A book release by any other name

Updated: Oct 14, 2019, 07:29 IST | Fiona Fernandez | Mumbai

Fluff and fanfare are cool; serious is passe. Oh and yes, stardust matters. Being the moderator at a book release threw up quite a few lessons, as I found out the hard way

Fiona FernandezIt was the early 2000s. I was in the process of discovering the wondrously weird world of journalism with all its quirks and thanks to meeting even quirkier folk, all of which makes it such an engaging profession. It was one of those days when my assignment didn't involve reportage of a match but instead required me to attend the release of an autobiography by an Indian sporting champ. The chief guest was a senior icon from his discipline.

After nine months of covering outdoorsy stuff in the dusty maidans and tennis hard courts in the city, this was a first. It was held in one of the swish rooms at the Cricket Club of India. The affair itself was a classy one; serious sports buffs, journalists and sportspeople had gathered to support the release. I envied how the moderator and the two people on the dais — the author and the chief guest — shared a crackling chemistry that ensured the session flowed seamlessly, drawing in the audience every now and then. That book release taught me a thing or two about the art of meaningful dialogue in a roomful of people.

With time, as I ended up attending book releases more regularly, be it to cheer on a friend who had turned author or as part of the reporting drill, changes in the format had surfaced. Throughout these visits to bookstores, gastropubs and at times, performance venues, there was a gradual reshaping of the book release into an 'event'. Celebrities had to be part and parcel of it; PR machinery became the talking heads that drove the exercise, and soon enough, an entire ecosystem had emerged to fuel the book release.

Most recently, I was part of one such 'do' — as they call it these days. Yours truly, being a meticulous nut, ended up reading the new title from cover to cover and was all set with questions to play the part of moderator. Alas, but there was no access to the author for a rehearsal chat before the big day. Friends who'd done the drill had warned about this tribe that didn't believe in rehearsals. As the day for the release neared, it was slowly emerging that I was going to be entering uncharted terrain; this, I told myself, must have been how the unsuspecting early British soldiers felt as they approached the calm yet untested waters around Bombay's natural harbour. The author was too busy, I was told, after repeated enquiries. I, meanwhile, held on to my research to sail me through these seemingly choppy currents.

On the afternoon of the release, I received a loosely scripted 'to-do' list. "You have got to be kidding," I told the co-ordinator from the publishing house. "Sorry, but I need to use these pointers. The author would like it that way." It was too late to back out; ethics didn't permit me to do so. There were more missiles minutes before the launch kicked off — a bevy of bumbling assistants rattling off more 'to-dos' that I had to pull off, a trail of personnel from the PR firm made me imagine I was in a retail store for a prêt line's launch. By the time the has-been star had arrived [she was late] the waiting audience had stuffed their faces with gourmet food.

The event had its share of entertaining moments [sorry, I can't reveal those]; I managed to throw back a few non 'pre-approved' questions to the author and celebrity much to their unease. The most obvious miss, I noticed as I scanned the room from the dais, was that despite it being a book for kids, less than a handful were around. The organic coffee served by the F&B partner [yes, you must have one these days] was good but I left with an insipid taste in our mouth. That change is inevitable, even in the business of books, and sometimes, content might not be king.

mid-day's Features Editor Fiona Fernandez relishes the city's sights, sounds, smells and stones...wherever the ink and the inclination takes her. She tweets @bombayana
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