Back when Ravi Subramanian was just a book old, a publisher sent him photos of a few American writers. They looked brooding, with a part of their faces in shadow. The accompanying note asked Subramanian if he would be so nice as to get himself shot looking like those American authors for his book’s back cover.
Subramanian refused, and lives to tell the tale, and write many successful books. But he could because he writes thrillers, most of them set in his home turf of banking. It would have been hazardous to refuse if he’d been a writer of romantic fiction.
That is a genre where pretty girls and boys rule – some were born pretty, some were groomed to prettiness, and some have had prettiness thrust upon them. A top dog in a publishing house says his team, when looking at a proposal for a debut romance novel, instinctively does an image search for the writer on Google. It’s like muscle memory.
“If you are a male writing romantic fiction, it will help to look like a Punjabi hunk even if you are not one,” says Top Dog, and he is not even in marketing, he is in editorial. But this is where editorial and marketing merge, and mate with psychology.
The image of a writer as a stodgy fellow in a dusty room with a beam of sunlight filtering through a hole in the ceiling does not work in romantic fiction because readers of romantic fiction, without knowing it, begin to imagine the writer as a protagonist. The successful writers in this genre do not talk down to the reader, they do not tell the reader, “My language is better than yours.” Their positioning, ever so subtle, is that they express the reader’s emotions in the reader’s language.
What goads the readers on in imagining the writer as a protagonist is that some of the most successful romantic books in recent years have been autobiographical. None bigger than Ravinder Singh’s debut, I Too Had a Love Story, in which he reduced readers to tears by talking about his dead fiancee.
“She died. I survived. Because I survived, I died every day,” says Singh in the book’s first-person narrative.
What readers want
Now think of the book’s reader. A young person – romance fiction writers are mostly young men and women – sees the cover. Under the title, there is a silhouette of a couple seated on a boat and leaning towards each other against the warm glow of the setting sun. If the reader turns to the back cover and sees the image of the author as a man who looks like he would have never sat on a boat with a young lady against the warm glow of the setting sun, the reader’s mind may do a back flip, and the book might slip out of her hands.
There is a romance writer who is getting on in years and her profile has become more of a mother. The consensus in the publishing industry is that her books now sell less because of that.
Remember that this is one country where the skin tone and hair matter so much that Bollywood does not make bald actors play romantic leads and male actors endorse fairness creams.
Ravinder Singh started the trend of misery literature in India, so he must look like someone you can feel for. However, speaking to HT, he says he does not try to look any particular way. He has released photos and videos of himself for the release and tours of his latest book, This Love That Feels Right, for two reasons. He can reach more of his 700,000 Facebook followers through a video than through stills and text – such is the intricacy of Facebook’s algorithm. Secondly, Singh’s publicists won’t let him be. But he keeps it cool. “All I need is a pair of jeans, shirt, Kolhapuri chappals, and spectacles; the clothes should be clean and nicely-ironed.”
Singh is lucky – he does not have to try too hard. He looks every bit the Punjabi hunk Top Dog would want male romance writers to be. Others, less lucky with their gifts, have to work harder to groom themselves. And they do.
“Look at the authors who are now successful. Almost all of them look good. At least, they look very good in their pictures,” says Subramanian, the writer of banking thrillers. “You might ask what writing has to do with looks. You cannot be a lousy writer and say your books should sell because you look good.” He mentions a book launch at a mall in Kota, Rajasthan, where 1,200 people turned up for a good looking author’s book, but only 120 bought a copy of the book. However, he agrees that being pretty/handsome helps. He met a reader recently who was in tears because Durjoy Datta had got married.
There is more to it. Earlier, the image of the writer was determined by the photograph on the back cover. Not anymore. These days the writer has to be conscious of the image she projects on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, at book launches, book signing events, television shows, and in videos and in photographs.
Going the extra mile
Some go the extra yard. Bhavna Arora, author of such delicacies as The Deliberate Sinner, Mistress of Honour, and Love Bi The Way, has a video that shows her grooming herself, dancing, playing the guitar next to a large Audi, and doing other cute things such as trying on a fedora. Her Facebook account has videos of her dancing some more, horse riding, and swimming in the wake of a motor boat.
Arora’s mobile phone was switched off whenever HT dialled it, but other women writers present an interesting perspective. Nikita Singh, who, at 24, is a veteran of nine romantic novels such as Like A Love Song and Someone Like You, agrees that romance readers think of the writer as a protagonist, not least because writers these days write characters very close to them. So Singh should have an edge – she is naturally pretty. But she has mixed feelings about her looks.
“People shame you if you are ugly, and also when you are not,” she said over the phone from New York, where she has just finished a course in creative writing. Her thoughts go to the Ted Talk she did at IIM Kolkata a few years ago. The motto of Ted Talks is simple: “Ideas worth spreading.”
Yet, listening to her, people tried to dismiss her as someone whose books are read only because she is pretty. Singh found that unnecessarily mean. She was born in Patna and her family comes from Barwaha, a small town 60 km outside Indore. She says she did not receive the best of education. But she did not gatecrash the Ted Talk; IIM-Kolkata had invited her because she was a successful author with Love@Facebook behind her. And she was just 19. She looked and spoke in a certain way. Why punish her for that?
“The stereotyping puts me off. I do not want those readers who go to a bookstore, look at the back cover, and buy the book for the author’s photo,” says Singh.
Does her exasperation make her try to look un-pretty? “I struggled with it in the beginning. Maybe I should not wear this or that. It took me a long time to embrace the fact that I am interested in fashion, and I am okay being who I am.” Singh goes to the extent of saying she is not the typical reader for the books she writes.
Anish Chandy, whose literary agency Labyrinth represents Singh, says the first thing you need in commercial fiction is a great concept, one that should hit the right zeitgeist. But if a writer says his main goal is that a million people should buy his book, Chandy will tell him to do a bunch of things. “If a writer is not good looking, I will not tell him to get plastic surgery done. But I will tell him about grooming, hiring a good photographer to do a nice portfolio, and engaging with the reader on social media,” he says.
Madhuri Banerjee writes romantic fiction, but a lot steamier than Ravinder Singh’s or Nikita Singh’s. Three of her eight books are, Losing My Virginity and Other Dumb Ideas, Forbidden Desires, and Scandalous Housewives.
The way Banerjee looks, her photo on the back cover will not come in the way of the reader’s imagination of the protagonist, though Banerjee says that is not the reason she looks after herself.
“I like to be well groomed. I am very finicky about hygiene. I would like to be well-dressed and smell clean wherever I go. I have been brought up to be well turned out,” says Banerjee.
She is not sure good looks equal large sales of her books. But she does think looks give a peek into your personality and there is a chance some people, even a non-reader, may buy your book because of how you look or because you said something interesting. “When you see Durjoy [Dutta] or Ravinder [Singh], they are easy on the eye, even though they are not going to date you.”
In the mind of a young reader, anything is possible. Stretching the limits of that possibility, a new writer is playing on his “average” looks.
Author Rupesh Kumar’s debut novel – romantic fiction, of course – is called I’m An Average Looking Boy ... Will You Be My girlfriend?
HOW TO MAKE YOUR OWN BESTSELLER
The short answer is, be Chetan Bhagat. When a book of his comes out, every other significant book is put on hold for that month.
Some writers, since they cannot be Bhagat, have resorted to other means. The most common among them is to buy copies of their own book, directly or indirectly. In indirect buying, you can give money to people to buy your book, while making sure they buy from stores – online and offline – tracked by the Nielsen ranking.
Why would they spend money on buying their own books? That is because a successful book, say in the Nielsen’s Top 20, will ensure a fat advance for your next.
But publishers have seen through that game. Says one of them: “If you look carefully, you can tell which book’s sales are being rigged.”
So the way left with the writers is to create a noise around their books on social media, part of which is to present yourself in a certain image.