Writers are no longer scratching away nihilistically in garrets. They are attending book signings and going on whistle-stop promotional tours. RAKESH MEHAR investigates the phenomenon

Anyone walking by the Landmark bookstore on the evening of May 23 would have been forgiven for expecting to catch a glimpse of one of the Khans of Bollywood.

The celebrity that over 1,500 people were spilling out of the bookstore for, however, was author Jeffrey Archer. Archer reportedly signed as many as 794 books, and Archer observed on his blog that with events like this even authors can feel like film stars.

The Archer event is only the most extreme manifestation of the growing bridge between writers and readers and the emerging public face of the author. As the publishing industry has grown in the country, there is a conscious attempt on the part of publishers, retailers and writers, to cut through the marketing noise and reach out to readers.

Himanshu Chakravarti, Chief Operating Officer, Landmark says: “We are looking beyond selling, and are aiming at creating community. The aim is to give readers and authors the opportunity to connect and build equations.” Anjum Hasan, whose novel “Lunatic In My Head” recently hit the shelves, says: “It’s great that bookstores are looking to build readers. It is quite an enlightened, long term view.”

Of course, the growing publicity of the author has become largely inevitable, thanks to the media and the Internet. Media space for the literary scene, the “lit beat” has matured and expanded, points out book and film reviewer Jai Arjun Singh. “For the first time, the lit beat has become a rigorous beat. The level of interaction and the level of engagement are higher,” he says.

This growth, fuelled by the need to fill growing amounts of news space has contributed to the higher profile that authors attract today.

The growth in the Internet, he adds, has also contributed to breaking down the traditional gulf that separates writers from their readers because it has contributed to a certain demystifying of the author. “Earlier writing was a much more niche activity, and writers were far more aloof. Today people are less intimidated by authors, and feel more able to engage with them.”

This increased accessibility has also changed the nature of the audience attending many author interactions today. There are still significant numbers of core fans and book lovers, like radiologist and member of a local book club Shala Govil. For Shala, author interactions help complete the cycle by allowing the observer to engage with the creator. “For me, the author completes the experience. The book is as real as the author. There are reasons why these ideas occur to a certain person, and I am very interested in understanding where they are coming from.”

However, book signings are just as often attended by casual readers like corporate investment analyst Avinash Timothy, who attended the Jeffrey Archer book signing simply to put a face on a name he had read for so many years. “When you get the chance to see someone you’ve heard so much about but never thought you could meet, you have no choice but to go, whether that person is a rock star or a writer of fairly standard thrillers.” And there are even the occasional aspiring writers eager to glean what they can about the writing process. Thus almost every event features at least a question or two about what advice the author has for writers-in-the-making.

Of course, the growing publicity of writers is not without its pitfalls. Thus, says Anjum, while most writers welcome the chance to publicise their work, the obligation to be a public person can sometimes be overwhelming. “I am speaking to the reader through my book, and beyond that I shouldn’t be of interest to him or her. But today there is an expectation for the author to put himself or herself out there.”

This need for authors to engage with the public also puts additional demands on them, she explains. “Engaging with readers requires completely different skills from those required for writing, and most writers now need both sets of skills. That can be quite a daunting demand.” What this sometimes results in, points out Jai Arjun, is the creation of a high profile for writers who are media savvy and possess celebrity potential irrespective of the quality of their works.

However, the issues resulting from the growing engagement between writers and readers are not, says Anjum, so much a problem with the idea itself as much as a result of its execution. “There is always the danger of superficiality, especially when interactions are treated as an event, with a focus on the appearance of a product. The crux of such interactions is that they provide the only access to the writer, but when done in the atmosphere of an event, such access doesn’t happen because a serious discussion rarely takes place. There is a need to find ways to deepen this process and treat it more creatively.”