Ever spare a thought for how millions of Indian readers get their hands on a variety of amazing books? A great idea or story still needs to be considered by a publisher to make it to the shelves. A lot happens behind the scenes before a book sees the light of the day, and that's where the role of a competent agent becomes critical.
India is reading mythology, self-help books, non fiction, political biographies, even trashy commercial fiction. India loves controversy! There's no secret sauce, there's no formula,” says Kanishka Gupta, a renowned literary agent, author and founder of Writer's Side, the largest literary agency in South Asia and one of the highest individual dealmakers in the world for English books.
An aspiring author and a college dropout, Kanishka Gupta met with several disappointments with regards to finding the right publisher for his own manuscript. The agency he opted to go along with turned out to be phony, which left him further exasperated. When he didn't receive much guidance for his manuscript himself, he founded an assessment agency, Writer's Side, to systemise publishing. A one-of-its kind agency, Writer's Side brought immense success to Kanishka, the benefits of which he hopes to extend to authors worldwide. As Writer's Side completes 10 years, he has secured over 500 book deals for his authors. As of 2019, he represents over 400 authors from across the world.
In conversation with Chaitra Anand, India's 'Numero Uno' literary agent spills the beans on the challenges and pleasures of agenting. He's the go-to man to know all about what it takes to become a published author!
What do literary agents do?
Agents are multitaskers, but they are mainly a crucial bridge between authors and publishers. Since most publishers won't receive submissions directly, agents who know the ropes of the industry secure deals for aspiring authors with the right publishing house. Agents auction manuscripts on behalf of authors. If a manuscript gets multiple bids, they negotiate on the best possible deal. They prepare the author to present themselves and their manuscript so that their book is well-received by publishers and subsequently readers. Choosing a good agent can make or break a book because the role of an agent does not end at selling a manuscript. An intelligent agent always thinks of long-terms prospects.
What’s the scope of success for literary agents in India? How has your experience been?
When I started out, I didn’t know much about agenting. I learnt through perseverance, heartbreak, and trial and error. Initially publishers would tell me their policy was to not pay advances while paying foreign agents huge sums as an advance. It was an intense process of learning. I built my network, shared my knowledge, and helped authors get better at presenting themselves to publishers. Gradually I earned the trust of many noted and promising authors through whom my credibility rose and I started to taste success. My networking skills came in handy where I started to hobnob with journalists and other media professionals who would introduce me to others. Agenting is my bread and butter. I singularly focus on this job, excel at it, and take care of end-to-end requirements for my authors. Because all my time is dedicated to it, the remuneration is directly and doubly proportional to the effort. Returns are also directly proportional to your ability in finding books that will get a good home. The reason I could make it big is because of the number of books I did, and the success of my authors. When the books you represent get picked up over a period of three to four years, it’s almost like a rental income. Royalties for books published three years ago keep coming in. Even if a book takes a few years to get published, you will get the money when it does. It is like a regular stream of income, albeit in a very tough field. If a book does phenomenally well, the agent gets a part of the royalties. So I’ve had such successes.
For a country the size of India, with the number of English-speaking people and those who read in English, the agenting business is really small. At most 5 or 6 agents do it as a full time profession.
What's the toughest thing about being a literary agent and how should one overcome it?
In India it is not difficult to sign up a big author, but it is difficult to retain them after they have signed up with a publisher. They can just choose to turn around and say, 'Okay, you got a good percentage of my advance, but why should I give you my next book?’To counter this, I’ve adopted a 360-degree approach. My biggest asset is that I am highly responsive and proactive. If my author is facing problems and writes to me, I will get back to them no matter what the time is. I offer comfort and reassurance and am available round the clock. The other approach I have adopted is that of extending my public relations services, at no charge, to my authors. So I pitch my authors to media houses and manage to get better responses because I have a direct one-on-one with many of them. You have to be more than an agent whose job would just be to take a proposal to a publishing house, get an advance, brief the author about the contract and then vanish. It doesn’t work that way!
What's the single biggest advantage authors have when signing up with Writer's Side?
I encourage my authors to send their drafts to me before they send them to publishers, especially if the said book is sold on the basis of a proposal. We provide our own feedback before the manuscript is submitted to the publisher. Obviously you need to have taste, and you need to know what people are looking for.That’s the only way authors will sign up with you because nobody knows most editors in publishing houses. Even journalists and other prominent personalities-turned-authors go with an agent because, first of all, it’s a professional representation. Secondly, we add value in terms of presenting the proposal, so that it will be better received by publishers.
Tips for authors who hope to be published?
The most important thing is that their writing needs to be something that works, is well-written, and well-conceived. So grass-root level questions like how long should a book be is not a critical aspect. There are certain do’s and don’ts, but at the end of the day you have to write something that is good and will work notwithstanding its length. Quantitative benchmarks are not set by agents, but quality matters. If an author approaches an agent of the stature of Writer's Side, the query letter has to be phenomenal or else it may not even garner a read.
What decides a bestseller?
I would say it depends on the price point. If it is literary fiction, then even by selling 5,000 copies it can be termed a 'bestseller', because the publisher would’ve recovered the advance and made profits. But you can’t call it one because the term is usually associated with commercial books. Any book that is able to recover its advance and make profits, make some noise, and is shortlisted for awards can be considered a successful book.
Who are some of the biggest authors you've represented and how did that come about?
The thing that worked in my favour was that I did not send out substandard books to publishers. I waited for one-and-a-half years for Anees Salim to enter my life and then my story as an agent unravelled. I consider him among the best authors I've represented. He’s won some of the biggest awards including the Sahitya Akademi, the Hindu Prize, the Crossword Prize, and the Atta Galata prize etc. Neelum Saran Gour and Tanuj Solanki are also among my favourites. I’m very proud of my list from Pakistan. I think I’ve pioneered literary representation of Pakistani writers without going to Pakistan even once. I have 50 authors from Pakistan.
What are your biggest achievements and regrets and what does the future hold for Kanishka the agent?
My biggest achievement has been that I have managed to democratise publishing in India to a fair extent. To ensure that deserving authors get contracts. To ensure that their books get picked up irrespective of genres, their saleability, and their Twitter or Instagram following. I’ve built this bridge between authors and publishers, because for the longest time I specialised in debut writing, be it commercial or literary. Now I have a responsibility of getting important books out in the market, like the one we’re working on with noted lawyer and human rights activist Indira Jaising. Publishing has to be based on merit and not on who you know, your antecedents, and what your degree and qualifications are.
My biggest regret is that I haven’t been able to make it like big globally yet. And that I haven't had much success as an author. But I am still 36, so there's hope. In that I take solace.