“It is the confidence with which the author attends to their book is what truly matters”
Says Jaya Bhattacharji Rose, Co-founder, Ace Literary Consulting, in conversation with All About Book Publishing.
Jaya Bhattacharji Rose, Co-founder, Ace Literary Consulting shares her journey from a book reviewer to a literary agent.
AABP: Share your journey as an international publishing consultant?
Jaya: I have been engaged with the publishing sector since the early 1990s, perhaps slightly earlier, when I began publishing book reviews. I am passionate about books and the business of publishing. I have seen this sector grow in India from a cottage industry to this massive sector with multiple players. Over the years I have worked with a variety of publishing houses but the bulk of my work has been done independently. I have written columns on the business of publishing. I have a blog that has crossed 7.6 million visitors. I am active on various social media platforms. Recently, I launched a literary podcast called TOI Bookmark, with The Times of India; I am in conversation with Indian and international authors.
AABP: What were the major highlights of your journey?
Jaya: I find every moment in publishing thrilling. Perhaps the highlights were editing special issues of the children’s literature special of The Book Review in the 1990s, at a time, this was not even considered as a special genre or worth so much space. I commissioned long review articles, original stories and poems including from Ruskin Bond, translations, and much, much more.
I wrote the first book market report on India for Publishers Association (UK), it at a time when some joint ventures were in place such as Rupa with Harper Collins and PanMacmillan and Routledge had primarily sales liaison offices. Nor were there so many independent publishers and certainly not any literary awards, except for Sahitya Akademi.
Later I joined the feminist indie press,Zubaan. The zip and zing of working with a publishing startup was a heady experience. I worked on a number of projects: an UNRISD report on Gender and Conflict; an oral history mapping of women’s testimonies across South Asia; curated the Poster Women, a visual mapping of the women’s movement; inherited the women’s writer’s website from the British Council in India and developed it etc. It was also at this time when the Zubaan/Penguin collaboration was launched – a first collaboration between an MNC and an indie press.
Later I joined Routledge, Taylor & Francis, as the Managing Editor (South Asia), Journals and brokered a collaboration in local journals with the UK. It was a pleasant surprise to realise that academic, trade and independent presses were very distinct forms of publishing as it was representative of their business models.
Another highlight that I shall treasure forever was conducting a master class with Liz Calder, co-founder of Bloomsbury.
AABP: Share the genesis of Ace Literary Consulting?
Jaya: Ace Literary Counsulting has been many years in the making. I have worked with authors on their manuscripts that it seemed a natural progression to see the manuscript published. Also, to bring my experience in publishing – understanding the business of publishing and being a voracious reader, that I on behalf of Ace Literary Consulting can provide the expertise required to upcoming and seasoned authors.
AABP: What qualities do you need to be a literary agent?
Jaya: A generous amount of kindness, love, warmth, empathy, immense patience, firmness, honesty, the ability to guide an author regarding their manuscript, and a keen eye for recognising the potential of a manuscript, to read and negotiate contracts/legalese, and loyalty to authors while understanding the peculiarities of every publishing house.
AABP: Since it’s so easy to self-publish today, why should an author still hire an agent?
Jaya: Self-publishing is a fairly decent route for many, especially those willing to put in the hard work required to put their book through production and promote it extensively. There is some merit in bringing together the specialised skills of a publisher. Also, while self-published manuscripts get published in a jiffy and that is of some consolation to the author, but in many ways, it contributes to the sinking of the book. I have seen this with some authors who are in a tearing hurry to be published, and have no patience whatsoever for the manuscript to be read, revised and edited while incorporating constructive feedback. It does not work. There are rare success stories about self-published authors who finally crossed over to mainstream publishing.
AABP: What do you look for in authors/manuscripts?
Jaya: Manuscripts vary, but it is the confidence with which the author attends to their book is what truly matters. Of course, command over the language matters. For fiction, it has to be an understanding of plot, structure, characterization etc without being derivative. Some of the novels that I have represented include Sandeep Raina’s exquisite debut novel A Bit of Everything that tells the migration story of a Kashmiri Pandit from his state to Europe. It is an example of contemporary Kashmiri Literature with a difference – it is inclusive and represents the diversity in the communities. Sandeep, like the protagonist, is a Kashmiri Pandit migrant and has moved from his home in Kashmir to Delhi and then finally, Europe. Even Basharat Peer, a Kashmiri Muslim, author of The Curfewed Nights, endorsed it saying: A necessary, beautiful novel, written from a place of love. Sandeep Raina has the great gift of memory and empathy. A Bit of Everything was shortlisted for the prestigious literary award, TATA Literature Live! Debut Novel.
Another novel that I am proud representing is Karisal (1976) or Black Soil by Sahitya Akademi award winning writer, Ponneelan. It has been translated from Tamil into English for the first time by J. Priyadharshini. Ponneelan has written about the farmers, depicting realistically the struggle of the peasants of the post-independence period and the horrible Keezhvenmani massacre that happened in 1968. It was an incident in Keezhvenmani village, Tamil Nadu, India on 25 December 1968 in which a group of around 44 people, the families of striking Dalit village labourers, were murdered by a gang, allegedly led by their landlords. The incident helped to initiate large-scale changes in the local rural economy, engendering a massive redistribution of land in the region.
There are some more exquisite translations in the pipeline. Translations of novels (including a stunning one by a debut translator from the Urdu who is going to be a voice to look out for in the coming years), nonfiction, short stories (including a yummy one that is like reading David Sedaris in Tamil, with all the required masala of real life, humorous while being truthful, incredible character sketches by a migrant on the move, tongue-in-cheek observations.)
For non-fiction, it should be a nuanced, historical, but refreshing look at a topic. One of Ace Literary Consulting’s biggest hits is award-winning political scientist, journalist and academic, Dr Nalin Mehta’s The New BJP. It is a non-partisan account of the nationalist ruling party, the Bharatiya Janata Party. It is a book that has been called “seminal ,” by some of the world’s leading scholars. People across the ideological spectrum have appreciated it. The New BJP will soon be available as a Hindi translation and the audiobooks in seven languages – English, Tamil, Telugu, Hindi, Marathi, Kannada and Bengali. There is much else planned around this book. (International rights are available.)
Similarly, there are other nonfiction titles on offer, including memoirs by bureaucrats and diplomats that have witnessed significant moments of Indian and international political history; a forthcoming book on Kashmir that is like the modern version of the Gazetteers that were published in British India, with routes, maps, names of habitations etc; or another one that reviews the big data available on Twitter and its use/reflection for significant electoral gains by political leaders and parties; plus, a few more very exciting titles, including reportage, in the pipeline.
In children and young adult literature, there is a fabulous illustrated story called The Very Naughty Dragon co-authored by the then 10-year-old Sarah Rose and award-winning children’s writer, Paro Anand. It was the first time in Indian publishing history that such a collaboration took place. Ace Literary Consulting is also proud to represent the legendary children and young adult writer, Ranjit Lal. He is very well-known for his sensitively told but bold stories. In fact, the film adaptation rights to his YA novel Battle No. 19 have just been sold. A gripping and powerful story, The Battle for No. 19 highlights the moral dilemmas of young people in today’s world where violence erupts round every corner, and the line between right and wrong runs dangerously thin.
AABP: What services do you provide to your authors?
Jaya: Reading, evaluating, offering constructive feedback to authors on their manuscript; finalising book proposals; making submissions to publishers and managing conversations and expectations; exploring and advising the best way to manage rights.
AABP: What makes a bestseller?
Jaya: It is hard to trot out a formula for a bestseller. Most publishing professionals will vouch for that “gut feeling”, but it is more than that. It is the ability of an experienced literary agent to have a keen eye to spot a good manuscript or a manuscript with potential or to be able to commission a manuscript that is relevant to the times.
AABP: What’s your advice to an aspiring author?
Jaya: Read, revise, edit and have the courage to kill your darlings. Keep repeating the process till you hear the internal click. Ultimately, reckon with the fact that your most precious creation is going to be made available for public consumption. It is an idea that takes some getting used to. Make your peace with it.
AABP: Most authors believe their royalties are higher if they directly publish with Amazon and other self-publishing offerings. What’s the reality and what should authors consider when it comes to royalties?
Jaya: Aren’t royalties a direct function of the book sales? The fact is that a self-published author is in charge of all workflows and thus, is able to retain all the income generated from the book sales. Whereas, giving it to a publisher requires the firm to deduct their cost to company in making the book available to the market. This includes absorbing costs such as production (editing, paper and printing costs), distribution, performance marketing, publicity, warehouse costs, etc. Ultimately, the choice is that of the author’s. Where do the maximum benefits lie for them? More money (relatively speaking) but with much more hard labour involved vs the cost burden of making the book being available to readers is shared between the publisher and author.
AABP: Would you foray into languages and genres?
Jaya: Ace Literary Consulting would definitely make forays in Indian and international languages. We have already made a beginning with The New BJP being translated. Ace Literary Consulting is a boutique literary agency that looks at manuscripts across the genre as long as they are ace!