Bollywood’s always a bestseller. Here’s why publishers can’t say no to anything filmy
A few weeks ago, literary critic Aditya Mani Jha wrote a scathing post on Facebook, taking a dig at Indian publishing houses for their obsession with anything and everything Bollywood. His outburst seems to have been triggered by the announcement of Bollywood actress Richa Chadda’s book about her well-documented struggles with an eating disorder.
In a widely carried press release, the actress called the book an experiment. ‘I want to open my heart out and give people a peek into my world. We have assumptions about the privileges an actor enjoys. Well, I hope to shatter certain myths, whether they be about standards of perfection, patriarchy and what it means to be a “good girl”.’
Jha, like many of his peers, felt very strongly about this impossible-to-ignore trend in publishing, despite the fact that he is an admirer of the actress’s work and films.
One wonders what it is about Bollywood or Bollywood-driven books that makes publishers – big and small – go weak in the knees. A senior sales person at a multinational publishing house told me that such decisions are driven purely by commerce. ‘The autobiographies of big stars such as Dev Anand and Dilip Kumar sold in excess of 50,000 and 30,000 copies, respectively. Even Anupam Kher’s self-help books have been bestsellers. The recently released Rishi Kapoor and Karan Johar autobiographies are runaway successes.’
According to him, even books by Tier-2 Bollywood stars sell anywhere between 10-20,000 copies, a number that even five debut works of fiction or non-fiction put together may not be able to achieve. Such deals are also great talking (or bragging!) points and a branding exercise for publishers since the reach of many of these stars, including the Tier-2 ones, goes well beyond traditional publishing and reading circles. While it might look like they are vanity projects and produced just for the consumption of a star’s fan following, some of these books do gain a lot of general readership, and deservingly so.
‘Shilpa Shetty’s book didn’t sell over 100,000 copies only because she is Shilpa Shetty, but also because she is very well known for her fitness,’ a publishing professional told me.
Similarly, former Bollywood actress Anu Agarwal’s awe-inspiring journey from the cult movie Aashiqui to a reclusive, media-shy yogi after a near-death experience is a story that had to be told.
Even within the sub-genre of Bollywood books, there are certain titles that outperform others. Memoirs are by far the biggest draws for publishers and readers. One can hardly recall a single Bollywood memoir that hasn’t done exceptionally well. The same cannot be said of biographies (even those whose authors have full access to their subjects) or works of fiction, short stories, or poetry penned by the stars. The recently released first and only biography of a big star notorious for having run-ins with the law sank without a trace. I know of many other well-researched biographies that haven’t sold beyond 3,000-5,000 copies. Perhaps it is for this very reason that publishers are more welcoming of first-person accounts, even those ghost-written by a journalist who has either followed the star over the years or with whom he/she has a strong rapport.
This Bollywood craze benefits professionals attached to stars and makes the path to publication very easy for them. Almost every other publishing house has published or is going to publish some B-town star’s fitness trainer, nutritionist, counsellor, stylist, even a dentist. In fact, the favourite DJ of the reigning king of Bollywood is coming out with a book. Most of these titles are actively and unabashedly endorsed, launched and promoted by the star in question.
However, there is one major downside to publishing such books. Most of them are hard to assemble and publish, and involve endless delays and star tantrums. ‘It normally takes at least two years to publish such a book from the time of signing,’ a commissioning editor specialising in such books told me.
The situation is even worse if the star has committed to writing the book himself/herself. One of my authors recently told me that a Bollywood actress confessed to her that she hadn’t written even one word of the book she was supposedly publishing with a major publishing house. If one factors in the endless trips to Mumbai, the lavish seven-star wooing-and-cajoling meals, the unavoidable editorial handholding, and the excessive post-publication marketing spending, one wonders if these books recover their costs at all.
While Bollywood continues to make stars out of publishing, either by endorsing writers or even making mainstream big-budget films out of their works, the reverse has never happened. Unless, of course, one refuses to accept that Twinkle Khanna’s incredible publishing story falls in that category. Khanna is one out of the only two Indian female writers who have surpassed the sale of 1 lakh copies, the other being the spiritual-romance author Savi Sharma. But unlike Sharma, Khanna enjoys the patronage of both mass market readers and serious literary readers, both of whom find her writing genuinely good and humorous. Her appeal mirrors that of another bestselling writer, Anuja Chauhan, except that both her books have sold way more than the latter’s.
When I asked a publishing professional if these Bollywood books will make life difficult for the already embattled debut writers in our country, he said, ‘No. Because they are in a different category.’ But the fact remains that they are published by the same publishing houses with finite budgets, and limited editorial and marketing resources.
Kanishka Gupta is a literary agent, author, consultant and publishing commentator. He is the founder of Writer’s Side, the largest literary agency and consultancy in South Asia.