Thursday 27 February 2014

Jayapriya Vasudevan / Jacaranda Literary Agency

Jacaranda is a full service literary agency, with agents in India, Singapore and the Philippines. The company has an inspiring mission statement: “We value the relationships we build with our writers and publishers, and we place value in nurturing these relationships. Our mission is as simple as our philosophy. We look for good writing from anywhere in the world to become accessible globally. Simply put, we want our writers’ word to become their published word. Jacaranda is driven by the passion to make the world better for readers by ensuring that gifted writers from all corners of the globe are discovered, nurtured and published.”

Jayapriya Vasudevan is the founder. She spent the early part of her career working in publishing in India, doing everything from editing and publicity to sales and distribution. Then, with a partner, she set up India’s first bookstore cafĂ© in Bangalore. In 1997 she decided to use her experience in publishing and book selling to set up Jacaranda - another first, India’s first literary agency.
Jay gave Asian Books Blog an interview, via e-mail.
I had been struck that Jacaranda’s mission statement mentioned making the world a better place. I asked Jay whether it was strictly a commercial agency, or whether commercial considerations came second to literary and social ones? She told me: “We are a commercial agency.  But we do like to take on books that we believe in, authors who bring us great and universal stories. It’s about the quality of the work we like to represent rather than any social considerations. Like any agency, we want all our books to sell for loads of money!”

Despite the need to pay the bills, Jay is setting up a not-for-profit wing of her company, The Jacaranda Literacy Foundation, under the direction of Archana Rao - she previously worked with Faber and Faber in London, initially selling rights, later developing Faber’s market across West Asia, the Indian Sub-Continent, North Asia, and South East Asia.

Jay wants The Jacaranda Literacy Foundation to fund NGO projects promoting and enhancing literacy amongst children. The dual aims are to enable authors to donate all or part of their royalties, without worrying about inefficiency or corruption, and also to encourage publishers to enter into long-term donation programmes. I asked Jay about the Foundation’s future plans: “As an agency, we want to develop a sort of Literature for Literacy movement. At this moment we are looking at projects in India - not urban India but rural India. We want to plug into existing foundations and support the good work they are already doing. The idea is to get the literary community to support literacy. This is quite common in the West but not so in Asia.  We want to change that."

The Foundation's very first project is in Kenya.  I wondered how that came about? “My daughter got very involved with girls and education in Kenya. In a sense, this was the beginning of the Foundation. Our Singapore authors supported this idea and donated money for a scholarship - fees, boarding, lodging and books - for one bright Kenyan girl for one year. This is so fabulous.”

It was good to learn of authors supporting Jay’s Literature for Literacy idea.  I asked whether authorial interest extended beyond Jacaranda’s own authors?  “Yes. We have a few authors whom we do not represent but who have also pledged to support our endeavour.”  Great! But how did Jay plan to encourage continued authorial involvement in the Foundation? “In future, we will make it mandatory for our own authors to support literacy with small donations from their royalties.  We will leave the amount to their discretion.”

I asked Jay where her authors come from, or where she hoped they would come from in the future? “Jacaranda began in India. So we have a strong India list. And we build on that list every year. Our Singapore list comprises around 50 books. And we’ll build on that too. Additionally, we have 9 writers in the UK, and a couple in Australia, including Thomas Weber, arguably the world’s best known Gandhiologist. We are building a new list of writing from the Philippines. We have a novel from Japan and one from China as well. We hope these numbers will grow. These days, we are essentially a Singapore-based agency with a list of writing we are committed to.  That list comes largely from Asia, but of late it has come from several parts of the world. We’d like to be the go-to agents in Asia. And in many ways, we are.  Like any international agency, we sell rights anywhere in the world.”

Talking of which, how easy, or difficult, is it to sell rights into the big English-language markets outside India? Selling anywhere is challenging. Worldwide, the publishing industry is going through some seriously challenging times. We do go to the book fairs and have a very good contact base of international publishers. If the story is a universal one, there is no reason for it not to sell. Non-fiction seems to make that crossing much faster at this moment. Looking beyond the English-speaking world, we’ve sold quite a few books into European-language markets, through our network of partner agencies.”

Turning from selling rights, to acquiring manuscripts, I asked Jay if Jacaranda accepts submissions in languages other than English? “We currently work with books in the English language. If it’s a translated work, we’d need a previously-translated synopsis and sample chapter from the author.”

Jacaranda has a fascinating-sounding Advisory Board.  I asked Jay how she appointed members, and what they did for the agency? Did they advise her on whether to take submissions by acting as readers for manuscripts coming in? “Our Advisory Board is quite lovely. They have been a part of the Jacaranda journey in many ways. We pull in their expertise as needed. Amrita Chak, Anant Rangaswami and Paul Mooney have all had a busy year with us. All of them have read manuscripts for us."  

I wondered what Jay found most challenging about her job, and what she most enjoyed? “Most challenging. That would certainly be about managing the expectations of authors. Agents walk a thin line between the author and publisher. Sometimes, this can be a very frustrating process. Still, we do have good, strong relationships with our authors and seem to manage this process well. Most enjoyable. Making a sale. It’s unbeatable. That moment when we get an offer and ring the author is sheer magic."

And final thoughts? “Being an agent is very difficult. Especially with this new and not-going-away trend of self-publishing. Nevertheless, we do find books we adore. And authors we adore. We’ll be around...”