At Platform, we routinely endeavour to feature both the upcoming talent in the literary sphere, and the masters of the written word. With every book we come across, it gives us great pleasure to also acquaint ourselves with the people who’ve worked tirelessly, behind the scenes, to create it. In the publishing world, perhaps the very first person who gets to read the books is a literary agent, and Hemali Sodhi is one of the most respected agents in India today. A Suitable Agency, founded by Hemali, began its operations last year, and led to the release of one of the most anticipated debut books of the year, The Illuminated by Anindita Ghose. With the very first book they signed, they managed to fortify their foothold in the literary landscape of the country.
So we connected with Hemali to know more about the agency and talk all things literature.
How were you led towards the world of literature?
I’ve been drawn to books for as long as I can remember — as a child my favourite friends and companions were characters from books! I did my Masters in literature and then joined publishing straight after; from childhood to now, books have been a constant presence in my life.
Could you tell us about the writers and books that have informed or influenced your understanding of literature today?
Too many to mention here — this is a question that brings with it a large fear of omission! I think the thing about literature is there isn’t one way of looking at it. At different stages of life, books can and will influence you at a deep level. Growing up, my interests and influences were the classics in English literature (again, too many to mention but in particular I was a big admirer of the Victorian era especially the women writing in that period), poets like Mirza Ghalib and Mir, reading works from masters like Ray in translation. I’m also a big fan of crime fiction, and used to devour anything I could lay my hands on in the genre — from Agatha Christie and Arthur Conan Doyle, to PD James, Elizabeth Lynley, Susan Hill and Louise Penny.
And talking of influences while growing up, how can I forget the always entertaining and also deeply profound Calvin and Hobbes! In recent times, some of the books that left an impact were When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi, Grief is the thing with Feathers by Max Porter, Hunger by Roxane Gay, Open by Andre Agassi, The Palace of Illusions by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni. The name, A Suitable Agency, is, of course, a homage to another all time favorite book, and one I keep going back to — the magnificent A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth.
What defines a good book for you?
It could be many different things, based on the genre you read, but at the end of the day it is about the power of good storytelling, how compelling the writing is, and how the book draws you in and keeps you hooked.
How was A Suitable Agency conceived and established?
In the fall of 2018, after over two decades with a leading publishing house, I took a sabbatical — but even through my break I knew I’d return to the world of books. The idea of working with writers, being their first reader, working with new ideas and voices, and being part of the journey of books appealed to me immensely. Several friends also asked if I’d consider agenting, and it seemed the natural thing to do next.
At the same time, I had also begun consulting on brand strategy and communications for some organizations, and worked with literature festivals, think tanks, a writing fellowship and foundation, and a few others. I found some wonderful people to work with and A Suitable Agency became a reality in 2020. We have two divisions: the first is agenting and literary representation, and the second is a brand and communications consulting division.
What does the secret life of an agent entail? What does your everyday as a literary agent look like?
There isn’t a typical day, and I think that’s the beauty of it! From team meeting on ideas, what’s caught our attention, reading our submissions, finding new voices to commissioning books, discussing them with authors, speaking to publishers about a submission, or about their marketing strategy for one of our books — and of course the work we do on consulting projects — each day is pretty packed at A Suitable Agency! Having said that, like any other profession, a fair amount of our time goes in addressing e-mails and calls, and with a lot of screen time. I suppose one of the greatest joys of what we do is that we will be the first readers of some of the finest writing we will see published.
Your most important observation about publishing in India versus the rest of the world.
I’d say we’re in a unique situation. While the Indian publishing space continues to be very vibrant and dynamic, its also important to bear in mind that the readership numbers, or consumer base for books in India, still continues to be small when compared to the some of the English markets in the rest of the world. This comes with its own imperatives and limitations where the Indian publishing industry is concerned.
What kind of roadblocks have you faced with the agency?
We launched in the middle of the pandemic, so knew it was an unusual time to start a new venture. Having said that, I think we’re very lucky to have found some truly wonderful authors and books to represent, in the year that we’ve been around. We’ve been selective with the number of books we take on at a given time, and I’m very happy with how publishers have shared our excitement for the books we represent. So, not really complaining!
Who are some of the new authors ahead that one must look out for?
We’ve just seen the first book A Suitable Agency signed — The Illuminated by Anindita Ghose — published to great acclaim. We’re very excited about every book we represent on our list, but just in terms of the next few months, the books that will see the light of day are the autobiography of Remo Fernande, an incredibly rich and vibrant life recounted fabulously by him; Operation Haygreeva, a fantastic, edge-of-the-seat thriller by Aloka Prabhakar, a debut writer who is a former intelligence officer (it’s already being made for the OTT platform); The Blue Book, an exquisite writer’s journal with illustrations by the immensely talented Amitava Kumar; The Colony of Shadows, an extraordinary work of speculative fiction by Bikram Sharma; KR Meera’s magnum opus, Assasin, set against the backdrop of a dangerously changing nation, and a very powerful and moving new novel by the supremely talented Vikas Khanna, to name a few.
There are several more that we will see published over the next couple of years, extraordinary voices and strong narratives which we’re very proud to represent — whether it’s Ameya Nagarajan and Pallavi Nath challenging society’s complicity in Fatphobia in India, or Radhika Iyengar’s stupendous debut Fire on the Ganges where she sheds light on a particular community in Benares. Our list of fiction is similarly inspiring. Riva Razdan’s very refreshing and unputdownable The Naani Diaries, Aayush Gupta’s darkly subversive take on Devdas, and we have some fantastic books for younger readers by accomplished writers like Kartik Shankar, Fiona Fernandes and Anukriti Upadhyay. A Suitable Agency regularly represents debut writers. Around half our list has first time writers who have compelling stories to tell.
Publishing has always been a dynamic industry, constantly evolving. Where do you think it is headed towards now?
I think the past year has brought about significant changes across all industries, and publishing isn’t immune to these. More readers have discovered other formats like e-books and audio books, and hopefully these will continue to grow. Although there will always be a great fondness for books in print. We’ve seen books also being adapted for OTT platforms or as films. So I think the trajectory or the journey of a book now has many more avatars or manifestations — whether it is format, or languages, or newer markets.
This past year has also been a time of major change for bookstores, with several having to shut down or change the way they operate. Time will tell how many will continue to survive in this new world we inhabit. I think we will continue to see shifts as we go along but there will always be a demand for good books and writing.
In a time like ours, amidst a pandemic and constant disasters plaguing our collective consciousness, what role does literature play, or can play?
A very important role I think. Books have always been companions, our educators and sometimes our conscience keepers as well. We connect emotionally with books as readers, and I know of many instances where books have been the treasured companions of people through these very difficult times. The power of stories and strong narratives sustains us when times are tough, just as they do when times are good.
Lastly, what’s next?
At A Suitable Agency what excites us most is a new book idea — whether its finding the right voice and author to write that book, or discovering it through the submissions wereceive (we accept submissions across all genres). We’re also particularly interested in representing works that reflect the diversity of voices and experiences. And alongside some really strong works of fiction, and non-fiction voices, we’re keen on representing translations from Indian languages. As we enter year two, we’re really looking forward to many more exciting books and projects from the agency!
This interview is an all exclsuive from our September Bookazine. To read more such articles follow the link here.
Text Nidhi Verma