing down. I don’t want to churn books out of the cookie cutter. I don’t want to be known as a person who penned 20 books or even 10. I want to write three, maybe four, and leave it at that. I honestly believe most writers have nothing to say after four or five books. Case in point: Dan Brown. I loved Da Vinci, Angels, and Demon. After reading Inferno, I wished he would just stop. Archer, my love!! I grew up with Kane & Abel and other jewels from his pen. I wish he would stop, too, now. Kill me if you want, that’s how I feel.
Keeping with my own words—that we should stop before it’s too much—I’ll do just that. Stop ranting! But not before sharing an incident. I was discussing my worries about marketing my book, etc. with a friend and I was told: Don’t worry. You have a smart and charming persona; your book will do great.
I haven’t yet quite deciphered if I should take that as a compliment or an affront.
Kanchana Banerjee is an author whose debut novel will be out in summer, 2016, by Harper Collins. In another life she was a freelance features writer for a plethora of publications and companies. She’s mother to 17-year-old son and 7-year-old Beagle. She lives with her husband and her boys in Gurgaon, India.
For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.