Agents of change
Providing respite for aspiring writers, book agents are changing the dynamics in Indian publishing; and one person is at the helm of it, writes ANANYA BORGOHAIN
In what is a game-changer for publishing in India, the emergence of literary agents in the country is bringing immense respite to budding authors. In what earlier took months, or even years for writers to be approved by a publisher, agents are mediating between the writers and publishers as effective channels of efficiency, timeliness and discipline. It’s interesting to note that although there have been literary agents and agencies in the country earlier, it’s one specific person who is changing the course of authorship in India.
Kanishka Gupta, in his early 30s, had a major accident when he was younger, after which he gravitated towards writing. After college, he joined a literary agency as an evaluator and also worked under Jaipur Literature Festival director Namita Gokhale as an assistant. His debut novel, History of Hate, was long-listed for the Man Asian Literary Prize in 2009. In 2010, he set up his literary agency, Writer’s Side. A year later, he found his first writer, Anees Salim, whose book Vanity Bagh won The Hindu Literary Prize and The Blind Lady’s Descendants won the Crossword Book Award in Indian Fiction. Today, Delhi-based Gupta is known as South Asia’s leading literary agent.
A literary agent usually asks for the first three chapters of a proposed manuscript. If they like it, agencies also try to refine the proposal before pitching it to prospective publishers. Once approved, they claim a fee of 10-15 per cent of the financial offer made by the publisher to the author. Apart from that, even after the contract is signed, a responsible agent plays the role of a moral supporter to the writer as well as resumes mediating between the publisher and writer when they have differences. A new author, depending on the quality of work, could earn anywhere from Rs 50,000-3,00,000.
Although it has been a journey of only six years, it wasn’t entirely smooth for Gupta; and also involved unemployment for years and no academic training in agenting. Gupta recalls, “Book agents were not unheard of, but non-existent. All this changed at the turn of the millennium with Arundhati Roy’s monumental Booker Prize win. Suddenly, Indian writers were not only in demand overseas but they were also being paid sizable advances for their books. The last decade or so has seen an explosion of activity in Indian publishing with at least three multinational publishers setting up shop and several good independent publishers like Speaking Tiger and Fingerprint Publishing entering the scene. While earlier, most authors used to work on royalty basis or nominal advances, now it’s pretty common for even debut fiction and non-fiction to get six figure advances. Even academic presses like Oxford University Press India have become receptive to agents and started paying advances! Advances for books written by bestselling authors and public figures can go up to high seven figures. A shrewd, open minded, hard working agent in India can actually make more money than top publishing professionals just by selling within the subcontinent.”
Gupta believes quality is the only thriving factor that could assure a book a safe passage into the market. Although, with a public figure or a bestselling author involved, it becomes very smooth for the writer to get published. Gupta adds, “For instance, most agents don’t deal with textbooks/academic books because of the lengthy evaluation process and lack of advances from academic presses. Any agent worth his salt would be well informed about the list and the publishing mandate of all his clients. Not only that, within a publishing house too, he would know exactly what every commissioning editor is looking for. One cannot work in a vacuum but has to be in constant interaction and dialogue with editors. Then there is always the question of tastes and personal connect with a manuscript but I believe a good agent should be open-minded and expansive.”
Renuka Chatterjee, Vice-President (Publishing) of Speaking Tiger Books divulges, “In recent times, many books that we published did well in terms of literary acclaim but most of them were bought directly by us and not by agents. How a book does in the market also depends on the promotional efforts made by the author and publisher, besides its quality.”
Although, with over hundreds of books, Gupta’s Writer’s Side has seen massive success already. Its authors include acclaimed writers such as Ali Akbar Natiq, Siddharth Gigoo, Rakshnada Jalil, Hussain Zaidi, and celebrity writers like Shubha Mudgal, Vikram Bhatt, Ranveer Brar, among many others. Gupta also reveals that most of the time he works straight from his basement; and that he is actually obsessed with his work! Human attitude towards work can tend to be lackadaisical often and this is where Gupta finds his asset. He is extremely prompt with responses and is working around the clock. He also reaches out to potential authors with ideas like a commissioning editor would. The agency has only one full time editor along with a veritable army of freelance editors, reviewers, social media experts, lawyers. Apart from one editor, all the team members are based out of Delhi.
Most of their books are sold to leading publishing houses that include Penguin Random House, HarperCollins, Rupa Publications etc. In fact, reportedly, Hachette India has stopped taking direct submissions, making only commissioned projects directly through them or through an agent as the only way forward for aspiring writers. Gupta says, “Direct commissioning is the bane of an Indian literary agent’s existence. Ours is perhaps the only market where the agent is competing with his own buyer, the publisher. A high percentage of authors still prefer to submit to publishers directly although the number has come down in the last few years. Because of this very Indian phenomenon, agents have to do a lot more than just finding a publisher for the author — there needs to be a value add at almost every step in the publication process. This is even more so for previously published authors and celebrities because getting access to publishers is no big deal for them.”
Another bane could also be the fact that if an author submits her manuscript to various publishers, there are very few ways to ensure that their works wouldn’t be plagiarised or leaked somewhere. Chatterjee here recommends, “An author should clarify that the manuscript has been sent to other publishers as well; same should be done if offers are being considered from those publishers. Other than that, it is possible to get their unpublished work copyrighted and they could also take action against anyone they suspect to have plagiarised them.” Both Gupta and Chatterjee agree that authors should send manuscripts only to reputed sources.
Another trend that has now become more popular is the auctioning of the same book to various publishing houses. Drawing from his own experiences, Gupta says, “It’s like any other auction. Agents usually send out a manuscript to multiple publishers. The moment the first offer comes in the terms are shared with all the rival publishers. At this point a few publishers may decide to back off because the book is either unsuitable for their list or the rival offer is too high. There would be some, though, who could come back with an offer higher than the first. An agent then takes this higher offer to the publisher who made the first offer to see if they would like to revise their first offer. This back and forth process continues till the highest offer is reached.”
Literary agents have been present in India. Siyahi, for instance, is one of the oldest and most reputed agencies with authors such as the famous and bestselling Devdutt Pattanaik, Tabish Khair, Binod Chaudhury (Nepal’s first billionaire and founder of Wai Wai noodles) as their clients. However, this norm has now become a cult, in a much needed way for aspiring writers to finally dare to pick the pen over pressured obligations.
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