No Free Copies

Years ago, Voracious Reader asked me when I intended to send over his free copy of my novel. I sent him one pronto. I have not heard from Voracious Reader ever since.

Foraying into the difficult, if exciting, world of writing books presents you with certain delusions. For instance, when I wrote my first manuscript at twenty-three I looked up ‘Youngest Indian authors to have got published’. And this was even before I got published, by which time I was twenty-four, tired, and of the grave realization that I did not feature in any interesting listicle. But getting published was a significant event, which was broadcast to the world of friends and family as some sort of conquest. What followed at social gatherings and over telephonic conversations and exchanges of seasons’ greetings had a pattern.

When do I get my free copy?

The incredible journey of a single question from being a generator of unbridled pride and excitement to a simulator of instant acidity astonishes me.

As a debutant who had not yet been exposed to 50 Gimmicks That Will Do Nothing To Sell Your Book, I warmed up to the idea of distributing my book for free. Word of mouth matters, right? Therefore I diligently noted requests — genuine and frivolous, made by friends, acquaintances, and friends of acquaintances — for complimentary (and mind you, signed) copies.

I sourced copies by the score, from the printing house and online discount givers. I gazed at them lovingly for days at end. I signed them after duly spending time to craft personalized wishes for the recipients. After several visits to the nearest FedEx, I sat back and waited for magic to happen.

Still waiting.

I am wary of making generalizations, though. Readers can be incredibly gracious people, and it is because of such readers that writers like us exist. I have been fortunate enough to have people getting in touch with me to let me know they bought and read my books, and that they thought the stories were wonderful or that I could have done better or that they were so atrocious I needed to give their six lost hours back to them. They are the kinds who invest time and energy in reaching out to you, to converse with you about your art, and to help you be a better artist or, at least, a person with increased resilience to criticism.

Exhibit A: the kind of readers who make my day
Exhibit B: the kind I can’t help but admire for their honesty

But the ones who invoke free copies from you are likely the ones who understand little about writing or reading. Because if they did, they would in the first place appreciate that the road to getting a book out in the market is long, bumpy, and fraught with years of labour. A very natural outcome that its creator expects at the end of the road is to make a sale off it. But, hey. Being willing to forgo a little sale in view of the larger returns obtained from the grapevine is a wise thought. You gift a copy. The recipient reads it, posts about it, talks to his or her friends about it, and voila! In your naïve head, your book has flown off every bookshelf that exists and your publishers are tearing at your sleeves, begging you to write your next.

Alas, genuine grapevine contributors mostly make for just about fine fictional characters. More often than not, the poor things are only guilty of using questions as props to sustain a conversation.

So, how is your job treating you?

Fine weather, eh?

Do mosquitoes infest your house during monsoons?

Where is my free copy?

Sincere responses don’t reverse-render their questions sincere. I learnt this the hard way.

I don’t hold a grudge against people who are not particularly interested in reading my books, lesser still against people who ask me if there are free pirated e-versions of the book they can download from some torrent. (There have been those too — their frankness is almost endearing and amusing). We have evolved. Our attention needs to be sought within a hundred and forty characters, or by a quirky hashtag or a viral video — not by requests that were actually honoured.

My only parting request to Voracious Reader is to stop calling himself one. Because when one calls oneself a reader, one is assumed to be educated enough to understand the essence of gratitude, to display which, all it takes is to let someone know that the free copy so keenly asked for has been received. One can always add a postscript below: I had no idea I was being taken seriously.

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