Author Ashok Banker, who this week made his international debut with his 70th novel, on how he negotiated the 'ironclad' American publishing industry to secure an epic deal
If you've been a fan of writer Ashok Banker, it's impossible not to share his excitement, as he prepares for his international debut. Banker, 55, most known for his mythological fiction, spent an incredible part of his writing career in Mumbai, before moving to Los Angeles in 2015. In LA, he has been heavily invested in the fantasy series, The Burnt Empire, whose first title Upon A Burning Throne (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) released in the US this week. "It is my 70th book, but it's the first one that I felt was deserving of a world readership," he admits, in an email interview.
The book has already received reviews in the US publishing circles: Kirkus, BookList, Publishers Weekly and Library Journal. An elated Banker also took to Facebook to mention how he had completed the "sacred foursome of American critical reviews". This roaring confidence isn't misplaced. For Banker, who didn't have a godfather to break into the US publishing industry, it's an opportunity of a lifetime. "I've been a lifelong fan of fantasy, science fiction, horror in all forms: books, comics, movies, shows," he says. "The big market for genre writing is international, and the US leads it. So, it was only natural that I would want my work read by the widest audience possible. At the same time, I knew enough as a reader and consumer of US genre content to judge that my mythological retellings and most of my other Indian books wouldn't work for Western readers and publishers."
The Burnt Empire Series, he says, opened that door for him. The series is a battle-heavy epic fantasy inspired by, but not a retelling of, the Mahabharata, with influences from "Mughal history, Middle-eastern culture, and other diverse sources". "The first book may seem to have many parallels to my Mahabharata series, but as you'll see by the end of the book, and especially in the second book, that's where the similarity ends. It's not a one-for-one comparison. The protagonist of the Burnt Empire Series is Krushni, a character inspired by both Krishna and Draupadi, merged into a single person. She makes a brief appearance early in Upon A Burning Throne as a baby named Krushita. But, it's only in the second book, A Dark Queen Rises [it comes out in 2020], that we meet her and see her story as she rises to take charge of her destiny."
In the US, the series has been structured into nine hardcover volumes. In India, where the book releases in May, the publisher (Simon & Schuster) will be splitting the first book into two paperback volumes.
With his readership widened, one would assume Banker approached his material differently to make it more inclusive. Surprisngly, not, he says. "I'm not interested in Americanising or Disneyfying it to appeal to a broader readership. I'm interested in the world because it's different, not American, not Indian, not from our world at all. If it appeals, it will be because the story and characters are compelling and immersive."
He, however, admits that the publishing scene in the US is "very different" from India, and making a breakthrough there wasn't easy. "In India, a book that sells 10,000 copies in a R300 paperback can be a No. 1 bestseller. In the US, there are books that sell 10,000 copies at R1,400 [about $20 in paperback] and don't make it to the Top 20 or even the Top 50 at times. Here, a book would need to sell several hundred thousand or over a million copies in paperback at that price point to hit No. 1." The biggest challenge, he says, was getting the book into the hands of readers. "Everything here is controlled by the gatekeepers: literary agents and commissioning editors. The rules are ironclad and even the tiniest deviation means instant failure, no exceptions, no second chances.
They are looking for a reason to reject you from the first word, often even before they read that first word of your manuscript. Nepotism rules rampant: most agents are also published authors, simply because they have the professional connections and control the deal-making. There are power groups and those that are in, are in; those that aren't, don't stand a chance."
The publishing world in the US, he says, is simply not for the "faint of heart or those who are easily discouraged". But, Banker is up for any kind of challenge. "The work speaks for itself — either someone listens or they don't."
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