It was in 2012 that I completed the first draft of my novel. I was in London and had just started submitting it to literary agents when a spate of rejections made me realise there was something wrong with my manuscript. It could only be a “minor” problem, I reasoned, since my friends and family members had loved it.
Despite my initial reservations, I decided to take professional help, and, picking up the latest edition of the Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook, a directory that provides information about key industry contacts to writers, illustrators, designers and photographers, I applied to an editorial agency in Edinburgh.
A month later, my editor and literary consultant, Claire Wingfield, returned my manuscript with the words: “Whilst you have some great observational material here, there is far more true drama to be developed.” Needless to say, I was shocked. I blamed my friends and family for doing a shoddy job of editing, little realising they were not qualified to be my editors (and trust me, they never are!).
Later, when I moved to California, I got to use books like Jeff Herman’s Guide to Book Publishers, Editors and Literary Agents, as well as websites like agentquery.com, publishersmarketplace.com and aaronline.com, which offer great advice to budding writers.
What about India?
Fast forward to 2016, I am in India and as I look around to place my second novel with a publisher, I am appalled at the dearth of writing resources here. Forget about an annual directory with key contacts, there is hardly anything to guide writers about their work and that despite a thriving book publishing industry. Maybe I was lucky to start my career in the UK and the US, countries which have ample resources for their writers.
I wonder if that’s also the reason why so much of half-baked stuff comes out in India.
“Indian publishing is not as mature as publishing in the West,” agrees Vaishali Mathur, Executive Editor & Head Language Publishing and Rights at Penguin Random House India. “Therefore, it is very difficult to find organised information or services,” she says, adding that the editorial department definitely suffers because of this. “In most countries, freelance editors have had some experience of publishing before they get into the job of freelancing. However, in India, anybody who has good English is allowed to edit, which results in the half-baked manuscripts that you are talking about,” she says.
That could be true of independent editors, but what about the editorial staff employed by the publishing houses? Aren’t they supposed to act as gatekeepers and allow manuscripts only after these have been thoroughly screened (read: revised, proof read and edited)? Amish, the bestselling author of the Shiva trilogy and Scion of Ikshvaku, offers an explanation, albeit a managerial one. “The salaries paid to the editorial and marketing staff in publishing industry are ‘humiliatingly’ low compared to banking and IT. Low salaries not only lead to low motivation levels, but also drive away the best writing, editing and marketing talent towards other lucrative industries like advertising and films.”
Enter the agent, exit the agent
So, if the editorial staff is not acting as the gatekeeper, who is? In the US and the UK, this role is played by a wide network of literary agencies and their scouts who not only assess the manuscripts of writers, but also guide them about their work until it is “submission”-ready. These literary agents are well networked with commissioning editors at publishing houses and know what they are looking for.
True, they also charge a commission for all these services, but that is only after they have successfully placed the manuscripts. In India, literary agents are not only difficult to find, but even after you have found them, it is difficult to make them sign you up.
Expanding on this, Ashwin Sanghi, bestselling author of six books, reveals how there is virtually no ecosystem for new authors in India. “When I came out with my first novel, there were one or two literary agents and no independent editors. Most of the editors were employed in the few publishing houses operating in India,” he says, and regrets how the situation hasn’t changed even a decade later. “We have around ten to fifteen literary agents and a clutch of independent editors, which is inadequate for an industry that produces 82,000 titles each year. About 225 per day!”
No wonder Ananth Padmanabhan, CEO, HarperCollins Publishers India, agrees with the need for a good directory of publishing resources. “Writers, especially those who are getting into it for the first time, will benefit immensely from getting good opinion and advice rather than rushing to the first available agent or publisher and going to market in a hurry. Even the publishers would benefit from it,” he says, offering to partner anyone willing to embark on this project of creating a good yearbook.
However, not everybody seems to think that the situation is as dire as that. Among them is London based literary agent, David Godwin. “I am not sure an Indian publishing handbook would change anything, I think their standard of editing is higher than you seem to say. Certainly my experience has been a good one,” he says. But then he does represent some of the finest writing talent of India, including Arundhati Roy, Aravind Adiga, Vikram Seth and Jeet Thayil – whose work will inevitably get top editing attention. Novelist Manu Joseph also believes that India has exceptional line editors in English, but feels that there are not enough of them. “So maybe there is a crisis,” he says.
Why writers won’t invest
On their part, are writers ready to invest in editorial services? Not many are willing to pay for editing and proof-reading services, and those who do, negotiate rates with editorial agencies, perhaps not appreciating the services on offer and the contribution to helping their work to be published. Instead, some writers rely on their friends and family to edit their manuscripts – or, worse, trust their own skills. “Self-editing definitely helps to save money, but it is not a good idea as one maybe blind to one’s follies,” says an industry insider.
Wingfield seconds that: “Whilst a writer’s own editing skills should continue to improve over time, all texts benefit from the attention of a professional editor, skilled in the correct genre. Every writer has individual blind spots, such as unintentional repetition of a particular phrase or a weakness in a particular literary technique, which the editor’s fresh perspective will uncover. That way, using professional support for your writing is no different from a sportsperson who invests in coaching throughout their career.”
Another reason why writers may not be willing to part with their hard-earned money to get their manuscripts edited is that they trust the publisher (or the literary agent) to do the job, instead. In some cases, their trust may not be misplaced. Says Sanghi, “Publishing houses have now become far more proactive in encouraging direct submissions and are also doing much more initial ‘hand holding’ than before.”
From a time when English-language writing in India came primarily from the elite, the source of manuscripts is shifting to what Amish describes as the “real India”. He points out that publishing will need to realign its resources to cater to this flow. “A fully developed ecosystem requires funds which the industry does not have at the moment,” he says. “I am not judging those people who chose to read western literature, but growth lies in ‘real India’ and topics that concern them, not in Anglicised India, which is just restricted to top metros.” The bottomline, as he puts it: “The day our publishers are more comfortable in Satna than in Frankfurt, we will know things have changed.”
Vani has just completed the sequel to her rom com novel, The Recession Groom.