BY VEENA RAO
Priya Doraswamy’s love for books, people and her background in law make her career as a literary agent the perfect fit for her passions and talents. After several years as an agent, she set up her own literary agency, Lotus Lane Literary in 2013, and works with publishers and writers from around the world including the United States, United Kingdom, Singapore and India.
In an email interview with NRI Pulse, the New Jersey based Doraswamy talks about her own journey as a literary agent, her typical work day, and her advice to aspiring authors.
What or who influenced an attorney to become a literary agent?
If one believes in destiny and that sort of thing, I would say the job found me. We had relocated from the NY area, to Singapore in 2006, because of my husband’s work. I began looking for a part-time legal job, a year or so later, but couldn’t settle on something that I really wanted or loved. In 2008, through my sons’ school, I met Jayapriya, a fellow parent, who ran a literary agency in India. She and her family had also relocated to Singapore. She was looking for a partner, to help run the agency, and approached me. I agreed to work part time without compensation, as I wanted to figure out this new business I had been introduced to. It was a lot of fun to analyze, study, and create plans for the agency. For me, the notion of working in an altogether new industry excited me, coupled with the challenge of helping Jayapriya establish groundwork and foundation in the agency. I found that my love for books, people and my background in law were a good match to being an agent, and it quickly grew from part time to being a full time career.
What was it like growing up in Bangalore? Did your love for books begin in childhood?
Bangalore in the 70’s and 80’s was quiet, languid and lush. It was quintessentially a walking town, with tropical vegetation, great weather all the time (always between 65-75 and no humidity), and refreshing monsoons. My parents encouraged my siblings and I to walk everywhere; to school, to the movies, to the libraries, to restaurants. What else was there to do as a kid growing up in a quiet town, with no TV, but to read?
Indeed, my love for books began very early on. I read a lot, especially over my long summer breaks; between the Bangalore Club’s incredibly stocked library, to the tiny one room, floor to ceiling packed with books reading/lending library near my grandparents’ home in Jayanagar. My grandparents also had an interesting library at their home, and so did my uncles and aunts. We always found books, no matter which relative we visited. In hindsight, it’s hilarious when I think of some of the books we read because they were definitely age inappropriate. Clearly the adults knew something, because as a parent, I now fully appreciate the notion of allowing your children to read most books, as it’s such a great way to learn and gain some insight into this complicated world we live in.
We would discuss books with the adults as well; how to make a scone with maida or rice flour, and how to clot cream (thank you Enid for making us crave for clotted cream and scones); plotting how to receive Twinkies in the mail from the United States after reading Archie Digests; and how not to be mortally afraid of eating apples because that deadly snake Takshaka would appear as a worm, turn into a snake and kill us (what would we have done without Amar Chitra Katha and the Mahabharata). I remember having a discussion about the amazing Draupadi with my grandfather, when I was maybe 12 or 13, and we discussed feminism, and among other things, the social consequences of being a polyandrist in the contemporary world. All great fun!
Is it harder for somebody born and raised outside the US to get into the publishing industry?
No, I don’t think it’s any different than any other job. One of the great things about the United States is the willingness with which the country accepts you. So long as you work hard and are honest and empathetic, any industry will welcome you. I started from grassroots when I returned to the US in 2010, setting up the agency I had partnered with, and then in 2013, started my own agency-Lotus Lane Literary. A large part of the grassroots approach involved researching and analyzing the US publishing market through trade forums, journals, newspapers, Google and the worldwide web. I sent out good old-fashioned ‘cold call’ emails to several editors, after studying their acquisitions and reading and learning about the books they had acquired. Most editors responded with enthusiasm, and were very happy to work with a newbie, and were generous with their time.
What does it take for an agent to strike out on her own? What has the journey been like for you?
The mantra- carpe diem, love for books, an unshakable faith, positive thinking, understanding people and their motivations, turning rejections into insight, the ability to find humor in most situations, copious amounts of patience, the ability to walk away from writing/replying to an unpleasant email that could turn disastrous, and being adamant in finding best fit publishers for my authors. Bottom line: I hate giving up on books I represent.
The journey has been very fulfilling. My authors and editors at publishing houses are the kindest, smartest, funniest and most empathetic people, I’ve had the good fortune of knowing.
What’s your typical work day like?
I work from home, and usually put in about 13 hours a day. My day starts very early with calls to the Indian Subcontinent. Later, it becomes a combination of pitching books to editors, negotiating and reviewing contracts, having substantive editing discussions on manuscripts with my authors, reviewing submissions from prospective authors, and trying to read other published books!
I also visit the Jaipur Literary Festival and the London Book fair to meet editors from India and the UK, and travel to NYC several times a month to meet editors, attend events and meet authors who are passing through.
I’ve interviewed some wonderful Indian-American authors this past year. Each one of them has gone through years of rejection (and dejection) before landing an agent. What does this look like from your end?
It’s very tough for authors, and I am in awe of them in so many ways. It takes courage and deep faith to put your work out there to the world.
Do you read every query that lands in your inbox?
Yes, I do, but I will admit, I am not the best at getting back to people if the pitch is not for me. Usually, if I love the pitch, I will get back to authors within days.
What do you look for in the slush pile?
Here’s what I don’t like in a query-gimmicky pitches. I like straight forward pitches-a clear query letter, and authors who follow my submission guidelines.
How do you decide which ones to respond to and which ones to reject?
The ones that pique my interest will have a response and the ones that don’t will be declined. As you can see, this process is subjective in some sense, but there is also some amount of objectivity that goes into the decision making process. By that I mean, studying acquisition trends etc.
What’s your query to manuscript request ratio? And what’s your full manuscript request to author representation offer ratio?
I usually take on about 3-6 new authors every year. I’d say query to manuscript request ratio is 50:1, and full manuscript to author rep is 6:1.
How important is it for an author to have an agent (and land a traditional publishing deal) in these times when there are so many options for self-publishing?
Good question. In the West, an author needs an agent to approach traditional publishers. Things are changing inIndia, as well. Most publishers prefer going through agents. Self-publishing, while on the surface seems easy enough to accomplish, in reality, is very tough for authors because they have to promote, market and distribute their self-published books. It’s expensive and sucks up an author’s writing time.
Is it harder or easier for a minority writer to land a book deal in the US?
Getting published in the US is tough regardless of your ethnicity, race etc.
Would you agree that the mainstream interest in multicultural narratives is growing?
A qualified agreement to that statement. More and more, publishing houses want to expand into this genre, and thus, are willing to read submissions on multicultural themes. However, for any discernible and decent sales, the multicultural narrative has to appeal to a very wide audience, which is tricky in the US. What I mean by this is, a reader in NYC is a very different reader than one in the Mid-West or the South. It all depends on how widely the multicultural theme can travel throughout the US. I’d be curious to see if there is any hard data as to whether this genre is growing significantly. From my own experience, it’s been a challenge to sell multicultural books in the US.
What’s the best piece of advice you’d give an aspiring author?
Don’t give up your day or night job; be kind and gentle to yourself; and don’t ever give up what you know best: Words!
Tell us about the writers you are currently representing?
I represent about 65 authors, globally. Currently, I have an active list of about 25 books that are either in edits, in submission, in contract review, and in the pipeline for publication in 2017, which will continue to grow over the year. I have about 20 authors being published this year.
Here are some of my authors whose books are available in the US:
Mahesh Rao (based in Mysore, India)- phenomenal literary author, who’s new collection, One Point Two Billion, is making several best seller lists and continues to receive rave reviews. His long fiction, The Smoke Is Rising, won the Tata Best Fiction prize and was short listed for other prizes. His books are available on Amazon.
Benjamin Shalva (based in Virginia)- a true yogi, who’s written a heartwarming new self-help book, Spiritual Cross Training: Seeking Through Silence, Stretch And Song. The book is just published in the US. Available here.
Bharti Kircher (based in Seattle, WA) – prolific, author. Her new book, Goddess Of Fire, beautiful historical fiction, set in 1700’s India, just released in the US is available here.
Glenn Meganck (based in North Carolina)- witty and sharp crime fiction author, who’s books are set in the US. A prolific author, who’s newly published and forthcoming books are available on Amazon.
Jane Haseldine (based in California): exciting debut author in the thriller genre- a voice to watch for. Her book, The Last Time She Saw Him, available here:
Annie England Noblin (based in Missouri) – fantastic debut whose new trade fiction, Sit! Stay! Speak! is making all sorts of best seller lists. Available here:
Noblin’s new fiction, Just Fine With Caroline, will be available in September 2016.
Hindol Sengupta (based in New Delhi)- youngest and only Indian every to be nominated as finalist for Manhattan Institute’s FA Hayek book prize for Recasting India: How Entrepreneurship Is Revolutionizing The World’s Largest Democracy– brilliant author and brilliant book about the new India. Available here.
His new book, Being Hindu, will be available in the US, early 2017.
Farrukh Dhondy (based in London): prolific author and playwright, his delightful new translation of Rumi, available here:
Pia Padukone (based in New York)- beautiful literary author, who’s debut, Where Earth Meets Water, received critical acclaim, and her new book The Faces Of Strangers, to be published in March, 2016 is already receiving fantastic reviews. Books available here:
Ovidia Yu (Singapore) superb cozy crime author who’s books- Aunty Lee series are set in Singapore. Available here
Cathy Ace (based in Vancouver, Canada)-sharp and witty, award winning Canadian author’s The Wise Agency, series in traditional English mystery, available here:
Devika Devaiah and Rajiv Narang (based in Bangalore): Orbit Shifting Innovation: The Dynamics Of Ideas That Create History, an enlightening business book on innovation available here:
Arpan Panicker (based in Pune)- thrilling sci-fi, debut, Wordscapist available here:
Nancy Stearns Bercaw (based in Vermont): an amazing debut memoir, Brain In A Jar: A Daughter’s Journey Through Her Father’s Memory, available here:
Nancy Colier (based in New York)- expert psychotherapist’s new book, The Power Of Off, forthcoming in November, 2016 (Sounds True), is an excellent prescriptive book about how to mindfully manage time on phone and social media;
Charu Sharma (based in California): dynamic young entrepreneur’s new book, Go Against The Flow: available here:
Meena Alexander (based in New York): prolific poet and distinguished professor of English, CUNY, NY- her book, Name Me A Word: Indian Writers On Indian Writing, to be published by Yale Univ Press in 2017;
Dennis James and Barbara Grossman (based in New York): husband and wife team who’s humorous travel narrative, Songs Of The Baka And Other Discoveries: Travel After 65, will be available in 2017. (Skyhorse)
Amita Trasi (based in Houston): superb debut author who’s book The Color Of Our Sky, will be published in Spring 2017. (William Morrow)
V. Sanjay Kumar ( Based In Bangalore)- wonderful literary author’s Third Squad, an exciting thriller set in Mumbai, will be published in Spring, 2017 (Akashic Books)
Steven Farmer (based in California)- Strange Chemistry, an illuminating popular science book, to be published in 2017. (Wiley)