I went to a book reading of excerpts from 'The Counsel of Strangers' by Gauri Dange at Crossword, Banjara Hills the weekend before last. The reading was done by Little Theatre which is known for doing book readings and plays and had started by the time I joined. I quietly sat at the back, behind some 20 odd people in the audience. Of course all the front rows were vacant and we huddled at the back. (Why do we do that I wonder - so we can slink away if it gets too boring?)
Anyway the reading was too long and I could not make out much of the book and its contents from the reading. To me the best part came when the author read out a small part at the end. No offense to the other readers of course, all of them highly accomplished in the art of reading and theatre, and who read very well, but somehow it did not go quite well that day. Perhaps it was too long, or maybe because I came in late and missed some parts. I quickly made a mental note to always read my own stuff at book readings in future - somehow there is an element of conviction, something seems to click together, when the writer reads his or her stuff (however badly). I have been guilty of having other people read at my book readings, to break the monotony I justified, but I don't think it is a good idea anymore.
But what summed up the typical book launch in India, written about so much by all writers from Anita Nair to Shobha De, was the comment from one of the readers after the event. 'Ah, for once there were more people in the audience than on the stage,' she laughed. 'The last reading we had less people in the audience and more on the stage'.
Which brings us to the point of what the bookstores are up to when they organise such events. I have had experiences with Crossword and Landmark, two of the biggest bookstore chains in our country where I have had book launch/reading events and I always wondered how badly they are organised. Somehow the author comes last in the scheme of things in these events and everyone, from the publisher to the bookstore, seem to be least bothered about the whole affair - in spite of the fact that they are the ones who will gain the most.
It all starts with the author (in this case me) checking with the publisher that maybe we should do a book reading. Publisher will take his own sweet time and come back with dates in 2050 or something. Also with a question - 'Is there a celebrity?'. And then if you do somehow manage to rope in a celebrity, then you have a fair chance of pulling the event off or the dates will be moved beyond 2070 by which time you could be dead. But let us say they do fix up a date. Then the bookstore tells you that their PR team will design the posters (which is generally a good job) and will also get the required press (which is generally a lousy job). They will also tell you that they have sent mailers to their database of 3000 people. What they don't tell you is that not even 3 people (I am not joking) will turn up from these 3000 unless you are Jeffrey Archer or some name they can tell people about.
So, if you are smart, you would like to know what is going on and be involved a bit in the process so you are not addressing a gathering of the stores salespeople and the lone PR Executive. And this is when the fun begins.
You figure pretty soon that most people from these chains (at least the ones whom I met) generally treat authors as impediments in the book selling process - as far as they are concerned the author should be out of sight writing books and not be seen. They are quite happy not speaking with the author, not picking calls, making the author wait or even hustling the author through the meeting. I have had the good fortune of having all these things happen to me.
Firstly, these executives are all twenty somethings (who are here as experts on God knows what) and are generally chewing gum, on the phone or some such thing. Most get on your nerves with their 'I know what to do' behaviour. Which is okay if they know they are doing, but they don't as you will soon find out. So you have to put up with a lousy show, and an attitude to boot. I once called this girl from Crossword and made an appointment to meet her. She gave me a time and I travelled half the way across Pune, waited in the bookstore for a while, after which she breezes in and says that something urgent came up and could we meet later. And she was the event coordinator! When I told her that she had given the time and I had travelled half way across town, she gave me exactly five highly distracted minutes of her time, most grudgingly, and sent me off without listening to anything I had to say. Or another time when I had an appointment with this chap in Mumbai and well I had to wait more than half an hour to meet him. The good thing with him, was that he was better organised and knew what he was doing. Bala, of Crossword Mumbai, was probably the only one I met who pulled off the show pretty much as it was supposed to go - a good MC, handled celebrities well, was courteous and is a decent bloke and a good bookstore executive.
There are more from this House of Horrors. Like the time when the Landmark Branch Manager in Hyderabad would not listen to me when I told him to expect more than a 100 guests because most would be my cheering squad from hometown. 'No, we know,' he said, 'not more than 40 people ever. Even when we had this really big celebrity.' So we had more than 70 people standing and this guy profusely apologising.Or the Marketing Chief from Landmark who handles South Zone who would not take calls, respond to mails or smses, despite the fact that we had done two wonderful events that were a sell out in Landmark stores. I wonder what kind of a professional would do that - he still does not, this gentleman from Landmark and I have given up on him. Probably none can beat the Pune event coordinator (yes, the same lady) who stopped the Chief Guest, Padma Bhushan awardee, Shri Chandu Borde in the middle of his speech so he could release the book because - you must listen to this - the lone reporter from a local daily wanted to leave right then!! The lady from Crossword confirmed a book reading for me, fixed the dates etc and told me how we can do an event. I checked with her a fortnight later just before getting my tickets done and she regrets - wants to postpone the event by a month - she overlooked a SALE that had come in suddenly! And of course there are minor hazards like the comperes at these events who are always mispronouncing names, do not know what to say, do not know the order in which the event is flowing and talk complete nonsense. And in most cases the store has no clue that there is an event happening even five minutes before they start.
Now if you are smart, you will get your own press. You will get all your friends and family so there is a crowd of at least 20 people. I have seen readings with 4 people. And you will learn that it is going to be a long time before book selling in India will become professional enough to respect the customer, the author, the publisher, the celebrity and also realise that by doing these basic things right, they can sell more books. More on this soon though.