Smita Khanna: The Publisher’s Perspective

With an MA in Women’s Studies, Singapore-based Smita is a literary agent with Jacaranda Literary Agency. She has earlier worked with the Times of India, Rupa Publications and Dorling Kindersely among others, and is an accomplished freelance writer and editor. We talk to her about her work as a literary agent, the business of publishing and some of her favourite books and authors.

You have a background in journalism and have worked with the TOI, Rupa Publications and DK in editorial roles. Tell us about the transition from those editorial roles to being a literary agent?

The transition from working in a publishing house to becoming a lit agent means I’m now on the other side of the table. While my role is different now – from accepting manuscripts, I am now the one submitting them to editors – the work is essentially the same. I still receive manuscripts from authors and I have to go through the same process of vetting them as I would do as an editor. Even as an agent, I only accept manuscripts that speak to me, align with the sensibilities and list of my literary agency, Jacaranda, and that we as agents know will find a buyer in the current market.

My background as a journalist means I am in the habit of keeping abreast of current affairs in various fields – from politics to lifestyle and from business to science, which obviously translates into being able to discern what topics are current and will therefore sell either as book ideas or authors. It also gives me the ability to be analytical and critical of content, which translates into detailed feedback for authors. There are several other things too – having a good grasp of the language, editorial skills, a respect for timelines, etc.

Tell us more about Jacaranda? The agency seems to be working with a very diverse range of fiction and non-fiction writers. What is it that makes you happiest, working with such a range of talent?

Jacaranda is Asia’s oldest literary agency. What you see today is the product of the extreme hard work and vision of our partner Jayapriya Vasudevan who founded the agency. Together, Helen Mangham (our other partner) and Jay’s amazing ideas – they always have a few new ones bubbling away in their heads – have not only provided opportunities to me, but have also ensured that we continue to reinvent ourselves.

Yes, we work with a diverse range of authors and each of them come with their own energy, ideas, and creativity. The very act of interacting with such creative people makes me derive immense satisfaction and joy. Each new manuscript requires its own set of brainstorming ideas for pitches, research and follow-up. This is as much fun as it is challenging. Among our toughest challenges usually are finding the right editor for our manuscript, because we believe that makes all the difference. Ensuring that the editor is able to understand an author’s vision and that the two of them can work together as a collaborative team to bring out a book that both are happy with – that’s most important to us as agents.

At the same time, it is very important to us to get the best possible deal for our authors. We will rather wait for a good editor/offer than sell the manuscript to the first person who agrees to buy it. Quality, intent, and integrity of content are critical for us as agents. 

On average, how many manuscripts does Jacaranda get from writers/authors every month? What are the two or three most important things you look for, when deciding whether or not to pitch a proposal to a publisher?

We get anywhere between 30 to 50 manuscripts a month. Sometimes more. Our criteria for accepting a manuscript are: relevance of theme, content of the book, writing style and quality of writing, author credentials and a good proposal. It is very important for authors to ensure they submit a solid proposal, well-written, and with a good cover letter. I cannot stress enough the importance of a good submission.

Another important factor is the relationship between the author and the book content; how well placed is that person to write the book? Is she an expert in the field or not? If we receive a book on therapy, we would rather it came from a well-established therapist with years of experience under his/her belt and a reputation that supports that experience. Otherwise, we are most likely to reject it.

As for new authors, the same criterion applies. For fiction, we like to read the full manuscript to see how appealing the story and writing style is. As Jay loves to say, we can buy a book simply on the basis of a single sentence too, if it speaks to us. We are all quite instinctive in our choices of books that way.

A publisher will look for all the things that we as agents do. Additionally, in today’s world where marketing on social media is all the rage, publishers are also keen to know how an author can use his/her social media accounts to draw in readers and what efforts the author can personally make in the marketing of the book. So, a good book proposal will also include a solid marketing plan.

For publishers, how important are saleability and projected sales volumes while deciding whether or not to publish a book? What other factors are equally important? Are there any segments in particular, which work better than some others?

Yes, publishing is like any other business, and profits are the bottom line. So, saleability is everything. That does not mean editors, like agents, do not buy books on instinct; they do, but a lot of the business is driven by sales.

The criterion for an editor to buy a book is not very different from that of an agent; agents are merely the first vetting ground. If your book has been accepted by an agent, it is only because an agent knows it is good and will sell. A rejection by an agent means the author needs to do a rethink.

Indian readers do generally veer toward non-fiction books. Books on business, spirituality, self-help, memoirs, and genre fiction usually find a good market among readers in India. This is not always the case with other markets where literary fiction, cookbooks, travelogues etc. also sell well.

How did the 2-3 years of the Covid pandemic affect the publishing business in Singapore and elsewhere? Has it brought about any positive changes? Negatives?

Publishing suffered everywhere. However, the good news was that hundreds of thousands of people found solace in reading while they were cooped up at home. Once the world began to open up, the industry took slow, cautious steps as it limped back to normalcy and we did see its aftermath in things like Amazon shutting down Westland in India. While confidence is returning slowly, editors and publishers are still very wary of the kind of books they want to take on. Other challenges included supply chain disruptions, unavailability of paper etc., which is only now beginning to improve. I think one positive impact has been in favour of technology – eBook sales seem to be going up!

Jacaranda also handles translations. Do translated works work well in general? Is there an increasing trend towards English-language authors wanting their books translated in other languages as well?

Yes, our agency is very bullish on translations and we have had a fair bit of success in this area. In recent times, our books like Leesa Gazi’s Hellfire, translated by Shabnam Nadiya and KR Meera’s Qabar, translated by Nisha Susan have done extremely well and won a lot of critical acclaim. The importance and popularity of translations for us sort of evidences itself in Happy Stories, Mostly, by our Indonesian author Norman Erikson Pasaribu and translated by Tiffany Tsao, being longlisted for the International Booker Prize.

Translations are definitely picking up and I’m sure there are several reasons for it. Among the ones I can think of is a more discerning readership and the fact that technology and social media have opened up the world and people are curious about other cultures, people and traditions. Translations are a valuable medium of exchange of ideas, philosophies, themes and cultures and their importance and value can never be undermined. With both publishers and readers understanding this, there is naturally a growing market for translated works.

Do you yourself read a lot? What’s your favourite genre and what are some of your favourite books in general? Any favourite authors?

One cannot be in publishing without having an innate love for reading! I’ve always been a reader. I love reading all kinds of books – fantasy, historical fiction, literary fiction, books on history, memoirs etc. It’s nearly impossible to take only one or two names but if I were to talk about books I go back and read every once in a while, it would be Pride and Prejudice and The Lord of the Rings, two classics I think everyone should read.

I think among the most remarkable books I read in the past 2-3 years would be Where the Crawdads Sing, Less, The Storied Life of AJ Fikry, Small Great Things, The Jane Austen Society, Cloud Cuckoo Lands and The Mirror and the Light.

Among my favourite authors are Jane Austen and Tolkien of course, but I also admire and love to read authors like Amitav Ghosh, Hillary Mantel, Delia Owens, Jodi Picoult, Margaret Atwood, Kiran Nagarkar and Keigo Higashino.

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