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.

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