The effective marketing of a debut author’s book is often the most contentious and stressful aspect of modern publishing. It can throw perfectly cordial and sometimes even strong pre-publication-date relationships between an author and his publisher, editor, and agent, into complete disarray. It leads to bitter quarrels, blame-games, cancellation of future contracts, and, at times (although this is extremely rare), even killing the writer’s desire to write again.

What goes wrong? Authors complain that publishers don’t allocate enough budgets for promotion and don’t assign top publicists. Publishers, for their part, say that authors often have unrealistic expectations and don’t understand the financial constraints within which they operate. Both are right in their own way.

But somewhere in this flurry of accusations and counter-charges, the larger truth is lost: there is indeed very little attempt to market first-time writers in way that actually guarantees results. Instead, whatever little efforts there are are directed at largely non-performing initiatives.

Book trailers and YouTube promotions

Almost no debut author has benefited from a book trailer or a video shared on social media in the forlorn hope of its “going viral”. These videos are often shoddily done, made by an amateur filmmaker friend or acquaintance of the author’s as a favour, since no publishing house can usually afford to pay for one. Most professional agencies won’t take up a book-trailer assignment for less than Rs one lakh, which is usually far more than the total amount allocated to the marketing of the book.

“Such trailers just don’t appeal to viewers like the videos on portals like Buzzfeed, PopXo or do,” a marketing manager at a major publishing house told me. And even if some of these trailers do end up getting some views, usually thanks to kind friends and family, this hardly translates into sales for the book.

I have personally viewed book trailers that have actually had several thousands of views, but the books haven’t even sold even a tiny fraction of that number. A publishing professional told me that trailers are useful only for celebrity authors, and then, primarily for brand building. In fact, she confessed, book trailers are frequently made just to keep authors happy.

Celebrity blurbs and endorsements

Shortlisting potential celebrity endorsers is a very common exercise between a debut author and their editor and publicist close to the publication of the book. I have personally seen publishing dates being delayed because a blurb from a star has not arrived on time. But do celebrity endorsements really help? Nine out of ten times they don’t.

An author of several books told me how such quotes hardly guarantee sales: “The amount of effort and, more important, time required to get a quote or a blurb from a celebrity is just not worth it.” Several celebrities don’t even bother to go through a book they have promised to endorse. As a result, the blurbs sound clichéd and don’t make an impact on book buyers.

“I think, more than who is being quoted, what is important is what they’re saying,” the author said. “When a big name declares a book ‘fascinating’ or ‘excellent’, it doesn’t cut it. But if someone says you won’t be able to put the book down after you pick it up, it can still make a difference.”

Likewise, celebrities promoting debut works on their own social media pages, despite their massive followings, yield very little by way of results. Recently, a successful boxer with serious star appeal tweeted about the book of an author I represent, along with a link to buy the book on Amazon. Despite countless retweets, there was no marked difference in the Amazon rankings and sales.

In 2016, another author whom I represent got almost every top non-cricketing sports personality in the country to tweet about his book. Although this generated a great deal of curiosity, it did not lead to a proportionate jump in sales.

Book launches

Even if they involve public figures and celebrities, these events don’t seem to have much impact on sales. If a debut author is fortunate, they might be able to sell 30-40 copies of the book at the launch. “I know of several launches attended by 400-500 people, but very few copies are actually sold at the venue,” a marketing manager told me.

Sure, launches are not actually meant to be serious selling opportunities, but in an industry where most books have first print-runs of less than 3,000, the chance to sell a couple of hundred copies cannot be dismissed. However, not only do such sales not materialise, not much word-of-mouth is generated either through those attending the launch. But why not? A writer who had two Bollywood stars attending his book launch explained the reason.

“A launch is more of a personal affair, for the benefit of the author rather than the book. Even having a celebrity doesn’t make much of a difference as the media talks about the star and not the book. In fact, the media doesn’t care about the book or the subject. All the questions are posed to the celebrities and not to the author.”

Launches are an even bigger failure when a debut author does not belong to the city where their book is being launched, since there is often no network of friends, relatives, and acquaintances to put in an appearance. A few years ago, the launch of a Mumbai-based writer’s book at a prominent bookstore in Delhi was attended by all of 10 people, including his publisher, family, agent, ex-neighbours, and former business partner! The author vowed never to have a launch for any of his future books.

So, most publishing houses are severely discouraging book launches for new writers, and instead diverting the funds into social media promotions. “Most publishers are aware today that the routine launch yields no effective publicity and that money can be more gainfully deployed elsewhere,” said Thomas Abraham, Managing Director, Hachette India.

Literature festivals

The last few years has seen an explosion of literary festivals in India, with some of even dedicated to specific regions (Seemanchal or the North-East, for instance) and genres (such the Noir Literature Festival). But do these platforms actually push the sales of books, directly or indirectly?

A senior sales executive at a publishing company said that at most of these festivals, only books by major or celebrity authors sell briskly. He added that there are some festivals where, despite the author’s presence and participation in multiple panels, only 5-10 copies are sold.

“Festivals are not good promotional avenues for selling books, and I submit they should not be,” said Hachette’s Abraham. “The bookshop there is for fans, but if any author thought their sales profile would be built by even 10%, they would be in for a big disappointment. One or two star turns may see a few hundred copies selling but the average would be between 25 and 30 copies. We’ve tracked this for years and found that there is absolutely no media or sales benefit for individual books. Yes, where publishers are concerned, the festivals are good PR outlets for imprint launches, anniversary celebrations, etc., but not for sales.”

What chance does a debut writer have at a literature festival, then? Only if such a writer can really involve the audience in a session and pique their curiosity about his work can they hope for some pick-up value and some retention.

Book signings

It’s suddenly become common for authors to make trips to key bookstores around the country – often at their own expense if they happen to be first-time writers. This really gives them a chance to enlighten the bookstore owner and staff about their book, sign a few copies, and get some pictures, selfies and videos to feed their – and the publisher’s and the bookshops’s – social media pages.

Does this help? Says Rahul Dixit, sales director, HarperCollins India, “It’s true that the book does occupy the mind-space of the bookseller.” However, he adds, “Readers want to buy signed copies only of books by authors they admire and not unknown or debut writers.” Hardly any of the books I represent have truly benefited from this exercise.

Merchandise and contests

Even the most interactive and highly engaging contests – both offline and online – for debut authors yield barely any dividends . Some of these contests have hundreds, even thousands, of participants, but again, do not result in a spike in sales. One author told me that this could be due to the lack of a seriously tempting prize or incentive. But the fact is that those who are not interested in a book – or books in general – aren’t going to buy one lured by a contest.

Media reviews

It is becoming increasingly clear that there is hardly any correlation between positive reviews in the mainstream media and sales in bookstores or rankings on Amazon. I observed this first-hand with one of my own agented titles, the Assamese writer Imran Hussain’s collection of short stories, The Waterspirit and Other Stories, published in 2015. The book received rave reviews in several mainstream newspapers and magazines. Yet, the book just didn’t move off the shelves, either online or in bookstores.

In any case, debut authors are often completely ignored or sidelined by mainstream media in favour of award-winning writers and celebrities and public figures. Some major papers have shrunk or discontinued their books pages. Others, like a very prominent tabloid, only cover non-fiction books. A prominent publication recently sent out a mail to a publicist at a publishing house saying that they would only be covering international writers from now on.

The implication? Pushing editors and reviewers to have a debut title reviewed may satisfy the writer – provided the book is praised – but it does precious little for sales. Even publicists at publishing houses are focusing their attention elsewhere as a result.

For publishers, it is becoming increasingly difficult to map marketing efforts for their titles to sales. While it is a struggle to even get a new book by a new author onto the radar screens of potential readers, it is by no means clear whether that will translate into sampling, leave alone actual sales.

“All these efforts can actually work, but only if they achieve a certain scale,’ the marketing head of a top publishing house said. “Unfortunately, because of limited budgets, that scale is rarely achieved. Authors have to understand that the marketing budget for a book is a percentage of the expected sales revenues from its first print run,” she added.

So, for a debut author with a relatively small print run, this scale is hard to achieve. But does that mean a first-time writer with the finances and connections to ensure all of the above (a book launch, media reviews, videos, festival appearances, merchandise and celebrity endorsements) be rewarded with book sales? Perhaps, but only briefly.,

What does work, then? Especially for new writers, there is really no replacement for word of mouth. And this is something that is neither in the hands of the writer nor of the marketing manager. “It is finally the buzz among readers that determines how a book sells,” said Abraham. “The question is, where is that word of mouth going to come from? How viral will it be? Over the past two decades we’ve seen definitive solutions touted – such as the book launch, or mailers, or, now, social media. But in terms of concrete results, all one has are flash in the pan success stories.

“Stephenie Meyer set off the vampire boom, which then worked for a couple of other series and then died out. Amish exploded the mytho-history genre but after a couple of other successes the genre itself has not taken off. So any marketing tactic or medium can only give you that first fillip…after that it is word-of-mouth.”

Kanishka Gupta is the CEO of the South Asia’s largest literary agency, Writer’s Side.