publishing trends

How books on cinema are actually published in India (it’s hilarious)

A literary agent spills the beans on the secrets of the Bollywood book.

While celebrity/Bollywood books have been a regular fixture in the publishing calendar for a long time, never before has Bollywood exercised greater influence on publishing. For some categories of books published in India, even before the book is actually written there are animated discussions about which Bollywood heartthrob could be asked to come for the formal launch, write a blurb or a foreword, tweet about the book, post a selfie with the book, or even star in the possible film adaptation of the book.

Not only does a strong B-town connection frequently convert a reluctant publisher into the most impassioned advocate of the book, it also improves the negotiating power of an author or agent. Even genres that are traditionally hard to publish or “market” such as translations, plays and poetry suddenly become eminently publishable if written or endorsed by a star.

You’re a star? We’ll publish

My own submission packages play up the link between an author and their book and Bollywood, often shamelessly mentioning the star in the subject line of the mail itself. A promising book by a debut writer becomes just a book written by so and so B-town personality’s wife, sister, secretary, fitness trainer, nutritionist, social media manager, screenwriter and so on.

A health expert, who had signed up with my agency for a brief while, was actually not comfortable about being known just as a certain Bollywood star’s counsellor and wanted to carve out a niche for himself. I don’t blame him because he was actually a solid writer with a compelling book idea. Not surprisingly, most publishers I spoke to about him and his book asked me to persuade him to co-write the star’s memoirs.

When I pitched marathon runner Sumedha Mahajan’s book to publishers, some of them told me that while her story was remarkable, they would much rather publish a running book by Milind Soman because of his stardom. A publisher told me that if I was going to send a cancer memoir to them it better be none other than Manisha Koirala’s. As if suffering is not universal and discriminates between a Bollywood star and a commoner!

I wasn’t surprised because a few years before that, a famous cricketer’s battle (if it can be called one) with Stage 1 cancer fetched an obscene advance and generated enormous media hype. When I pitched a semi-academic although very interesting book on a popular music genre by a legendary performer, I was asked to get her to write an autobiography instead.

A sensitively written biography of a legendary dancer foolish enough to focus on her dance didn’t cut it although a publisher would be interested if she did a salacious, tell-all memoir about her personal life. I can never forget a meeting with an editor where most of my biographies/memoir titles were summarily shot down with lines such as “Who wants to read about that hockey player?”, “Who wants to read about her even though she has been nominated for an Oscar?”

When I submitted an unofficial biography of Kangana Ranaut, I was told to get the author to discard the motivational angle to the book and just focus on the spate of controversies regarding the star’s love affairs and trysts with black magic, which had erupted in the media at that time. Rahul Bose as a subject didn’t garner interest unless Rahul himself were to do a book. A book on filmmaker Onir by his equally accomplished film editor sister wouldn’t work, but Onir doing a tell-all might.

I am embarrassed to say that I once asked an author who had submitted a novel to me to instead co-write her famous director brother’s memoirs. I also once wrote to a legendary screenwriter and teacher, asking him to do a “star” biography. He gave me the following – in hindsight, befitting – response:

Hello Kanishka
Good to hear about you.
However, I'm afraid you have me a bit puzzled with your request. I am a screenwriter, and a teacher. Why do you think I'd like to do a star biography, of all things?!

Publishing often feels like the poor, underprivileged relative of Bollywood that has to always keep the latter satiated and in good humour. But are publishers/agents alone to be blamed for this? I would say no, and would actually place most of the blame on the Bollywood/celebrity-obsessed mainstream media.

Debut or unknown writers seldom get written about and it has become worse after some papers discontinued or shrunk their Books section. Any book with a Bollywood or scandalous peg catches eyeballs and is easier to position with papers. I remember how a tabloid once told someone to cut down on publishing and books related news about “nobodies” unless it involved big Bollywood stars or public figures. Incidentally, one of the “nobodies” also included a major, well known publishing professional.

More recently, a tabloid cunningly turned an interview about activist and celebrity hairstylist Sapna Bhavnani’s forthcoming memoirs with HarperCollins into a piece on Salman Khan and her outspoken views on him. All the headlines screamed how “Salman Khan Is A Male Chauvinist Pig Who Dances Like A Monkey”, or “Salman Khan misuses people”, with the book hardly getting any mention. This when Sapna is actually an accomplished, previously published writer and columnist with a fascinating personal story.

The Bollywood celeb book launch

The second question is whether star power actually drives sales and creates bestsellers.

Several books represented by Writer’s Side have been launched by big Bollywood stars and rarely has the author or the book benefited from it. On the contrary, both take the backstage and the launch becomes all about the star’s past, present and future love interests, perennial controversies and films.

At the book launch of one of my most promising commercial fiction writers, the media questions were all about the reading habits of a certain Bollywood hunk and whether he had read the bestselling book on which his forthcoming film was based. At another launch, a yesteryear actress was asked when she planned to write her autobiography. These books have not been able to sell a combined 3,000 copies, usually the average print run for one book. The media coverage is also dismal, unless you consider Fashion Scandal, PinkVilla, Glam Sham, Business of Cinema, Miss Malini and so on the best way to reach out to serious, discerning readers.

While I haven’t personally attended many high profile book launches, I am told that the level of discussion is also quite superficial because many a time, celebrities don’t bother to read the book they are so heartily and publicly endorsing. I’ve heard how stars make authors or their go-between mark out important sections of the book so that they can quickly skim read them in between their hectic schedules. One of them actually speed-read parts of the book on his way to the launch. At times, the whole exercise seems like a packaged, collective fanboy moment rather than a focussed, target-driven marketing initiative.

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

Corrections and clarifications: An incorrect version of this article was published originally. The error has been rectified.

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