Soniah Kamal

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'Islam is not Pakistan's religion; Marriage is'

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Interview with Literary Agent Debarati Sengupta

Debarati Sengupta is a junior literary agent with Serendipity Literary Agency. She is looking for fiction and non-fiction dealing with multicultural themes with an international and universal appeal. She also has a keen interest in young adult and twenty-something themes in both fiction and non fiction categories
(as of 2012 Debarati is no longer a lit. agent)

Soniah: How long have you been an agent?
Debarati:About one and a half years now.

Soniah: How did you get started?
Debarati:I have always, always wanted to be in the book-publishing business (and I don’t think I will ever get tired of this!) I started my career in the publishing industry as an editor in India. After moving to USA post marriage, I realized that if I wanted to be a part of the publishing industry here, I’d have to be in New York. I convinced my husband to move to New York from Florida, while I enrolled myself in a course in publishing at NYU. At the same time, I started interning at Serendipity Literary Agency, and soon, under the excellent leadership and infectious enthusiasm of Regina Brooks - our lead agent-- I started acquiring and developing projects. In India, literary agents are still a rare breed, but here, I realized that agents have, in many ways, actually taken over the role that editors used to play. At the same time, being an agent gives me a certain amount of independence in terms of the project that I choose to work on. I think being a part of a literary agency also gives me an excellent overview of the entire industry – the creative as well as the business side, because I get to deal with all the major houses and editors, and work on a wide range of books. I work on books that I enjoy the most, and at the same time am able to be involved with a book project throughout all its stages – from when it is just an idea, to when it appears in a publisher’s sales catalog, to when it sits on the shelves of a bookstore - waiting to be picked up by the next reader.

Soniah:What are the most important things an author might look for in an agent?
Debarati:First off, authors can try to educate themselves on the whole process of publishing – and not just from discussion boards, blogs and the web in general, but from more reliable sources like the Publishers Marketplace, Publishers Weekly Magazine, the bestseller lists and various publishing house websites. Once an author has a basic idea about the kind of market she is writing for as well as the competitive books and the recent trends in the market, she should find out agents who specialize in those kinds of books. It always helps to check out thoroughly:
• Whether the agent has a wide network, • The agent’s website, • The agent’s sales, • Agent attendance at various writing workshops, conferences, seminars etc. • If the agent is a member of AAR (Association of Author Representatives).
Different agents have different working styles as far as their editorial, marketing, and publicity inputs are concerned. So research what suits you best based on your needs. Finding the perfect agent is quite like finding the perfect life partner – you would be taking the plunge holding your agent’s hands and once you take the plunge there should be no looking back and no thinking twice, so make sure you have complete faith in your agent.

Soniah:What types of work do you represent and are you most interested in?
Debarati:At Serendipity, we love to work on a balanced mix of non-fiction and both literary and commercial fiction. We also have a long list of very successful books for young adults and children. Genres that interest us most are politics, psychology and self-help, pop culture, health, science, women's issues, parenting, cooking, design and crafts, alternative spirituality, business. I am always very drawn to fresh, unique voices, with edgy and interesting story structures and to writing that moves me. I am very eager to work with international writers, on multicultural themes and am always interested in new and emerging writers. And oh, I also want to do a perfectly taut thriller, or a Dan Brownesque book set in South Asia, you know, a heady mix of history and adventure.

Soniah:You must obviously love to read-- can you take us through a typical day at work?
Debarati:Fortunately, if you are an agent, no day is like a ‘typical’ day, every day is a roller coaster ride and everything is very time sensitive. And because reading and working on books is more like a passion rather than a vocation, ‘work’ tends to spill over into all my waking hours. So I like to read manuscripts or the latest bestsellers on the train to and from work. Book ideas are always on my mind, so I may be developing book concepts while watching TV or surfing the Net, or even while catching up with a friend on the phone. And believe it or not, sometimes even in my dreams! Otherwise, in the office, I read query letters, proposals and manuscripts, develop projects at various stages, negotiate contracts, brainstorm publicity ideas, and set up appointments with editors. Then there’s the breakfast, lunch and after work drinks I have with editors so that I can establish a rapport and find out their literary likes and dislikes. And of course there are times when we breathe deep and nurse our wounds after reading a nice (and sometimes not so nice) rejection letter. And sometimes in the office we just plain chitchat! About books of course 

Soniah:What would a dream client be like? A nightmare client?
Debarati:I would like to think that there really isn't anything like a ‘nightmare’ client, or a ‘dream’ client for that matter. When we take on an author, we would like him or her to get a feeling that he or she is very special for us, and would get our personal commitment and support throughout the harrowing process of getting published and even after that, as if he or she is our only client. We tend not to take on authors with similar book ideas, so in that sense each author’s work is a unique element in our portfolio. However, it always makes working with a client much easier if he or she is able to trust us completely and believe in our mission of a long-term development and lasting relationship. Yes, it’s quite like having a ‘relationship’ – each one needs to be equally committed and trusting.And we love it every time an author is enthusiastic about learning, especially when it comes to the business aspect of getting published. In fact, we take in only those authors as clients who take up writing as a career, rather than a hobby. Who would, for example, maybe invest in a personal website or work on a you tube video or a blog and network to promote himself/herself as an author. This is for the very simple reason – any agent, editor, publisher would be more confident about investing their money, time and effort on a writer who is serious about the business of writing.Authors who don’t respect the process and call us every day about the progress of the book, or authors who allow emotions to get in the way of the business can really be difficult. Also authors who don’t understand the power of the Internet can inadvertently sabotage their image by being too tell-all in public spaces, i.e. blogs, websites, and discussion boards.

Soniah:How might an author sabotage their image?
Debarati:I feel blogs and the Internet in general is a great place to network, to get your talent out there and to bond with other authors, organization, to generate an audience - to sum up, a very efficient and important tool. The only reason an author perhaps may be somewhat careful while communicating on the net is because the internet is a very public space, and as with all ther public spaces, it always helps to be cautious about what you say and how you present your opinion. Of course, all of us have seen how a careless comment can generate prejudiced public opinion against you. We also have known authors who have quoted our communication with them, through emails or over the phone, word by word, on blogs and discussion boards, and we feel quite uncomfortable with that.Here are some pointers on how to use blogs and online tools:- While blogging use more conversational tone, and end with open ended questions which can lead to fruitful discussions and encourage readrs to question and comment. - Add links to every keyword and link to each other's blogs, and in a creative way so that more people can know about your to-be-published book (but give out your book idea only after you get a deal)- Try to prove your interest/ expertise/ passion for the subject you are writing about. That will give an editor/agent/publishers reading your blog the feeling that the subject will generate wide interest- If you have a book already out, offer to give away/ sell at discount/signed-personalized copy of the book from the blog - Add as many images/ videos etc possible - readers generally have short attention span and cannot read long posts at a stretch. Keep paragraphs short- If you have accounts/ profiles in any other social networking site (myspace, facebook, linkedIn), add your information to your blog, and add your regular readers to your network

Soniah:Is being an agent everything you expected? If you will share-- so far what has been your highest high and lowest low?
Debarati:Being an agent gives me the satisfaction of being a part of the creative as well as business aspect of the publishing process. I get to choose to work on only what I believe in, which is amazing. And believing in the project completely allows me the opportunity to help an author develop a story and provide editorial suggestions. I also get to help editors push the sales of a book or plan events and even tie in the author with organizations to help promote the work. I also get to negotiate the contract on behalf of the author so that he/she gets maximum revenue. Also, I try to sell the book to overseas agents or sell rights of books from foreign countries to publishers in USA. Working on each project is a unique experience, and I learn a lot from each project. It’s a joy when you see a proposal on which you have worked hard being sold, and again, it’s somewhat heartbreaking when you cannot make others believe in a project as much as you do. Also, at times you strongly feel a book should be out there because the words in it have something magical about them, but then it’s disappointing when other marketing dynamics prevent it from happening.

Soniah:What is your process for taking on a book? -- Or is every case different?
Debarati:In case of fiction, we like to see a query letter, a synopsis, a few sample chapters and the author’s background. If the idea seems to be interesting, we ask for the entire manuscript. In case of non-fiction, we ask for a proposal which will have the publishing rationale of the book, a description of the project, the author’s background, the target audience, marketing ideas and what we call the author’s ‘platform’ – which summarizes why the author is the best person to write the book, what he/she can offer along with a great manuscript that will make the book sell. The platform is important for non-fiction especially because thousands of aspiring writers are trying to get a book published. So we have to be convinced that the author has made a strong case for why the publisher should invest in her idea, and what would give her an edge over the other authors. Once we love the book idea and feel confident, we then make a commitment. This commitment is solidified by signing of an agreement for representation. Thereafter, we are the client’s champion, come what may.

Soniah:In the U.S. there seems to be a strong market for non-fiction set in South Asia. Would you agree the same is true for fiction given the popularity of authors such as Lahiri and Hosseini? Or is the U.S. market interested only as long as fiction, and even memoirs, address the quintessential topics of arranged marriages, immigrant angst, or the 'terrorist' angle?
Debarati:Now that the world is becoming increasingly smaller and South Asian countries are more often in the news, thanks to the booming economy or the political episodes, South Asia is definitely in the front pages. Also, one cannot deny fact that there has been a steady growth in the number of authors from South Asia whose works are internationally successful. So I definitely think there is a greater interest in South Asian books written in English or those dealing with South Asian themes. But then, it is difficult to say with 100% conviction that books, especially fiction, that deal with themes that are quintessentially South Asian and that are completely alien to US readers here would really work, unless the book has been written keeping in mind an international readership.If we think about it – would a reader in South Asia or belonging to any other culture be able to connect easily to books that are quintessentially American? We are all, to some extent, prejudiced about ideas and cultural experiences that we have trouble relating to. But again, publishers are always ready to publish books which they feel would have a universal appeal, if it is a great story which readers will be able to relate to. It depends on the author how s/he presents his/her ideas, experiences and unique perspective keeping the international readership in mind. After all, readers look forward to a good story, does not matter where the story is set. And if it were not for books, how would our horizons broaden?

Soniah:It seems that, in recent years, there are more short story collections available and that they're doing well...What are your views? Is this just a trend?
Debarati:Honestly, again and again we have realized that it is very difficult to work on short stories, unless they come from an author who is established, or they are a part of an anthology, which deals with a theme that will generate immense interest. We do not work on short stories or poetry for adults – they are just too difficult to sell and don’t generate great revenue.

Soniah:What advice would you give anyone who wants to be an agent?
Debarati:First, you have to love books – not just reading but the whole process of making a book happen, of visualizing an idea or concept as printed words between covers. You have to be curious about everything, have a sense of wonder and the ability to connect with people easily. You’ll have to learn the language of various departments in the publishing house, i.e. editorial, marketing, legal, production and sales. Not only the language but also the temperament of a business that is chock full of characters. You’ll need to know how to think on your feet, and enjoy the two year lifecycle that books typically enjoy. I’m always motivated by the passion for making that one good book happen, for discovering and molding that one talent, for making a product that is completely unique. Agents often see themselves as project managers. They will have authors who are at different stages of the process, so you need to know how to multitask, how to be organized, and how to develop a strategic plan. But please don’t feel intimidated – this is actually a very exciting business, and you get to be the very first reader of a book! And of course, if you are lucky enough to have an excellent mentor like Regina, the whole process would become twice as exciting and enjoyable.

Soniah:What do you think is the best approach an author can use to break ties with an agent?
Debarati:Nothing works better than being honest. You should assess the reasons for breaking with the agent very carefully. Prepare a list of pros and cons, and be sure to go over it with your agent. Often times you’ll find that once you communicate your dissatisfaction the two of you can come to an amicable departure. But you may also find that you hadn’t really shared your expectations and once you do, the agent can make adjustments. If all else fails, as in any relationship, it’s always best not to let it drag out too long. You’ll be wasting both your time and the agent’s.

Soniah:If there was only one piece of advice you could give an author, what would it be?
Debarati:I believe every story in the world has been told, what matters is how you tell the story. All you authors, I have realized again and again, are extraordinary people, you are gifted, you make the ordinary around us magical, and you can make us readers see what we cannot see otherwise. So when you have a story to tell, a book to write, see that you do enough groundwork to make sure that yours will not get lost in the crowd. And brace yourself for a long process – but enjoy every step of it.

Soniah:What would be a dream submission?
Debarati:A great story told in a way that is completely fresh and that touches me forever.

Soniah:Any parting words?
Debarati:I’m aggressively looking for fiction dealing with multicultural themes and have an international and universal appeal. I have a special interest in young adult and twenty-something themes in both fiction and nonfiction categories. I like books that are quirky and fresh, can also really dig into a juicy thriller or conspiracy theory book. But I am always ready to take a look at a good book idea, so please don’t hesitate to reach out to me if you have a good platform and a good concept.

Soniah:What is the best way to submit to you/Serendipity?
Debarati:Through the website: Or via email at debarati@serendipitylit.comWe prefer electronic submission – it’s faster, and we save trees that way.

Happy Writing.


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