Literary agents: making words immortal!


It is very important for an author to find the right publisher for his book. But, the tedious process of facing numerous rejections before finding the one who is ready to publish his book, often baffles him. Here, literary agents come into picture, making it easier for authors to get published. But, literary agents are still in nascent stage in India and there’s still a long way to go, shares Kanishka Gupta of Writers’ Side in conversation with AABP. Literary agents have been around forever in the west and there are several 100-year-old agencies still in existence. Agents are kingmakers there because all authors—established, debut, big or small—go to a publisher through an agent. Most publishers are not at liberty to negotiate directly with authors as per strict company guidelines. There are several hundred agents in the UK and the US and agenting is an integral part of publishing. But, it is not so in India, shares Kanishka Gupta of Writers’ Side, who is a well-known literary agent and consultant. Some of the popular books he represented include Shreyas Rajagopal’s Saltwater; Anees Salim’s books; Siddharatha Gigoo’s Commonwealth-Prize-winning Fistful of Earth; Emmy-award-winning Ruchira Gupta’s River of Flesh; Aroup Chatterjee’s book on Mother Teresa, to name a few.

Indian scenario…

Kanishka Gupta“I wish the same held true for the Indian publishing scenario. Sadly, it doesn’t, and barring Hachette India, all Indian publishers accept direct submissions. A couple of homegrown publishers have a strict no-agent policy too. Most newcomers who are not familiar with agents in India will submit to a publisher directly. Many a time, debut writers become aware of agents after having approached publishers, making any possibility of a future relationship terribly complicated. Many publishers openly encourage authors to submit directly because they are well aware that with the involvement of an agent, things will get competitive and they won’t be able to get a book at whatever random price they offer,” shares Kanishka.

But, things are changing. “My own list is a testimony to the growing acceptance of agents. Since January 2015, I have sold more than 250 books to mainstream publishers and the number is likely to shoot up in the last few months of 2016. That said, an Indian agent can never be as powerful as a UK/US agent simply because of the menace of direct commissioning,” he adds.

How literary agents work…

A good agent is in the business of finding promising writers/manuscripts, realising their full potential and then finding them the right home. “Agents usually find authors in their slush pile (unsolicited submissions) or through references from existing clients. A very good agent, however, would be one step ahead and find authors for the right/topical ideas before a commissioning editor does. Agenting is an exhausting, thankless, long-term commitment and the job doesn’t end with the placement of a book with a publishing house. On the contrary, it begins at that point and continues through the editing, publishing and post-publishing processes. A good agent will immediately step in whenever the author is at loggerheads with the publisher and try to resolve the issue amicably. To sum it up, an agent is like a literary manager for his author,” tells Kanishka.

Boon for debut authors…

So, how can literary agents help debutant authors? “Even in India, it’s almost impossible for debut authors to get noticed without the help of an agent. While publishers accept unsolicited submissions, a lot of them fall through the cracks. Even if a publisher manages to get around to them eventually, every process and correspondence takes several months. Because agents know most commissioning editors intimately, the response-time for their submission is almost 1/4th of that of an unsolicited submission. Moreover, different editors in different publishing houses have varying commissioning mandates, likes and dislikes. A clueless debut author would never be able to know all of this and might waste an opportunity by sending his book to the wrong editor in the publishing house,” tells Kanishka.

Established authors also need literary agents…

A lot of critics say that established and published authors don’t need agents since they are already in touch with publishers. But it is not so. “When an agent is involved, the stakes get a lot higher because of multiple submissions and frequent bidding wars. Sometimes an agent can get an author four to five times the advance he was getting from the publisher directly. I think this more than justifies an agent’s measly 15% commission,” replies Kanishka as a matter of fact.

Life is not a fairy tale, but it is worth it!

“My agenting journey has been full of ups and down just like the journey of my life. But like the journey of my life, I wouldn’t trade my agenting career for anything else in this world. Being a rank outsider, I have been subjected to a lot of bias, discrimination and condescension. It doesn’t help that I am very outspoken, but also private and reclusive and refuse to have anything to do with the long-standing publishing networks and cliques. I let my work do the talking and to everyone’s surprise, all the publishers are very happy with this unwritten arrangement. In the end, even in an incestuous and close-knit field like publishing, it is ultimately your work that speaks and not who you know/dine out with,” tells Kanishka.

What next?

Kanishka is excited about the upcoming books like Sabyn Javeri’s masterful political thriller Nobody Killed her, Arnab Ray’s The Mahabharata Murders, Anita Sivakumaran’s literary novel The Queen, Dominic Franks’s travelogue The Nautan ki Diaries, the translation of an outlawed Urdu author by Reema Abbasi and several others.

He feels that there is no escaping Indian agents. “Even if publishers resist them, authors will continue to flock to them in droves. It’s the writing on the wall. I wish to do to Indian publishing what has done to global publishing: turn it on its head,” concludes Kanishka.

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