Lessons On Panelists For A Most Excellent Book Launch : Dipika Mukherjee writes from Malaysia

The very first book launch I had to organise was for The Merlion and The Hibiscus; it was an anthology published by Penguin, and designed to market the best of Southeast Asian writing worldwide. I was the lead editor with Kirpal Singh and M.A Quayum but a total newbie. I honestly thought that all my subsequent book launches would be like this, with the legendary Raffles hotel in Singapore sponsoring hors d'oeuvres, a leading statesman and writer the Guest of Honour, and a ballroom packed with people sipping wine, eager to buy the books that the publisher had imported in large quantities.

That was in 2002. I had no idea that publisher-backed anthologies are a very different beast from single-authored books and debut novels can be a hard sell. 

In 2011, at the launch of my debut novel Thunder Demons at the India Habitat Centre in Delhi, it rained incessantly. It made the bad Delhi traffic virtually unnavigable (it rained at ALL the launches of Thunder Demons, until I would joke that I’d title the sequel Sunny Angels). When my father, a career diplomat, finally made his way into the cavernous room at the IHC, he shed all diplomacy to querulously ask, But where is the audience?

People did trickle in through the evening, but not in the numbers I had imagined. Looking at the mounds of uneaten food congealing in serving trays, I was convinced that my book was doomed, I was a failed writer, and that I should never ever launch a book again.

Divya Dubey of Gyaana Books had arranged a fabulous four-city launch, and things were much better at Chennai and Kolkata, where the event was held within the cosy confines of leading bookstores. But I was still new to the ranks of Published Authors, and found myself on panels with people I barely knew and those completely unfamiliar with my work. I had to read my work aloud -- which I still dislike -- and in those early days, each literary event meant to celebrate my work ended up being excruciating.
Then, in May 2012, the Indian Consulate in Shanghai hosted a reading for Thunder Demons. The event took place in the gorgeous historical grounds of the Shanghai Writers’ Association. And although I was still publicizing the same book by the same author, I stumbled into something that made this event glitter in a way that none had done before: there was a very special panel discussing my book.
That the panel was awesome was undeniable (it included Tan Zheng, a prolific writer & professor of English Literature at Fudan University; Peoy Leng, a Malaysian writer; Kunal Sinha, Indian writer & Regional Director for Cultural Insights, Oglivy & Mather, Asia Pacific; moderated by Indira Ravindran, visiting professor at the School of Political Science & International Relations at Tongji University). But the best part was: they were all my friends.
There is a wonderful ease to an event where literary friends read their favourite parts of your published work so that you don’t have to read anything at all. The questions often delve deeper because they know you well, but are never uncomfortable.
So when a similar event was held in Kuala Lumpur earlier this month on May 13, 2017, to launch my latest novel Shambala Junction, I had no hesitation in putting together a panel of friendly experts. This time, the panelists included Mahi Ramakrishnan, Journalist & Filmmaker; Sumitra Selvaraj, TV Executive Producer; Malachi Edwin Vethamani, Professor of Modern English Literature; moderated by Sharon Bakar, Publisher and Writing Coach.
The evening sparkled. A panel brought in a crowd I single-handedly would not be able to attract and  both the discussion (and the food!) was devoured. Books sold out completely and very quickly.
So here are a few things I have learnt from my experience of book launches over the last decade and a half:
1) Shouldering the responsibility of a book launch alone can be scary and lonely. Sharing the stage with a panel of friends who know your work helps immensely.
2) Getting panelists to focus on their favourite parts of the book works really well. Usually that leads to a discussion of sociopolitical issues or gender inequalities or the craft of writing...infinitely more interesting than having the author read out large swathes of the book. Enthusiastic panelists feed off each other’s energy and make the book look really good!
3) Academics are wonderful to have on a panel, but they should be balanced with practicing writers and practitioners in the field (in the case of Shambala Junction, this meant Human Rights activists). A diversity of experiences and backgrounds makes the panel buzz and keeps it jargon-free.

Try launching your next book with a panel of your literary buddies. Then relax...be a guest at your own party!

Dipika Mukherjee is a writer and sociolinguist. Her second novel, Shambala Junction, won the UK Virginia Prize for Fiction (Aurora Metro, 2016). Her debut novel was longlisted for the Man Asian Literary Prize and republished as Ode to Broken Things (Repeater, 2016). Her short story collection is Rules of Desire (Fixi, 2015) and edited collections include Champion Fellas (Word Works, 2016), Silverfish New Writing 6 (Silverfish, 2006) and The Merlion and Hibiscus (Penguin, 2002). She has two poetry collections: The Third Glass of Wine (Writer’s Workshop, 2015), and The Palimpsest of Exile (Rubicon Press, 2009). She is a Juror on the The Neustadt International Prize for Literature 2017 and founded the D.K Dutt Award for Literary Excellence in Malaysia in 2015. www.dipikamukherjee.com


Anonymous said…
Dipika, that is a brilliant idea! It makes it much more of an event, with all those interesting literary friends drawing in a wider crowd. And what a good idea to have them select their favourite passages from your book to read aloud and discuss. Congratulations on your success!
Umberto Tosi said…
Congratulations, Dipika! What a fabulous way to launch a book - organizing it as a celebration among friends with all attendees basking in the warmth. I wish you greatest good fortune with Shambala Junction!

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