Judge a book, after the flashbulbs are switched off

Fiona Fernandez Those were simpler, low key times for authors. Back then, in the 1990s and the early half of the new millennium, a book release was nothing to write home about, literally. Publishers – it was a number we could count on one hand, would send out a mandatory mail days before the event, or if they could afford it, in a newsletter that would reach your ‘postal’ address (god knows who uses that service any more) and, if they were media-savvy, you’d be informed about it in an e-mailer a month in advance. That was all.

No releases in bookstores – how many could afford the flashy shindig? More far-fetched would be to hire the services of a PR agency, to create a buzz. It would almost always be a cozy gathering among close family and friends, and if you had many ‘intellectual’ types in the crowd, a reading of a favourite extract would go down nicely as the perfect end to one of the most important days in the writer’s life. Laughter, good wishes and quiet moments of glory did it.

Not anymore. These days, the countdown to a book release comes pretty close to gossip of weddings in the business world or in Bollywood. Mailers and alerts are sent out months, sometimes a year in advance as part of the annual ‘watch-out-for’ title lists, which if I might add, have begun to appear in the inbox for 2013, as I write this. The good, the bad and the ugly get coverage, even as advance copies begin doing the rounds to every book and literary correspondent/editor’s table with alarming regularity, sometimes, even twice over – to ensure the book hasn’t reached the wrong address.

¬†Diligent PR agencies will ensure the name of the book is at the top of the mind as soon as you get out of bed. Opulent sometimes garish invites, inexplicable take-homes (read: maps, puzzles, velvety cased booklets with teaser extracts) announce the big date. To spice things up, a celebrity’s appearance is thrown in; it’s unthinkable to have a release without this species that doesn’t seem to have a clear-cut profile. It could be anyone, actually.

If it’s a crime thriller, a high-ranking police officer, a film director who revels in this genre or if it’s a bad day, the second or third assistant director on the crew will fit the bill. With health and fitness books, rope in a has-been fitness instructor who has worked to transform middle-aged actresses, and if it’s a self-help title, then even a recorded address from a sagely, robed godman will ensure it gets decent coverage in the print and online media for days together.

With adequate ammo to ensure a star-studded success for the title, who cares about what’s inside those pages, really? Often, the author gets it right. After all, one cannot take away from brilliant, well researched writing. But then, there is a sizeable number who are bad writers (never mind the poor editor who tried his/her best to spruce it up) or who get the plot all wrong, as this journalist can vouch for. Great publicity, fantastic production values and if lucky, an average review or two can sometimes make up for a bad book. Often, these very same titles make it to lists, shortlists and sometimes, go on to win awards too. Such are the inexplicable ways of the book world. And it continues to get bigger, louder and vain with time. It’s a reality check as one has to scour through countless titles for great books and good content amid this relentless, glitzy jamboree.

A word of advice to find that perfect paperback or hardbound? Don’t just judge that book by the buzz around it.

— The writer is Features Editor, MiD DAY¬†

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