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Home > Business > Special


The blog as bazaar?

Jai Arjun Singh | November 12, 2005

The request came in the form of an email from Anup Kurian, the Malayali filmmaker whose movie Manasarovar had won the best film award at the International Film Festival of Mumbai earlier this year. Kurian has struggled to find distribution for this low-budget, non-mainstream film; now it was finally being released at a couple of multiplexes in Delhi and Bangalore, tucked away in unattractive time slots between those of heavily advertised commercial films.

"Could you," Kurian wrote, "mention the timings on your blog so readers know about the screening? And perhaps write about it if you get the chance to see it."

Before you get the wrong impression, Kurian wasn't trying to solicit a favourable review: he merely wanted to disseminate information and figured that a blog with a readership that enjoyed non-mainstream cinema might be able to spread the word to the right people.

"For people like us who work on low budgets, traditional marketing campaigns are almost as costly as making the film," he says. "So I've been looking at alternate avenues for publicity -- including web logs."

The enterprising director is just one of a number of people who are waking up to the potential of blogs -- online journals maintained by individuals or groups and dealing with a range of topics -- as tools for marketing or for promoting a cause.

Popular bloggers tend to have dedicated bands of readers, most of whom have similar interests as well as faith in the blogger's judgement and integrity. And if a blogger genuinely wants to write about something, he will go ahead and do it -- there are none of the complications (editorial policies, space constraints) inherent in getting a write-up in a mainstream newspaper or magazine. This makes the medium very attractive to those who are willing to explore alternate channels.

One industry that has been blog-savvy for some time is publishing, partly because some of the most intense specialised blogging is of the literary variety. A couple of months ago, Simon & Schuster got in touch with a few bloggers offering to send them books and asking if they would be willing to write about them. Among those who responded was Patrix, a US-based Indian blogger (http://patrix.typepad.com).

"Their marketing manager contacted me through email," he says, "and offered to send me Vikas Swarup's Q&A and Narendra Jadhav's Untouchables." No attempt was made to coerce him to produce a positive review: "In fact, when I reviewed the Swarup book I didn't give it high marks. But the publishers were operating on the 'bad publicity is better than no publicity' principle."

Patrix believes this is a smart marketing move. "People are likely to buy a book recommended by a fellow blogger whose opinion they value," he says. "I have purchased at least three to four books based on bloggers' recommendations myself."

Such marketing measures are common on the global scene, where literary blogging is at an advanced stage. Internationally, many individuals have made a name for themselves as literary bloggers -- their opinions are respected, they are invited to participate in offline events such as award juries and are perceived as having an effect on book sales. In India, however, the picture is different.

As Ravi Singh, publisher, Penguin Books India, points out, the lit-blogging circuit here is still a relatively closed one -- largely comprising reviewers, journalists and authors who already have a presence in mainstream media.

"This means that the majority of literary blogs in India are preaching to the converted," he says "Even though most of the bloggers are engaging and intelligent writers, there's too much sameness in what they're saying." Consequently, Singh believes there is limited value for publicity at the moment, "though the potential can only increase".

Picador's Shruti Debi believes an e-presence always helps. "Increasingly, books are being bought online by customers who spend a lot of their time getting information on the Internet," she points out. "In that context, websites that discuss a book, and also provide hyperlinks to further information, can be more effective than printed reviews."

One stumbling block is that it's difficult to collect tangible data about the extent to which bloggers affect offline developments. It's true that there are reliable site counters to track the number of unique hits each blog gets.

It's also true that the blogging community can be very effective when the stakes are high -- many of the leading Indian bloggers (especially journalist-bloggers, an ever-increasing tribe) are well-connected enough in the offline world to make a big noise, and even a difference, when the cause is one they feel strongly about. But determining the precise effect of a blogger's post is another matter.

Mumbai-based Uma Mahadevan-Dasgupta, whose site Indian Writing (http://indianwriting.blogspot.com) is among the highest ranked individual blogs in India, often gets requests to blog about certain issues.

"These range from corporal punishment in schools to the role of sniffer dogs in rescues to information on a new drug for breast cancer," she says. When the cause is something close to her heart -- like animal rights -- she goes out of her way to highlight it. She often receives feedback that one of her posts has helped provide awareness -- that there was, for instance, a significant increase in the number of contributions to a donation drive after she wrote about it. However, pinning down exact figures is virtually impossible.

"At this stage, you can only make extrapolations from the number of visitors to your site, and from the readers' comments" says Peter Griffin (http://zigzackly.blogspot.com), who has helped set up high-profile Collablogs like SEA-EAT and Cloudburst Mumbai.

Likewise, Kurian doesn't know for certain what difference blog publicity makes to his film's ticket sales -- but "given the traffic on some of the sites I look at, if even 5 per cent of the readers respond it would translate into a second week for my film -- and that's a big deal for a non-mainstream movie". Besides, he says, months after the initial release of a film, blogger recommendations have an effect on DVD sales too.

One of the pointers to the strides blogging has taken in the West is that popular bloggers in the US and UK have already started making a living off their sites.

Amit Varma, whose immensely popular topical blog India Uncut (http://indiauncut.blogspot.com) often becomes a rallying point for the discussion of key issues in the Indian blogosphere, believes it will be a couple of years at least before bloggers here can think along those lines.

"What we need is not just for the Internet to become ubiquitous but also for the development of a convenient micro-payment method," he says, pointing out that people are still largely paranoid about making credit-card payments online.

"We have some way to go before reaching the level of leading international bloggers, some of whom make $5,000-10,000 a month through advertisements and donations."

Griffin believes the real potential will become clear with the availability of computer interfaces in Indian languages other than English. "Also, specialist blogs on a narrow subject -- say car reviews or music players -- have a better chance of making money than generalist blogs," he says. "Even those won't make money directly through the blogs but through a book deal or something like that."

Ah yes, bloggers getting book deals. That's a subject, which has generated considerable interest in recent times. Again, on the international front this has been a trend for some time, with bloggers like Riverbend and Belle du Jour setting the example -- to the extent that there's even something called the Blooker Prize now, to be given out annually for books that have come from blogs.

In India, it's no secret (at least not in the literary community) that publishers blog-trawl in search of promising new talent, and even send out feelers to bloggers asking if they have ideas for short fiction or a novel.

But unlike in the West, the book deal stage (complete with advances) is some way off. "Ideating with bloggers is one thing," says Picador's Debi, "but ultimately quality, as always, is the determining factor. We are open to entering arrangements, but not in the form of a sealed deal; the final decision will be made once the manuscript is submitted."

In a sense, blog-surfing for promising authors is a logical extension of traditional methods: in the pre-Internet days, publishers would scan feature stories in magazines and newspapers. But the new medium has an added dimension: the theory that the existing readership of a popular blogger should translate into a readymade market for their books - especially if the book's content is closely related to that of the blog.

Here, things get speculative again. India Uncut's Varma is cynical about conversion rates. "I don't see more than 5 per cent of blog readers rushing out to buy a book written by the blogger," he says. But then, even this could be enough. As Penguin's Singh points out, the definition of a bestseller in India is still a ludicrously low 5,000 copies, and most publishers are content if a fiction title sells half that number. In that scenario, a 5 per cent conversion rate can be more than useful in the case of a blog like India Uncut, which has an estimated 5,000 to 10,000 regular readers.

On the other hand, most of the popular Indian blogs don't have even half that readership at this stage. Which means the picture is, of necessity, a hazy one. So, to end with an insider's perspective:

I spend an average of two hours each day in the blogosphere (this includes posting, replying to comments, reading other blogs, doing research for my column and generally keeping myself abreast of new developments, as any conscientious denizen of the blogosphere would). There's a whole world out there, a fascinating, provocative one. But when you're an active part of the circuit, it's easy to misjudge the scope of its influence. Maintaining perspective is important.

Fact: many of my friends and colleagues (most of them smart, Net-savvy professionals) still don't know what a blog is - or if they do, haven't been interested enough by the concept to visit one. Fact: in terms of Internet access, we are all in a minority anyway; Net penetration is still low in India, broadband connectivity much lower. Fact: the Indian blogosphere is still a relatively small, self-contained (some would say self-important) place.

For every blogger with an original, engaging voice and a site that is regularly updated, there are hundreds who use the medium in a sporadic, casual way. Cutting past the clutter is vital to a proper appreciation of this medium.

What all this means is, it may be too early to say for sure what kind of effect Indian bloggers can have on "real world" developments.

Fact: we won't stop trying.

  • Tipping points for the Indian blogosphere
  • The SEA-EAT (South-East Asia Earthquake and Tsunami) blog (http://tsunamihelp.blogspot.com), started in December 2004 by some Mumbai bloggers as a forum for information and updates, developed into a phenomenon, with hundreds of links and up-to-the-minute contributions from around the world
  • Other collaborative blogs like Cloudburst Mumbai (http://cloudburstmumbai.blogspot.com) and QuakeHelp (http://quakehelp.blogspot.com) have drawn a similar response
  • The recent IIPM controversy, where prominent bloggers came together to protest strong-arm tactics used by the management institute against two bloggers who had questioned the validity of the institute's claims

Writer's blog

Authors are learning the value of an online presence. Chetan Bhagat, who wrote the bestselling Five Point Someone, lives and works in Hong Kong, which means he is physically cut off from most of his readers.

Nor is it possible to reply individually to the hundreds of emails he receives each day. But his blog (http://fpstwins.rediffblogs.com), which gets between 500 and 600 unique visitors a day, allows him to interact with his readers in a way that is both personal and practical. This does bring results: Bhagat says his publishers were startled by the level of advance demand for his new book before they had even started marketing it. "I told them my online readers had been following developments for months," he laughs.

Samit Basu, author of the science-fiction/fantasy novel The Simoqin Prophecies and its soon-to-be-released sequel The Manticore's Secret, is another interesting case in point.

Naturally, his online and offline readerships intersect: readers of his blog (http://samitbasu.blogspot.com) include some who were blog-trawlers first, and only later discovered he was a published writer.

Typically, this opens up a potential new market; readers' comments on Basu's site include enthusiastic questions about the availability of the first book and the launch date of the next.

However, Basu isn't sure about what this translates into in terms of sales. "Much of the commenting could turn out to be empty talk," he says.

At the same time, he points out that you can't underestimate the kinship that comes with being part of the same community.

"Speaking for myself, I would buy a book written by a blogger I regularly interact with, even if I'm not a big fan of their writing," he says, "With the blogosphere being an intense, often misunderstood little community, interest levels are high when someone you know online has a real book out."

Stat-count

  • As of October 2005, Technorati (http://www.technorati.com) is tracking 19.6 million weblogs internationally
  • The total number of weblogs tracked doubles every five months or so, and the blogosphere is now over 30 times as big as it was three years ago
  • About 70,000 new weblogs are created every day -- that's about one every second
  • Between 700,000 and 1.3 million posts are made each day -- or 9.2 posts per second

Jai Arjun Singh aka Jabberwock blogs at http://jaiarjun.blogspot.com



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