Renuka Chatterjee – Interview with India’s Top Literary Agent
It’s been almost a decade since I was a debut novelist in India so many of my recent posts have been geared towards breaking into the international publishing industry. To assist my Indian readers, I interviewed Renuka Chatterjee, India’s top literary agent and possibly one of the most experienced people in Indian publishing, on what it takes to get represented by someone of her stature in India. Renuka is particularly dear to me since she was my very first agent in India and an absolute delight to work with. I hope her candid, thoughtful answers below are useful in your writing journey:
KB: Renuka, I can’t imagine how I would have ever sold KEEP OFF THE GRASS if I had reached out to a publisher directly. You were such an incredible partner through the whole journey for both me as an author and HarperCollins as a publisher. Are most publishers in India today evaluating debut novels only through literary agents like in the US or do they still evaluate direct submissions?
RC: It’s different here – publishers are quite open to getting manuscripts directly from authors, in fact, if it’s a first novel, they probably prefer it that way, so that they don’t have to bid against other publishers, and get away with a lower advance! Though from a first-time author’s point of view, it definitely helps to have an agent to bat for you – as otherwise, your work could just get lost in the slushpile.
KB: Of 100 manuscripts that cross your desk, how many do you represent? What are the usual reasons you reject manuscripts?
RC: Being a one-woman show, I take just about 10% of the manuscripts that come my way. one of the reasons is, of course, that I just don’t have the bandwidth to handle more, but the other main reason is that a lot of what comes your way is either really bad, or even if publishable, is what as a publisher I would see as a ‘mid-list’ title – which means I wouldn’t pay more than Rs. 40,000 or 50,000 as an advance, and as an agent – my commission on that kind of advance just wouldn’t be worth the effort involved. So for practical reasons – I would take on only those authors whose work I believe to be above average, and have a chance of attracting good bidding and a higher advance.
KB: A lot of aspiring authors visit my blog. What is the one thing you wished they thought about before they sent in a submission to an agent?
RC: That they would spend more time cleaning up the copy and getting rid of the typos. Also, that they would really read the agent’s website and see what kind of work it handles, rather than send sci-fi or fantasy or some other genre that it’s clearly stated we’re not handling.
KB: is there a particular genre that you think is underrepresented in India today and you wished you’d see more submissions in?
RC: Good literary fiction and non-fiction. Everyone is on the commercial fiction / mass market bandwagon.
KB: Almost ten years ago when you first represented me, I remember your sage wisdom that an author shouldn’t develop a reputation of being a “difficult” author. It stuck with me through all these years. Could you shed more light on that? I know most authors are prickly so what distinguishes the truly “difficult” ones?
RC: The ones who go on rewriting their work till the nth hour; those who are forever complaining about the marketing and promotion of their book – true, this is often justified, and publishers do need a push to get the book out there and noticed – but there are times when the publisher has done whatever it can, and if the book still doesn’t sell 20,000 copies – it could be the book itself, and not the lack of promotion.
KB: In your illustrious publishing career, has there ever been a book that “got away”–a book you rejected which turned out to become a phenomenon?
RC: Yes, many! One of them, I fear, will be THE SEEKER – and I am not being facetious, I truly wish I had read it with a more receptive mind but I’ve also rejected Samit Basu’s SIMONQUIN PROPHECIES, Advaita Kala’s ALMOST SINGLE, amongst others, all of which went on to become bestsellers. And though I did publish Jhumpa Lahiri’s INTERPRETER OF MALADIES at HarperCollins, I thought it would just do moderately well, rather than become the phenomenon it did.
KB: Finally, your one writing tip for someone about to embark on the tumultuous but delightful journey of writing a book?
RC: Write only if you really have a story to tell – and not for any other reason.
I hope you enjoyed Renuka’s interview. And if her words propel you to write, don’t forget to sign up for my full video course on How to get a Top 5 publishing deal here.
This is the first time I’ve offered a video course and the response has been delightful. Signing up is free!