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As publishers cut frills, book tours face a bleak future

As publishers cut frills, book tours face a bleak future
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First Published: Fri, Nov 28 2008. 11 54 PM IST

Reaching out virtually: Picture-book author Katia Novet Saint-Lot. Shashi Kiran
Reaching out virtually: Picture-book author Katia Novet Saint-Lot. Shashi Kiran
Updated: Fri, Nov 28 2008. 11 54 PM IST
New Delhi: Last week, Katia Novet Saint-Lot was promoting her new children’s book, Amadi’s Snowman, in Italy and Nigeria; the week before that, in the Dominican Republic, Haiti and the US; the week before that, in Nigeria again. And yet, throughout it all, the picture-book author hasn’t once stepped out of her house in Hyderabad.
Reaching out virtually: Picture-book author Katia Novet Saint-Lot. Shashi Kiran
Saint-Lot has been engaged in what she calls a “virtual book tour”, a futuristic exercise dreamed up with her American publisher, Tilbury House—and one that might well come to interest with other publishers as they sense the sour smell of recession in the air. On this virtual tour, Saint-Lot participates in interviews on blogs across the world, chats live with children, and features videos and images on her own blog. The hits have been so encouraging, Saint-Lot says, that there may now have to be another tour in January.
“Of course, there have been virtual launches before, on websites or blogs,” says Saint-Lot, a French-born, habitual peripatetic who has lived in Hyderabad now for four years. “What is new is that this tour is so international, allowing children to participate from so far away.”
It hasn’t been easy, to be sure. Saint-Lot has been online emailing back and forth with her Tilbury House publicist every evening for the last three months—a publicist she hasn’t even spoken to on the phone, and has only seen once, on Facebook. In November, she has spent six hours out of every 24 on the Internet “touring”.
Meanwhile, in Nigeria and Haiti, her contacts have shot extensive video or scanned drawings and then, on frail Internet connections, waited up to six hours at a time for the material to upload itself. “It’s been a staggering amount of work, actually,” says Saint-Lot.
But it has also been a frugal book tour, as book tours go, and that stands out in the teeth of the worldwide economic slowdown, when many publishers are already looking for ways to trim costs. In the US, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt—which publishes reputed novelists such as Philip Roth and Jonathan Safran Foer —has “temporarily stopped ac quiring manuscripts”, an extreme decision that rippled powerfully through the industry. “It’s difficult to predict anything, but a lot of this book tour stuff may come to a grinding halt,” says Shruti Debi, editor of Picador India. “In 2006, if an author had a book coming out in 2008 and asked if there would be a tour, a five-city tour would have been promised promptly. But now, if an author asks about a tour say around next November, I’m not so sure.”
This is less true of big-banner authors; Nandan Nilekani, for instance, has already commenced a series of launches of his new book for Penguin, Imagining India. But other first-time authors, or even A-list authors who don’t have quite the brand of an Infosys co-chairman, can expect to find their tours abbreviated or even cut altogether, Debi says.
September and October were, for Indian publishers, “phenomenally slow”, according to Debi. “Impulse buys will soon start dropping, for instance,” she says. “Where they may have bought three books, browsers will now buy just one.” Unsold inventory is where it hurts. “Some distributors are starting to put a hold on ordering new titles, trying to sell out existing stock first,” Debi says. “I think the bigger publishers—the ones with large print runs last year—will definitely be affected.”
Thomas Abraham, MD of Hachette India, agrees with Debi’s observations about the symptoms, but he offers a different diagnosis. “There’s definitely a bad couple of years coming up, but I don’t think that has to do with the meltdown,” he says. “I think it’s because people have overbought and not sold their stock. There’s a slight case of oversupply.” There will certainly be a knockdown effect from a recession, Abraham admits, but otherwise publishers will not be hit as severely as many other sectors. “We haven’t been asked to cut back on any of our acquisition plans, and neither have our American and British arms,” he says.
Hachette India plans to publish its first Indian novel in April, and “even if the meltdown hypothetically affects spending habits, that won’t affect my sales and marketing strategy”, Abraham says. “In publishing, it’ll be no better or worse than having a single bad year at any other time.”
At Westland Books, publishers and also distributors, a mild go-slow has already been issued. “We’re definitely being more careful, because it’s not just a question of selling books, but also collecting money from retailers,” says Gautam Padmanabhan, CEO. “So you try to buy less, look at stock more closely, liquidate what you have first.”
Like Debi, Padmanabhan predicts that publishers will get more selective about which authors they take on tours across the country, and about other expensive promotions. “Because there has been a slowdown,” he says. “There’s no doubt about that.”
Saint-Lot’s idea, then, is more a product of its times than even she may have intended. “I could never have created this kind of a bridge between countries if I’d toured in person,” she says. “And it’ll all be up there long after the real-world tour would have become a memory. This tour will go on forever.”
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First Published: Fri, Nov 28 2008. 11 54 PM IST