Ah, Delhi in the early noughties. I was a young reporter, sent out to cover the Extremely Serious Faces of Indian Writing in English, which quickly got an acronym, IWE, tossed around with “diaspora!" or “post-colonial!". Book launches were a chance to see and be seen; you knew the event was going to be dissected for the next week at least, and you were privy to all the gossip first-hand.

“Your launch is so different and not one of those regular ones that just happens at the IIC (Delhi’s India International Centre)," breathed a happy attendee to editor-turned-author Trisha Bora recently. Bora’s debut novel What Kitty Did published by HarperCollins India, commercial fiction meets cosy crime, was launched with a crime-themed pub quiz and a live music performance, as well as a short reading from the book.

“What’s happening is that the format of a book launch isn’t working any more," says Bora on the phone from Mumbai, where’s she is organizing a set of events for her book launch, including one in a microbrewery. “Your friends and family would come, you’d sell 20 copies. You need to think about how to do it differently and generate interest."

My first book, published in 2008, had quite a lot of press in the weeks before its release, thanks to a lucky combination of factors, so my publishers, then called just Penguin India (now Penguin Random House), organized the event at Agni, The Park’s very trendy club. I perched on the bar and read aloud to, yes, a group of family and friends. It was still a new thing, and people spoke about that party for months.

“There was an established tradition of doing a launch," says Avanija Sundaramurti, head of marketing at Hachette India. “A book is like a baby and people want to celebrate it. But most publishers are trying to steer authors away from it as they have low attendance and limited impact." Mumbai is a classic example of why launches don’t always work; the traffic, a little rain, and no one shows up. I’ve been burned by Mumbai—a reading I did had six people in the audience, all of whom were my friends, all of whom would have bought the book anyway.

‘Dastongos’ performing at the launch of Sadia Dehlvi’s ‘Jasmine & Jinns’.
‘Dastongos’ performing at the launch of Sadia Dehlvi’s ‘Jasmine & Jinns’.

The offbeat launch

However, book launches aren’t really about selling the book. Aman Arora, senior manager, brand and marketing, at HarperCollins India, confirmed this to me. “Books sell via word of mouth," he says. “And the idea behind big book launches is that they spread the word. But it really does depend on the clout of the author." So Arora is turning to more “unusual" launches, reserving the standard panel- discussion events mainly for business books. Besides Bora’s pub quiz, recent launches have included a dastangoi event for Sadia Dehlvi’s memoir/cookbook Jasmine & Jinns, and a series of free citywide yoga workouts for Ira Trivedi’s The Ten Minute Yoga Solution. “We wouldn’t do it for heavy literary fiction," says Arora.

Over at Penguin Random House, there’s been a Malayali food festival for the launch of Lathika George’s The Suriani Kitchen (plus select dishes from the book being available at Delhi-based Kerala restaurant Mahabelly), a game of cricket in a store to launch Unmukt Chand’s book The Sky Is The Limit: My Journey To The World Cup, a colouring activity in a mall to celebrate Devdutt Pattanaik’s new line of colouring books—and my own young adult novel was launched with a karaoke night in a Delhi bar, where my editor and I made up and sang a version of Wannabe by the Spice Girls (chorus: I really really wanna be your editor).

Author Shweta Taneja’s new book, The Matsya Curse, is aimed at younger readers, so her husband and a friend came up with an occult-themed quiz to help her with the launch. Taneja is no stranger to offbeat launches; for her very first book, she put together a DIY case file for children to solve, based on the mystery in her book. “I think these events have a twofold buzz," she says, “The audience comes in with the idea of having fun, they’re not all readers. And people are like, “Oh, not another literary event."

The British Council liked her format so much that after she launched her book at their venue in Bengaluru, they asked her to come to Chennai and do the same thing. “I like the idea of people thinking, ‘Wherever she’s there, it’s fun to go’," says Taneja. “I’m writing for the fun of it, so I’d like my event to be fun too."

A dinner at Mahabelly to celebrate Lathika George’s ‘The Suriani Kitchen’.
A dinner at Mahabelly to celebrate Lathika George’s ‘The Suriani Kitchen’.

Does it sell books?

Do people still buy books or do they have to be coaxed into it? I’m reminded of Chetan Bhagat’s now infamous quote: “My competition is apps like Candy Crush or WhatsApp, I don’t see other writers as my competition at all." Or the launch of Amish’s new book Sita—Warrior Of Mithila, where the hordes of people who reportedly attended were entertained by drum circles and lathi-twirling, plus props to take selfies with and share on social media, where the hashtag would trend, leading to the kind of publicity you can’t pay for. Or the Koffee With Karan book launch for Twinkle Khanna’s first book, where they recreated the entire set and format, complete with the rapid-fire round, now viewed over 200,000 times on YouTube.

Events for books and authors are about making the experience personal, to get more people to get a sense of the author and the book—which is why (there is) the need to think through formats...- Hemali Sodhi

“In India I want to look beyond book sales," says Taneja, estimating that just about 40-50% of her audience still buys books. The most effective tool to sell your book isn’t even launches; it’s going straight to book retailers and building up a relationship with them so that they’ll have your book out front and centre. “Book launches are boring, and a waste of time. So you need to do it as per content," says Bora.

Hemali Sodhi, senior vice-president, marketing, and publisher, children, at Penguin Random House, agrees. “Events for books and authors are about making the experience personal, to get more people to get a sense of the author and the book—which is why (there is) the need to think through formats and partners more and more. We’ve had several firsts in the book launches that we’ve held over the years—from different venues (including one on a boat) to formats. It was not just about being unusual, but also to make the event close to the book and the people who populate it," says Sodhi.

So I turn to Ritnika Nayan, owner of Music Gets Me High (MGMH), who wrote a guide on how to find your feet in the Indian independent music scene, titling it Indie 101: The Ultimate Guide To The Independent Music Industry In India. Publishers turned it down, so Nayan, already adept at events thanks to her company, which organizes gigs and manages artists, decided to self-publish, hired the same PR person who handles publicity for a well-known music festival, and is going to launch the whole thing at a bar with several bands playing. “The book will sell," she says. “Musicians are used to buying CDs and so on at gigs, and it reaches people I’ve worked with."

So now you can tell what sort of book it is by what sort of launch it gets. “Heavy" books still get the panel discussion, “lighter" ones get the party. The reader is spoilt for choice and less likely to be happy with cheap wine and a free meal. In a way, we’re all competing with WhatsApp these days.

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