publishing trends

What does it take for an Indian writer to be published abroad? A literary agent has some answers

An interview with literary agent Jessica Woollard of David Higham Associates.

After the Arundhati Roys and Salman Rushdies, the Amitav Ghoshs and the Vikram Seths, the Arvind Adigas and the Anuradha Roys, how can other Indian writers be published in global markets? Scroll.in talked to literary agent Jessica Woollard of David Higham Associates about South Asian writing abroad, what foreign editors are looking for, and where the UK and US book markets are headed. Excerpts from the interview:

Do you think that there has been a slump in the number of South Asian writers being published overseas? If so, why?
Publishing in the UK and US is extremely competitive and clearly has a major issue with lack of diversity especially in the UK. European publishers are more open and less focussed on buying from English language publishers than previously. Australia has always been a strong market for Asian writing.

Many worthy South Asian authors are rejected by foreign publishers since the latter feel their works are too localised and specific. Yet, in the recent past, the same publishing houses have published and championed similar works. Is there a method to this madness?
In the UK, publishing has changed hugely in the last five years. Mid-lists have been axed, editors have been fired. Major houses have merged in order to compete with Amazon. The shape of lists has changed and more is expected of each book that is published. Fewer gambles have been taken.

It appears that foreign editors face a lot of interference from their sales and marketing departments while deciding on a submission. What do their sales and marketing teams look at when considering a submission?
Past sales figures, the total consumer market, and predicted sales for the future. Whereas you employ an editor for their taste, you employ a sales and marketing person for their interaction with the market. So publishers are clearly indicating that this is a deeply important criteria for them now.

There is this belief among South Asian writers that foreign publishers give preference to a certain type of South Asian writers, such as those born and brought up overseas or those with fancy MFAs and PHDs in creative writing. How true is this?
Publishers are looking for books that speak to their market, and clearly it’s easier for them to relate to and move towards books about subjects which are familiar to them. So a South Asian writer living in America is likely to write in a way that makes it easier for an American to relate to, compared to someone living in Assam. But this is oviously a pretty limited approach. Haven’t we all grown up reading books from around the world to enrich our minds and spark our imaginations? Aren’t we adventurous and curious readers? One would hope so. It is also true that publishers like authors to be in situ to publicise a book. It can be hard to generate excitement for a debut author in the media when the author lives on the other side of the world. As for PhDs, while impressive, they aren’t any kind of guarantee that the author can write a good novel.

I am told that even European and non-English language publishers are mostly interested in bestsellers published in the UK and the US. Are these markets difficult to break into?
Yes

For every million-dollar advance, there are hundreds of authors being paid very minimal advances. Then why this mad obsession with publishing overseas?
With mid-lists cut, advances tend to be tiny or overblown. Brand names get big money and debuts, barely enough to live on. The average yearly income of an author is below the minimum wage in the UK. But there are also plenty of new writers who are sought after, whose work sells at auction for good sums.If you are writing in English, as many South Asians are, then the opportunity for the work to travel seems obvious. No translation issues apart from that of one culture to another.But what about all the Indian writers who don’t write in English? Indian publishing seems to be opening up at last to publishing in Kannada and Malayalam, Urdu and Tamil etc., I’d love to hear more about those writers. Are these the real stories that should be coming out of India now?

It’s not just Indian agents, even the Indian arms of foreign publishing houses have a hard time bringing books to the latter’s attention. Is an agent in the UK or the US still the best bet for finding a foreign publisher for your book?
I have brought this fact up with UK publishing corporations myself. There is still a deep arrogance on the part of UK publishers, who foist books on their export territories but don’t look properly at books coming the other way. In America publishers tend to be inward-looking on the whole. Though there are of course houses like New Directions doing amazing things. Yes an agent is necessary – most editors won’t read anything unless it has been sifted through the agenting process first.

What are the important considerations for pitching a book abroad?
If you are a writer then you are a visionary of sorts by trade. You know what it means to hold a story in your heart and then expose yourself on the page, to hope that readers out there will share your view of the world and love what your write. Be proud of what you have achieved in your home market. If you get picked up by an agent the chances are that your work has international reach, but don’t be disillusioned if it doesn’t happen. The industry is a massive gamble and not the only indicator of merit.

What kind of South Asian literature are foreign editors interested in pursuing?
There tend to be two ways that the UK is comfortable perceiving India, embodied in the work of Arundhati Roy on the one hand, which is perhaps the more romantic approach, and of Aravind Adiga on the other, urban, megacity grit. But the key to good international writing to my mind is the voice. If the voice is really good, it is universal, which means that someone in Germany or Canada or Brazil can recognise what you are saying and respond to it. It probably requires some kind of international understanding to pull that off, but not always.

Does travelling to bookfairs like Frankfurt and London Book Fair help in making deals?
Yes, massively. Editors like to buy from people they know. When publishing professionals get together they make relationships and learn about each other’s taste. It doesn’t help for a debut writer to go there though, if that’s what you mean. It’s not a good place for writers unless they are a big brand promoting their new book.

In your opinion, which Indian book has played the most pivotal role in popularising South Asian writing in the West, and why?
No one book. VS Naipaul, Salman Rushdie, Vikram Seth, all those men, and then Arundhati Roy, everyone fell in love with that book and with her. I like Tagore with his Bloomsbury set spiritual glamour and Jeet Thayil’s gritty Mumbai backstreets.

We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
Sponsored Content BY 

Relying on the power of habits to solve India’s mammoth sanitation problem

Adopting three simple habits can help maximise the benefits of existing sanitation infrastructure.

India’s sanitation problem is well documented – the country was recently declared as having the highest number of people living without basic sanitation facilities. Sanitation encompasses all conditions relating to public health - especially sewage disposal and access to clean drinking water. Due to associated losses in productivity caused by sickness, increased healthcare costs and increased mortality, India recorded a loss of 5.2% of its GDP to poor sanitation in 2015. As tremendous as the economic losses are, the on-ground, human consequences of poor sanitation are grim - about one in 10 deaths, according to the World Bank.

Poor sanitation contributes to about 10% of the world’s disease burden and is linked to even those diseases that may not present any correlation at first. For example, while lack of nutrition is a direct cause of anaemia, poor sanitation can contribute to the problem by causing intestinal diseases which prevent people from absorbing nutrition from their food. In fact, a study found a correlation between improved sanitation and reduced prevalence of anaemia in 14 Indian states. Diarrhoeal diseases, the most well-known consequence of poor sanitation, are the third largest cause of child mortality in India. They are also linked to undernutrition and stunting in children - 38% of Indian children exhibit stunted growth. Improved sanitation can also help reduce prevalence of neglected tropical diseases (NTDs). Though not a cause of high mortality rate, NTDs impair physical and cognitive development, contribute to mother and child illness and death and affect overall productivity. NTDs caused by parasitic worms - such as hookworms, whipworms etc. - infect millions every year and spread through open defecation. Improving toilet access and access to clean drinking water can significantly boost disease control programmes for diarrhoea, NTDs and other correlated conditions.

Unfortunately, with about 732 million people who have no access to toilets, India currently accounts for more than half of the world population that defecates in the open. India also accounts for the largest rural population living without access to clean water. Only 16% of India’s rural population is currently served by piped water.

However, there is cause for optimism. In the three years of Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, the country’s sanitation coverage has risen from 39% to 65% and eight states and Union Territories have been declared open defecation free. But lasting change cannot be ensured by the proliferation of sanitation infrastructure alone. Ensuring the usage of toilets is as important as building them, more so due to the cultural preference for open defecation in rural India.

According to the World Bank, hygiene promotion is essential to realise the potential of infrastructure investments in sanitation. Behavioural intervention is most successful when it targets few behaviours with the most potential for impact. An area of public health where behavioural training has made an impact is WASH - water, sanitation and hygiene - a key issue of UN Sustainable Development Goal 6. Compliance to WASH practices has the potential to reduce illness and death, poverty and improve overall socio-economic development. The UN has even marked observance days for each - World Water Day for water (22 March), World Toilet Day for sanitation (19 November) and Global Handwashing Day for hygiene (15 October).

At its simplest, the benefits of WASH can be availed through three simple habits that safeguard against disease - washing hands before eating, drinking clean water and using a clean toilet. Handwashing and use of toilets are some of the most important behavioural interventions that keep diarrhoeal diseases from spreading, while clean drinking water is essential to prevent water-borne diseases and adverse health effects of toxic contaminants. In India, Hindustan Unilever Limited launched the Swachh Aadat Swachh Bharat initiative, a WASH behaviour change programme, to complement the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan. Through its on-ground behaviour change model, SASB seeks to promote the three basic WASH habits to create long-lasting personal hygiene compliance among the populations it serves.

This touching film made as a part of SASB’s awareness campaign shows how lack of knowledge of basic hygiene practices means children miss out on developmental milestones due to preventable diseases.

Play

SASB created the Swachhata curriculum, a textbook to encourage adoption of personal hygiene among school going children. It makes use of conceptual learning to teach primary school students about cleanliness, germs and clean habits in an engaging manner. Swachh Basti is an extensive urban outreach programme for sensitising urban slum residents about WASH habits through demos, skits and etc. in partnership with key local stakeholders such as doctors, anganwadi workers and support groups. In Ghatkopar, Mumbai, HUL built the first-of-its-kind Suvidha Centre - an urban water, hygiene and sanitation community centre. It provides toilets, handwashing and shower facilities, safe drinking water and state-of-the-art laundry operations at an affordable cost to about 1,500 residents of the area.

HUL’s factory workers also act as Swachhata Doots, or messengers of change who teach the three habits of WASH in their own villages. This mobile-led rural behaviour change communication model also provides a volunteering opportunity to those who are busy but wish to make a difference. A toolkit especially designed for this purpose helps volunteers approach, explain and teach people in their immediate vicinity - their drivers, cooks, domestic helps etc. - about the three simple habits for better hygiene. This helps cast the net of awareness wider as regular interaction is conducive to habit formation. To learn more about their volunteering programme, click here. To learn more about the Swachh Aadat Swachh Bharat initiative, click here.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Hindustan Unilever and not by the Scroll editorial team.