Aspiring writers have a lot of questions for publishers but lack the access to get them answered. That’s why Kunzum reached out to Swati Daftuar, Executive Editor of HarperCollins India, to figure out the dos and don’ts of submitting a manuscript. By Sumeet Keswani
There’s hardly any Indian bookworm who’s not familiar with names like Amish Tripathi, Ashwin Sanghi, Chetan Bhagat, Anuja Chauhan, Preeti Shenoy, Ravinder Singh, and Ravi Subramanian. But few know the person behind the selection, editing, and publishing of their books. As the Executive Editor of HarperCollins India, Swati Daftuar commissions and acquires all commercial fiction and non-fiction titles for the publisher. In many ways, Daftuar is the conductor of the literary opera that invigorates us when we pick up a book. She may have made a habit of publishing the big names, but Daftuar still gets excited when she comes across a great pitch from a first-time writer. She tells Kunzum’s Sumeet Keswani what it takes to catch her attention, what an average day at the office looks like, her all-time favourite books, and what her TBR pile looks like right now.
A Conversation with Swati Daftuar
Kunzum: What do you look for in manuscripts of first-time authors?
Swati: To begin with, I look for an idea that immediately catches my attention—something that makes me ask, ‘What next?’ It makes me move from the blurb or synopsis to the manuscript—and then I look for a great opening. When the two things come together, a great idea and a great opening, that’s when I know that I might have a winner on my hands. After that, it’s the reading experience—I’m not looking for perfect, not even near perfect, but I do want great bones, a great storyline, and original style. I don’t want the book to feel like an echo of another book.
Kunzum: What are the common and easily rectifiable errors that most first-time writers make while submitting their manuscripts?
Swati: Sending a good synopsis is a big part of the submission—knowing the core of your story, and what makes it tick. Adding all the details—the author bio, sample chapters, a logline if you’ve got one, and of course, the synopsis—is important.
Kunzum: Was there a manuscript (from the unsolicited pile) that hooked you immediately and made you feel you’d discovered something entirely new?
Swati: Oh, absolutely. There have been very promising debut authors it’s been a pleasure to publish. Nikhil Pradhan, Zarreen Khan, Maharrsh Shah, to name just a few. All with such original voices and exciting ideas and unique storytelling styles. Every time a wonderful debut book comes along, you feel that initial excitement all over again.
Kunzum: On the flip side, what are the challenges of reviewing the new work of an established name?
Swati: While I wouldn’t say it’s a challenge as such, I think with every new book of an established author, you want them to push the envelope—you want every new book from them to be your new favourite book by them.
Kunzum: Could you reflect on the current publishing/reading trends in India? How big a role does booktok/bookstagram play?
Swati: I think fiction still works a lot on word-of-mouth buzz. Recommendations and reviews by readers you trust and follow, both online and offline, play a big role when it comes to finding out about new books you might have missed otherwise. We’ve seen so many great books climb the charts this way, and of course, the bookstagram/booktok community has been contributing in a big way—they are part of that circle of readers from whom you get your book recommendations now.
Kunzum: So then, do social media follower numbers matter when an influencer decides to pitch a book to a publisher?
Swati: It always helps to have an existing base of readers and followers, but it isn’t the only thing we look for, and it’s certainly not the biggest factor. What we look for is strong, compelling content—a book that readers both within and outside the existing followers of an influencer will read and enjoy.
Kunzum: What does your average day look like?
Swati: It usually begins with taking stock of what’s scheduled over the day—meetings, replying to emails, tackling what’s pending. We work with such a long lead time—from the acquisition of a book to its publication, there’s anything from six months to a year, or more. And there are several steps to this process, all of which require attention. There are timelines to follow and deadlines to meet, so I draw up individual schedules for all my books that I try to follow as closely as possible. Almost every day is filled with different things to do for different books. In fact, my favourite work days are the rare ones where there’s very little on my table and I can just use the hours to edit. That still remains, I think, my favourite part of making a book.
Kunzum: Readers often stick to a genre or two, but you don’t enjoy that luxury. How do you manage to read, analyse, and improve works that span such a wide spectrum of genres?
Swati: I do try and make sure that I give myself time between manuscripts. I try not to go from one kind of work to another without taking time to really think about it, and to sit with it for at least as much time as I can give myself. I also try and make sure I talk with my team about what I’m reading, and why I’m enjoying something. Over the years, I’ve tried to find the best way to make sure that I give everything I’m reading enough space, time, and thought—and what I’ve learnt is that not just the manuscripts I received, but also my own understanding and appreciation of fiction and the art of storytelling stays dynamic.
Kunzum: What kind of books do you like to read in your free time?
Swati: It won’t be too much of a stretch to say I read a little of everything. I’m a fiction-reader, but I also have a special interest in historical non-fiction, true crime, popular science, and epistolary non-fiction. When it comes to fiction, I’ll give anything a shot, at least once. I also enjoy reading books and authors from different countries.
Kunzum: What are your five all-time favourite books?
Swati: An absolutely frightening question! Let me give it a shot, though I’m almost entirely sure that the moment I give you these answers, I’ll immediately remember books I should have added to this list:
- Anything by Dorothy Whipple, though They Were Sisters, Someone at a Distance, and High Wages top the list.
- Both Early Morning Riser and Standard Deviation by Katherine Heiny
- The Makioka Sisters by Jun’ichirō Tanizaki
- Fasting, Feasting by Anita Desai
- Lone Fox Dancing by Ruskin Bond
- 11/22/63 by Stephen King, though it’s tough to choose just one book by him.
Kunzum: What’s currently on your to-read list?
Swati: Right now, I’m just starting The Marriage Portrait by Maggie O’Farrell, but I usually read two to three books at a time, so I’m also digging into Hons and Rebels by Jessica Mitford and re-reading French Exit by Patrick DeWitt.
Kunzum: What do you look for in a bookstore?
Swati: More than anything, I love bookstores that offer the pleasure of discovering books you’ve never heard of before—obscure, forgotten books that you find tucked in a corner and they turn out to be exactly what you didn’t know you wanted. I also like for a bookstore to know when you’re looking for some quiet browsing time, and when you want their help and recommendations.