(Carried in Speaking Volumes, the Business Standard, May 7, 2006)
Along with every other reader in the world caught between publishing hype and authorial reality, I think it’s time we had a stock exchange for authors. Call it the Writers Index of Marketing Performance (WIMP).
WIMP would take these factors into consideration: the amount of hype generated before the publication of the New Original Volume of Entertaining Literature (the NOVEL, for short), plus the size of the advance, along with a weightage for special factors, which would cover the author’s age, pulchritude, ethnicity, awards won and general blurbability.
This would be balanced against not just book sales and media coverage generated, but also against a special reader’s index measuring any Feelings of Extreme Disappointment Upon Perusal. To put it simply: the more Fed-Up the reader, the more the writer will have Wimped out.
Many reviewers already use an early version of WIMP–the Sardonic Critical Exercise of Protective Trashing and Intuitive Caution—and some have been accessing their inner SCEPTIC for years. If you’re sceptic-trained, you would know exactly how to read the twin tales of Kaavya Viswanathan and Gautam Malkani; I firmly believe that WIMP would allow ordinary readers to come up with their own evaluations.
With access to WIMP, for instance, you could scan the database for young, first-time authors who received large advances and/ or huge doses of publishing hype in order to make sense of the career paths of both Kaavya Viswanathan and Gautam Malkani.
Kaavya’s story is simple: a young teenager, approached by a book-packaging company and shepherded by a respectable literary agent, writes a first novel with considerable assistance. Her lack of previous publishing experience, her youth, charm and brightness ensures that she could, marketed properly, be the chicklit product category leader of the year.
Unfortunately, Kaavya performs the equivalent of Google theft on a term paper, and rips off material from her reading list. What happens next is a massive market correction: the volume of condemnation and opinion about Kaavya’s plagiarism in the media is almost exactly equivalent to the volume of fawning media reports before the scandal.
Gautam Malkani’s case is far more WIMP-worthy. Malkani is a thirty-year-old financial expert whose first novel, Londonstani , sold for POUNDS 300,000, and has received very mixed reviews. I suspect the problem here is really product mis-labelling: Malkani has been marketed as the brand-new literary Asian voice, when he’s really doing the classic Boy’s Own story (Chicklit’s equivalent, sometimes rudely known as Dick Lit), to an Asian Dub soundtrack.
What would his WIMP ratings be? The positive case studies first. In 1997, we heard about a young, 21-year-old genius who had sold her first novel on the strength of just 80 pages for roughly POUNDS 250,000. Zadie Smith lived in a media spotlight for the next decade; White Teeth did brilliantly, her second novel, The Autograph Man , was faintly damned, but she silenced most of her critics with last year’s On Beauty .
In 2002, Hari Kunzru picked up POUNDS 1.25 m for The Impressionist . Like Smith, Kunzru survived the instinctive scepticism of several sections of the media, and pulled off a mesmerising second novel with Transmission a few years later. But he indicated just how high the stakes get for anointed authors when he said in an interview that The Impressionist had sold 100,000 copies, but there was still a lot to prove.
If you looked only at similar case studies, the unwary reader would conclude that Malkani might struggle with the rigours of punishing book tours, tons of badwill sent his way by less lucky writers and the odd negative review, but still emerge with a flourishing writing career.
That would be taking into account only half the data, though. Think of Bidisha, who wrote Seahorses at the precocious age of 16, in 1998. Her advance for the book was a relatively modest POUNDS 15,000, but her youth guaranteed huge waves of publicity. Seahorses did only modestly, though, and while Bidisha has stayed in the market—she has published three more novels since then—her career has been strictly average since that early burst of publicity.
Or think of Amy Jenkins, even though her publishers try very hard not to. Jenkins had the classic fairy tale story: she wrote a book proposal in 48 hours, and picked up a POUNDS 600,000 contract for her first novel, Honey Moon . The general reviewers’ consensus can be summed up by the critic who wrote of the book that it “makes Bridget
Jones read like Tacitus”; the book tanked at the cash registers, too.
On balance, Malkani has an even chance at becoming the latest in the increasingly rare line-up of Successful Authorial Products: it’s not easy, but it’s far better to be a SAP than to WIMP out.