'Star Power Cannot Be A Substitute For Writing Talent'
Literary agent Kanishka Gupta on what really happens when a celebrity is roped in to write a book or endorse one
Do good actors make for good writers? How invested are they in the books they write or endorse? Kanishka Gupta, founder of the independent literary agency Writer’s Side, reveals what actually goes behind the scenes when celebrities are either roped in to write books or endorse one!
On what basis are celebrity authors generally chosen?
I am afraid they are mostly chosen on the basis of their star power and bankability rather than any merit in their story. A couple of years ago, there was this mad rush to get Vidya Balan to do a book, any book. I am sure after a string of box office disasters, no publisher would be that enthused about a book on/by her. I have no issues with Bollywood/celebrity books as long as there is a story in there. Just because you are raising kids doesn’t mean you can do a book on parenting. Just because you wake up one fine day feeling depressed and not wanting to get out of your bed doesn’t mean you can do a memoir on your ‘depression’. There are far more startling, complex and devastating stories on these subjects waiting to be written and published. That said, I would be interested in a fitness book by Akshay Kumar, John Abraham or Shilpa Shetty, a book on women’s empowerment by Kalki Koechlin, the memoirs of Rekha, Farah Khan, Lata Mangeshkar or Asha Bhosle where they openly speak about their personal lives and musical rivalries. One book that has really captured my imagination even though I didn’t represent it is Anu Agarwal’s fascinating memoir Anusual. But that’s because of her journey of reclaiming her life and finding enlightenment after a near-death accident and not the gossip from her Aashiqui days.
Star power alone cannot be a substitute for innate writing talent and richness of a life lived fully. Otherwise, all these celebrity books begin to feel like extended tabloids. Sometimes a publisher is not able to match a star to the right book. For instance, I would have been more interested in reading actress Sunny Leone’s tell-all autobiography or even a candid biography than a book of erotic short stories penned by her.
How much money is generally riding on celebrity books? And what kind of few do they command, if at all?
Publishing can never match Bollywood in terms of money! Even a major star’s autobiography will not fetch more than INR 10-20 lakh in advance against royalties. That is one more reason a lot of non-writer stars don’t feel ‘motivated’ enough to do a book since they can earn five times the amount just by showing their face on a television show or gyrating their hips at some billionaire’s only son’s destination wedding in some haunted medieval palace in Europe. But there are exceptions in Bollywood too and stars like Twinkle Khanna, Naseerudin Shah, Vikram Bhatt are seriously good and pay a lot of attention to their craft and what they are putting out in the market.
You maintain that Indian publishing often feels like the poor, underprivileged relative of Bollywood. Could you elaborate?
I meant it in the sense that publishers depend a lot on Bollywood not just for Bollywood-related content but also promoting/marketing books that have nothing much to do with Bollywood. The latter could take the form of a blurb, foreword, tweet, Instagram selfie, Facebook post! One has to understand that we as publishing professionals are just cogs in a machine and are forced to do books that sell and will get covered by the Bollywood-obsessed mainstream media. And if readers always end up opting for McDonalds over a meal at a Michelin-starred restaurant there is not much we can do about it.
To what extent does the presence of a celebrity writer at a launch drive copy sales, if at all?
It can be really counterproductive and embarassing unless the star is erudite, eloquent and has actually bothered to read the book he is launching. The spotlight is on the star and the author (especially if it’s a debut author) ends up feeling like an intruder at his own event. For the Bollywood-crazy media it just becomes one more opportunity to probe the star with questions and hero-worship him. All the Writer’s Side titles that have been launched by stars have not benefited from this in terms of sales at all.
What are the challenges of dealing with Bollywood celebrity authors? To what extent do they welcome feedback?
At least my authors from Bollywood are pretty open to feedback. The question is: where do they find the time to implement the feedback? It boils down to the huge gap in the stakes involved in the making and success of a film and a book, no matter how personal the latter is. At the end of the day, all these stars and filmmakers get their true recognition and dare I say, adrenaline rush, from their films! It’s a cat and mouse game and that’s why I always gauge the interest level of the stars I am signing on. Getting a star to put together a proposal and landing a huge advance is one thing. Having him deliver a full-length, worthy book is quite another.
Writer’s Side has taken a life of its own ever since it was launched. Has rapid digitisation had an impact on you as an independent literary agency?
A lot of people have been saying that Indian agents are dying and authors are happier dealing with publishers directly. There is definite truth in this but thankfully it just doesn’t apply to me or my agency. In 2015, I sold a record 100 books and this year the number will go up to 160, if not more. And although digitisation is the buzzword I am not sure if digital books will really sustain or generate enough revenue to keep companies running. Everyone has been writing heartfelt obituaries for the print book, but let me say print will continue to stay and thrive as long as people continue to read. Moreover, digitisation has no impact on an agent. In fact, I have negotiated many digital-only deals for my authors this year.A different publishing platform cannot make a middleman redundant.
What are some of the celebrity book projects that you have been part of?
Not many, although I am doing Vikram Bhatt’s debut romance, a book on children’s yoga by Anu Aggarwal and a few books by expert dieticians and other specialists who are known for their close association with stars like Aamir Khan. I have at least a dozen film writers on my list who are working on big biographies and other books on cinema.