Interview With A Literary Agent
THE BW INSIDER is a series of interviews with successful people working in the publishing industry. We hope this series will help you on your journey as a Banana Writer.
In part 1 of our series, we meet a literary agent with over 20 years of experience. Jayapriya Vasudevan is the head of Jacaranda Literary agency - one of the most successful literary agencies in Asia.
The agency was founded in 1997 and Jayapriya has guided the career of bestselling Asian authors such as Anita Nair and Felix Cheong. In this exclusive interview she shares her wisdom and gives advice to new authors who want to get published.
The BW INSIDER SERIES: Part 1
How did you become a literary agent?
The journey has been one of serendipity. I knew writers and I knew publishers (as I ran a bookstore café). Working with both seemed to be the prefect career move. There were no other agents in India. I started the first one, learnt as I went along and Jacaranda is now 15 years old. We have four agents in the company. We represent a small list of books and authors we feel passionate about.
I studied English Literature and stumbled upon my first publishing job at a bus stop. That started me on my publishing journey. I love books and I love people. There can be no other job for me. Serendipity. Absolutely.
How many submissions does the agency receive in an average month and what makes a submission stand out?
We receive around 5 or 6 submissions in a day. And several enquiry letters as well. It’s the authentic stand out stories we love. I tend to read all mails. And respond to the ones who show promise. It’s really good to get polite cover letters. And have the manuscript well laid out.
Passion. Good writing. Strong stories. That’s what we look for.
One of my favourite authors is Kiran Khalap. Kiran wrote his first novel with a strong central female character. I loved that. The book, Halfway up the Mountain, remains one of the favourites on my list.
B is for...book. What is your favourite childhood book?
It would have to be Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak
A is for… animal. If you could transform into one animal for one week, what would you be?
A baby elephant.
N is for… necessary. If you were banished to a desert island and could only bring two items, what would they be?
A book. And music.
A is for… authentic. How would you describe yourself in three words?
Mother. Agent. Reserved. Serene (that's four!)
N is for… novelist. Which writer do you most admire?
Too many to list. It might have to be Vikram Seth.
A is for… appetite. What is your favourite banana themed food?
Why do you think it is important for an author to have a literary agent?
An agent is critical especially in today’s fiercely competitive world of publishing. We act as filters. We take away the stress from the writer. The writer writes and we do the rest. We are also what we call, interfering agents. We give the author a great deal of feedback. It’s important to work as a team and make the manuscript the best it can be.
An agent also has contacts in the publishing world. And knowledge of trends and issues.
It’s very hard to have distance from your book. As professionals, we are able to look at a work dispassionately. Additionally, we know exactly whom to pitch a book to.
With the onset of self-publishing, I think it becomes doubly important to have an agent.
What are common mistakes that new writers make when they are submitting their first novel?
1. Don’t send the manuscript in the first mail. Do send a letter.
2. Do take the trouble to look at submission guidelines.
3. Do proof your work and number pages.
4. Do have the title and author’s name printed clearly.
5. Do send the manuscript with a synopsis and why you wrote the book.
What has been the highlight of your career?
Again, very difficult to say. Every time we sell a book, it’s a highlighted moment.
I have loved:
1. Selling David Grossman’s To the End of The Land in Tamil.
2. Representing a riveting Chinese gay novel.
3. Starting a list for children’s writing.
4. Representing writing from Asia. Singapore and The Philippines makes our list quite exciting.
You started the NGO Jacaranda Literacy Foundation to promote and enhance literacy amongst children. Why was this project started?
We’re still in the process of starting this. We’re doing the backend now. In many countries, education is supported by the publishing industry. In India, this isn’t quite the case. Our ambition is to get good education projects off the ground. Be it setting up libraries, setting up scholarships or training teachers.
It’s an important part of the book trade. To be involved in education.
15 years since the agency started, now seems the perfect time to start it.
My colleague Archana Rao will be running the foundation. More when we have a little clarity.
We recently attended a workshop in Asia where the speaker said that if Asian writers want to get published in the West they need to cater their stories to a Western audience. This could include “stereotyping” some of their Asian characters to suit a Westerner’s taste. Do you think this is good advice or should authors just write the stories on their heart?
Write stories from the heart. Don’t fear your own culture or language. We all learnt to read Latin American writing with no footnotes. Sometimes the sense of the book, the beauty of language is all you need as a reader.
Don’t sanitise your work. If a writer writes in a style that comes naturally, the book will read better. And sell…
I don’t believe in stereotypical characters or stories. I recently sold a book. A memoir about a young Kenyan girl who believes she can change the world. It’s the simplicity of the language and story that makes the book so compelling.
How important is the cover letter and synopsis in a submission? Should you have completed your novel before applying to a literary agent?
Very. Very. Very. To the cover letter.
For fiction, it’s critical to have finished the entire book at least in two drafts, before submitting.
For non fiction, the rules are different.
With large markets such as India, China, Japan and Indonesia. Do Asian writers really need to get published in America to have “made it?” Or should they just focus on the Asia market?
Unfortunately, for a writer to make any decent money, the book will have to sell in the US and UK markets. The good thing is that even Asian themed books are making their way across quite easily.
For a book to be successful, it has to sell in several markets and languages.
I think it’s important for a writer to be published in her home country first.
How important is the marketability of an author and what are you looking for? (Do they need to be good at public speaking? Do they have to be comfortable with social media? Do they need an interesting back-story?)
Yes to all of the above. Publishers have limited budgets. The more a writer does, the better it is. Even if a writer is media shy, there are ways to get reviews of the book out. There are some great blogs on books.
A personal story that will instantly connect the reader to the writer is lovely.
Get on Twitter. And Facebook. On blogs. Do interviews. Be out there and get out there!
What is the next story in Jayapriya’s glamorous life?
My Africa list! I’ve just moved back to India after 13 years. But I have Africa on my mind. I have begun building a small list of writing from East Africa and that’s terribly exciting.
Watch out for The Many Lives of Ruby Ayer on Amazon White Glove. A book very close to my heart.
Naturally, being home does mean a stronger India list.BW