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Bollywood can’t write books? See how Kareena, Sonu Sood are archiving history and selling

In 2021, Priyanka Chopra, Kabir Bedi, Neena Gupta published their books. They're bestsellers for better reasons than one.

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Pepperoni pizza, Taimur Ali Khan, and working on a movie at the height of the Covid pandemic is how actor Kareena Kapoor Khan’s latest book Pregnancy Bible begins. Marketed as the ‘ultimate manual for moms-to-be’, the book went on to become the number one bestseller on Amazon after its release on 9 August 2021. With a robust marketing campaign for the book, complete with interviews and the backing of Khan’s 8.4 million-strong Instagram followers, the bestseller status of the book is not entirely surprising. As Appalla Shruti, a 24-year-old public policy professional and an avid reader, notes, “I’m nowhere close to being pregnant, but I’m convinced it has some gems that I should know about because of how much I have heard and seen about the book.”

Kareena Kapoor is just the latest in a long list of actors who have chosen to wield the pen this year. And while it may still be premature to term it as a phenomenon, there has definitely been an uptick in such actor-authors. In 2021 alone, at least nine actors have authored books – the list includes Priyanka Chopra Jonas’ memoir Unfinished, Neena Gupta’s Sach Kahun Toh, Divya Dutta’s The Stars in My Sky, and Kabir Bedi’s Stories I May Tell. Last year, after garnering widespread praise for his efforts to aid migrant workers during the pandemic, Sonu Sood wrote a book on his experiences titled I Am No Messiah.

 

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While all these still belong to the autobiography and the memoir genre that has conventionally been the repository of actors and popular celebrities, many are jumping ship to other genres as well. Actor-director Jugal Hansraj ventured into children’s fiction in 2017 and released another fantasy novel for young readers in 2021. According to Hansraj, the tale came to him naturally, as he was always fascinated by the genre.

“I’ve been a fan of the fantasy fiction genre, so I’ve always wanted to write a book on those lines,” he says. He also credited the tale to the birth of his son as well as his studying and practising Nichiren Buddhism for years.

A general assumption here is that with the amount of influence such a celebrity author already exercises, their work is guaranteed to be a success. According to insiders in the publishing industry, this is true to a certain extent. The likelihood of such celebrity authors selling more copies of their books is higher than someone who does not belong to the industry. However, this remains only a likelihood, and success is not always guaranteed.

A recent article in The New York Times pointed out, “Even having one of the biggest social media followings in the world is not a guarantee,” that the book will be successful and go on to become a bestseller. It cited the case of pop singer Billie Eilish, who has over 98 million followers on Instagram, and yet her book Billie Eilish sold just 64,000 hardcover copies. A similar trend was seen with singer Justin Timberlake’s Hindsight. He has nearly 63 million followers on Instagram, and yet only 1 lakh printed copies of his book were sold.

Bushra Ahmed, Commissioning Editor at HarperCollins India, concurred with this. She noted that while having a wider social media audience helps, ultimately, the success of any book hinges on whether the author has a good story to tell.

According to Ahmed, who is currently working on a book with actor Saif Ali Khan, avenues of marketing are limited in today’s time. But when it comes to commissioning an author, it is not not a ‘surefire thing’. At the same time, she also notes that actors’ contribution to marketing can’t be discounted. “They are ultimately individuals who are very good at marketing themselves and the ecosystem around them,” she added.

Teesta Guha Sarkar, Head of Editorial at Pan Macmillan India, agreed that looking at book sales of actor-authors is not so simple, and said, “Terrific sales don’t necessarily mean big profits,” since a hefty advance and a high-publicity budget accompany the book. High sales are required to compensate for the investments poured in. “A book by a Bollywood celebrity may start off strong due to the author’s popularity. But whether or not the book’s popularity will endure ultimately depends on its quality and merits.”

In India, books by actors do manage to get more mainstream attention than others. Several of these end up on bestseller lists or become runaway successes. To compare, Kareena Kapoor’s Instagram posts on the book got anywhere between 3 to 5 lakh likes per post. Meanwhile, on its publisher Juggernaut Books’ official Instagram handle, the likes on the post are just in the hundreds. Similarly, Priyanka Chopra Jonas had marketed her book far and wide, including on Hollywood actor Drew Barrymore’s talk show.

In a 2017 column for the Hindustan Times, author and publishing commentator Kanishka Gupta wrote, “Even books by tier-two Bollywood stars sell anywhere between 10,000 to 20,000 copies—a number that even five debut works of fiction or nonfiction put together may not be able to achieve.”


Also read: Don’t just blame Bollywood. We are at fault too for the content we consume


‘Khullam Khulla’—the brutal honesty of memoirs

Actors writing books is not new. One best-seller is Karan Johar’s An Unsuitable Boy (2016), which captured a lot of attention since he ‘came out of the closet’—in a sense, with it. The book also contained details about his disagreements with Kajol and Shah Rukh Khan.

Rishi Kapoor’s memoir Khullam Khulla, published in 2017, also garnered a lot of headlines after he talked about his father Raj Kapoor’s extramarital affairs, his equation with co-actor Dimple Kapadia—whom he has repeatedly been linked to—as well as his complaint with Amitabh Bachchan because the latter never gave supporting actors their due.

Talking about memoirs, it would be remiss not to mention Naseeruddin Shah’s brutally honest And Then One Day, which is often considered to be one of the best in the genre. A review of the book in The Indian Express said, “Shah’s blistering honesty is a refreshing improvement on the state of the craft of autobiography, plastic surgery performed on personal history to remove every last blemish and prepare the sad, dead thing that remains for canonisation.” Needless to say, there was little self-censoring involved here.

At this point, in 2021, there stands a long tradition of memoir writing. Diptakirti Chaudhuri, author and film buff, traces this tradition to the early 2000s with the advent of biographies, both authorised and unauthorised. It was solidified by Hindi cinema legends Dev Anand and Dilip Kumar, who penned their autobiographies in 2007 and 2014, respectively. “Before 2000, books on and by Bollywood actors could be counted, since, at the time, magazines were more popular. It is with Dev Anand and Dilip Kumar’s books that the idea of recording experiences for actors came to the fore,” says Chaudhuri, who has authored several books on Bollywood.

While initially, it was veteran actors in their twilight years writing about their rather colourful lives retrospectively, there has been a recent shift in the authorial figure as well as the content. Actors are now choosing to tackle different subject matters that they feel strongly about, rather than just talking about their lives. Khan’s book on her second pregnancy is a case in point; several reviews claimed that it was more relatable when it tried to be an informative pregnancy manual.

Several other actors have also chosen to speak on specific topics in their books. This includes Shilpa Shetty’s The Great Indian Diet (2014) and The Diary of a Domestic Diva (2018). According to industry experts, both went on to do well in the market because Shetty is known for her healthy lifestyle and widely acknowledged as a fitness guru in addition to being an actor.

Ahmed says that this trend is something that publishing houses are also looking forward to. “Editors are now actively trying to help actors bring different, interesting facets of their lives to life and match that to what readers want to read.”

Gurveen Chadha, Senior Commissioning Editor and Foreign Rights Lead, Penguin Random House India, credits the trend to greater experimentation by younger actors. He said, “Actors today are writing books in their 20s and 30s. They are more open to experimenting with different genres than they were before. They are writing on parenthood, pregnancy, medical memoirs with humour based on lived experiences.”

According to Jugal Hansraj, fiction is not losing out to non-fiction. “I myself love reading both fiction and non-fiction. And I don’t really agree that any one is losing out to the other. People don’t really calculate what they want to read—they pick up and choose books according to how they’re feeling at that moment and if the idea or thought of the book appeals to them.”

Another example is Twinkle Khanna, whose last book, Pyjama Tales, was a massive success in 2018, and who became the highest-selling female author in the same year.  But at the same time, it is difficult to ascertain how much of that success is because the book is that good or because it was written by Khanna.

However, when readers were asked if they would have read Khanna’s novel had it not been written by her, the answers ranged from “no” to “maybe”.

“I would probably not have read the book (Mrs Funnybones) if it was not written by Twinkle (Khanna). I am a fan of her writing, but it is one of the better-written books by a celebrity author, perhaps not overall,” says Shruti.


Also read: ‘They don’t want to marry him, they want to be him’ — What Shah Rukh Khan means for women in India


Hard-to-miss chances

When these actors choose to write their novels is also an interesting study. Both Divya Dutta and Neena Gupta’s books were published this year. Gupta’s autobiography comes at a time when she is finding renewed success as an actor with her slice-of-life films as well as her prominence in the Indian OTT scene.

Gupta said that she started to write the book in the middle of the pandemic, and the story just flowed. “I had tried to write many times before, even 10 to 15 years ago as well, but I got stuck and could not. But being alone in the mountains with my husband was the trigger, and it just happened,” she tells me.

The pandemic proved to be a trigger for many. Perhaps one of the more popular books in the last two years is Sonu Sood’s I Am No Messiah, in which he spoke about his experience helping out migrant workers who were stranded in Indian cities after the nationwide lockdown was imposed in March 2020 to curb the spread of Covid-19. In 2020, Sood was lauded across the country for helping the workers return home when several of them opted to walk back instead. It was the inspiration behind I Am No Messiah.

In his book, the actor writes that he found his karma on the streets of Mumbai, and at one point also described the time as his “Kalinga moment”.

The pandemic, in a way, changed the course of the publishing industry as a whole as well. There were zero sales for almost three months since books were not labelled as essential commodities.  For this reason, several companies opted to cut down on their lists and were forced to look at other and more innovative options to figure out the sales of books. In India, it was especially difficult since ebooks and audiobooks make up only a small proportion of sales in a market that continues to be dominated by the sale of paperback and hardcover.

“Book sales in India slowed down considerably as the national lockdown in 2020 led to brick-and-mortar bookshops staying closed for a long period and e-commerce sellers being allowed to only sell ‘essential’ items. Sadly, and perhaps tellingly, books were not a part of that category at the time,” says Teesta Sarkar.


Also read: Don’t just blame Bollywood. We are at fault too for the content we consume


Celebrities diminishing space?

A major assumption with celebrity authors is that they infringe upon the space of other, perhaps more well-deserving authors. It is a point of view that many readers also share. A 25-year-old private school teacher, who wished to remain anonymous, says that she makes it a point not to buy books authored by celebrities because she believes that those resources could have served another, better author. “Ultimately, my point is that their domain is acting. It seems like they are unfairly impinging on the space of authors.”

However, editors disagree with this assessment. An editor with a leading publishing house noted that every book has its own space in the industry, and it is not unfair for actors to choose to write. “The great thing about books and literature is that everyone can and have the space to become authors.”

Penguin’s Gurveen Chadha, meanwhile, says, “There are many experiences to share and many stories to tell.”

Diptakriti Chaudhuri goes a step further. and says that the books authored by these celebrities, in fact, help the sales of other books by generating interest. “Only a small proportion in India read books. Someone who reads an autobiography of Dilip Kumar may then be interested in reading about Salim Javed, who wrote many of his roles. In this sense, I as an author stand to gain.”

He further noted that these books are important because they end up archiving Bollywood history and tradition, which is lacking in the department. “We need to have more books such as these, where there is proper documentation of Bollywood. There is a need for more archival material in the industry,” added Chaudhuri.


Also read: Instagram Reels are the new Billboards. And Badshah’s Jugnu has got people ‘hooked’


Why books

In this age of the visual and auditory media, actors choosing to write books ties back to the enduring relevance of books at a time when we are struggling with short attention spans and a lack of reading habits in general. According to HarperCollin’s Ahmed, this is because there is a certain old-world charm, nostalgia and a sense of historical permanence that is associated with books.

Neena Gupta notes that reading a book is a different experience, in the same way that watching a movie or visiting a theatre is. “There is a place for everything and everyone in this world, and in the same way, books will always be there. Sometimes it will go down or it will go up, but the bookstores are there, and they are doing well.”

Chaudhuri notes that there is a sort of permanence and heritage that is associated with writing a book. He makes his point by narrating an anecdote involving cricket legend Sachin Tendulkar. He says that when Tendulkar released his autobiography Playing It My Way in 2014, one of his social media posts noted that his mother had never looked prouder. “Here is literally the greatest cricketer of our time, and his mother was the proudest when he wrote a book.”

Views are personal.

(Edited by Humra Laeeq)

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