MISERY-LIT

This is how a bestselling book is made in India today

Quartz india
Quartz india

In 2008, I met a young software professional at my home. He had learned about my literary consultancy through a Google search and wanted to get his debut novel edited. It was inspired by his affair with a woman who died tragically in an accident just a few days before they were to get engaged.

After several futile attempts to meet mainstream publishers, he found Srishti, a mass-market publisher, expressing its interest in bringing out his book. I took the writer on, and the book was edited by the well-known translator, and long-time Writer’s Side editor, Rahul Soni. That book was I Too Had a Love Story, and the author was Ravinder Singh.

Prologue

A few weeks ago, when I saw a Facebook post announcing that debut author Ajay K Pandey’s book You Are The Best Wife had broken into the Nielsen Top 5, outselling J K Rowling and Devdutt Pattnaik, among others, on Amazon, I was overcome by a strong feeling of déjà vu. The novel had originally been submitted to us under the title I love u too and u are the best husband.

In his email to us, Pandey had mentioned how the USP of the book was that it was a true story. He had also made a humble request: “I want a couple photograph of me along with my wife at any corner of the book. At the end, all my income from this book will be donated via some means. I am only writing it to give tribute to my beloved wife.”

The novel is a straightforward chronicle of the ten year-long romance between Ajay and his wife Bhavna, culminating in the latter’s death from septicaemia after she contracted dengue. Beginning with a dramatic scene in the ICU of a hospital where Bhavna is close to death, the novel proceeds in flashback mode, covering Ajay’s entrance exam preparations, his college days, during which he met Bhavna, their courtship, and marriage. Their romance is made complicated in modern, contemporary India by the fact that they belong to different castes and economic strata.

The plot

Unlike Singh, who hadn’t read a single book before writing his own, Pandey spent a lot of time researching the romance genre. “I read all the bestsellers in the genre, be it Chetan Bhagat, Ravinder Singh, Durjoy Dutta, or Sudeep Nagarkar,” he said. He makes no bones about his intention of reading these books simply to understand what really works in the market.

“I actually shortlisted the titles based on the Amazon rankings and the number of reviews they got on e-commerce sites,” he added. The habit of scribbling random memories with Bhavna in a diary soon after her death also gave him the confidence to attempt a full-length book. “I was depressed after her death and used to fill up the diary even during office hours,” Pandey recalled. He remembered one piece of advice for writers on a website that stayed with him: “If you are writing something sad then it must move the readers to tears. It must make them feel uncomfortable and shake them up.”

I think it was because of this reading and research that Pandey provided a clear editing brief to us, which included not substituting simple words with difficult ones, not editing out the humorous passages, and ensuring that some lines, which he had highlighted in yellow, remained untouched.

Surprisingly, Pandey doesn’t have an exceedingly high opinion about I Too Had A Love Story, a book very similar to his, which almost single-handedly popularised “misery-lit” in India. “I picked up the book from a bookstore because of the endorsement from Narayan Murthy. Frankly, I found it amateurish and lacking in plot. I also realised that my story had a lot more meat as it lasted a decade. Reading the book gave me confidence that perhaps I could do a better job,” Pandey said.

He submitted the book widely but, as is usually the case, got no response from any of the mainstream publishers. He remembers receiving an odd email from a Calcutta-based publisher clarifying the genre, and an offer to self-publish from a Mumbai-based publisher. At one point, he was strongly contemplating going down the self-publishing route.

The climax

Not surprisingly, it was, again, Srishti’s Jayanta Kumar Bose who expressed interest in the chapters and requested the full manuscript. In three months, he was told that his book had been approved, but he would have to share a marketing plan with the publisher. I remember receiving a frantic call from him, informing me of the development and asking me what exactly a marketing plan was.

I gave him the usual spiel about an author website, social media pages, paid reviews and so on. “Tell them since it’s your personal story you won’t compromise on the promotions,” I added. The trick worked and Srishti published the book in November 2015. Unlike Singh, who managed to rope in Shaadi.com for a big launch in Chandigarh, and also got dozens of media mentions and reviews, Pandey’s book has been selling purely on word of mouth and Facebook advertising.

“There has not been a single launch or press. I had hired a PR firm that had promised 10 media mentions in exchange for Rs 50,000. Unfortunately, I had to cancel my contract with them after I saw mentions in websites and papers that are not read by anyone,” Pandey said. The turning point, he feels, was the mailer that was sent out in March 2016 to everyone at Cognizant, of which he is an employee, at the insistence of his CEO.

“Cognizant has more than one lakh employees. Since I had made it clear that the proceeds from the book will be used for a good cause, our CEO felt he should promote the book,” Pandey said. If I remember correctly, even Singh’s I Too Had A Love Story was promoted by Infosys since he was a part of the organisation at the time. Pandey also feels that newspapers and magazines have a limited readership and ended up spending Rs 1.5 lakh on videos and sponsored ads on Facebook instead.

One of his posts read:

Why we usually call our girlfriends ‘Baby’?

You Are The Best Wife – A true love story, The book is based on love life of a real-life couple Ajay and Bhavna.

The post is accompanied by stock black and white images of a pretty, bejewelled bride bidding adieu to her family, walking with her head held down sombrely, or hugging her groom. All the images have text, which, put together, form a story in images.

In fact, the Facebook page for the book, which has more than 70,000 likes and counting, is plastered with images of hearts, teddy bears, candles, and smileys almost straight from an Archie’s greeting card. Every second post is a mawkish response to the book by a reader with Pandey tagged in it.

One of the messages:

YOU ARE THE BEST WIFE is an honest rendition of a man’s pain. The pain of finding a footing in life, pain of winning one’s love, pain of making the parents see eye to eye, pain of watching a wife tramp over a bachelor’s life and watching the essential part of you drift away to never come back.

A journey of emotions, presented to the reader in the simplest of language. From lighthearted banter between friends to heart wrenching feeling of watching your world come tumbling around you, you relive the moments with the author. You are moved as you move with the pages discovering the story of Bhavana and Ajay. The man’s love has truly immortalised his most essential part.

I as an author absolutely appreciate his gutsiness in baring his heart and not resorting to fiction to protect himself. Kudos to him.

Another:

screen-shot-2016-11-04-at-11-33-17-am

Epilogue

In an interview with The Times of India about his novel, Your Dreams are Mine Now, Singh says “All my books have been autobiographical, which is why my dream project has been a book which is not so. My latest book, Your Dreams Are Mine Now, is inspired by a real-life incident, but is completely fictional.”

Pandey, however, is taking a break from the autobiographical novel right with his second attempt, a novel titled Her Last Wish. It is about a woman dying of AIDS and how her once self-centred husband goes all out to fulfill her last, at times unreasonable, wishes, such as having a child, having her photograph on the front page of a magazine, having 2000 people attend her birthday celebrations, and also marrying her favourite film star (!)

When I jokingly asked him which husband would let his own wife marry a film star, even if it’s one of her last wishes, the gentle and unassuming author told me, “But the husband will remain her hero forever!”

You Are The Best Wife is one of the highest-selling novels in the country at the moment, with sales nudging at an estimated 50,000 copies. Pandey is now being courted by the who’s who of the publishing world. To succeed in this genre in the long run, I am told, you have to be the complete package and exude a strong persona. In fact, in one of my latest chats with the author, I told him categorically, “Stop addressing everyone as sir or madam, Ajay. You’re a big author now. Please throw your weight around a bit.”

“I think you are right, sir,” he said.

Kanishka Gupta is a literary agent and consultant. His first novel, History of Hate, was long-listed for the Man Asian Prize, 2009. He is not Ajay K Pandey’s literary agent. His firm edited the novel as a one-off service.

This piece was first published on Scroll.in. We welcome your comments at ideas.india@qz.com.

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