The peculiar challenges of agenting in India

Kanishka Gupta
Opinion - International 25 October 2016

Kanishka Gupta investigates why he is one of only a handful of literary agents in India


India is the third largest and also the fastest growing market for English books in the world. Yet there are only a handful of literary agents in the country.

There are several reasons for this, the primary being the entrenched culture of direct commissioning. Some 60 to 70% of all books continue to be signed directly by publishers. This is particularly true in non-fiction, for which a publisher often approaches a writer with an idea conceived in-house.

Anish Chandy, Head of Business Development at Juggernaut, says that direct commissioning ensures that "the subject, tone of the book and the author are a perfect fit". In fact, a publishing professional at a top Indian branch of a multinational told me that she was developing ideas for books almost every single working day. To my surprise, she added that she was actively approaching authors to also write fiction for her, primarily in commercial genres such as crime, the paranormal and so on. It goes without saying that in such instances, the involvement of an agent is immediately ruled out.

Direct approaches
Most publishers accept unsolicited manuscripts, and even those who don't are not averse to submissions by authors referred to them through their existing authors and personal contacts. According to Prerna Vohra of Hachette India, the only Indian publishing house that does not entertain unsolicited manuscripts, "Most of our non-fiction list [for] next year has been signed up independent of agents, a few through referrals, but most through personal contacts. Agents and existing authors come into play when it comes to fiction, since we enjoy publishing debut fiction that is largely agented."

The publishing industry is clustered in and around the capital city New Delhi, which also happens to be the main hub of media and journalism, a field that contributes to a large share of non-fiction writing and, increasingly, even fiction. "Journalists constitute a big number, particularly in the politics and business space," adds Vohra. As a result, proximity and access to prospective authors is not a problem for most mainstream publishers.

Many of the top mass market fiction writers, a current rage in the country, have no need for agents, and negotiate with publishers directly. On the other hand, literary writers with award-winning potential inevitably sign up with UK or US-based agencies, because of their ambitions to reach a global audience. This leaves the Indian agent with mostly debut authors, both for fiction and non-fiction, along with, occasionally, established authors who may have started out their career with an Indian agent. And while this is by no means a bad thing, it is definitely not the ideal one, since debut writing in India, especially if it does not carry a strong endorsement from the West, commands pitiful advances. In a country where a low six-figure advance in Indian rupees is still considered steep, and reserved mostly for books publishers are very bullish about, the monetary prospects of Indian agenting seem abysmal if not non-existent.

The author attrition rate among Indian agents is also very high, since many authors develop a good rapport with their editors during the course of publishing their first books, and feel that an agent cannot add any sort of value to a second book deal. "This stems from the misconception that the agent's only job is to get a good deal for the author. Once an author is big enough he feels he can do this himself," explains Chandy. Red Ink Literary agency, which represents the publishing phenomenon Amish Tripathi, agrees that authors bypassing agents for their future works is a "very common phenomenon". The spokesperson at the agency feels that it is often forgotten that "the agent is actually the first connect to the author and understands his writing best for a larger local and international market appeal". Suhail Mathur of Book Bakers Literary Agency has a radical if impractical suggestion: "I genuinely feel that it is the publishers who should take a stand against it and only entertain scripts from a previously published author if they are still coming through the agent who pitched the previous work."

Reluctant publishers
Although most publishers work with Indian agents, there are some, especially home-grown ones, who severely discourage agented submissions, One gets the sense that many publishers are happier dealing with authors directly. According to Mathur, "While many publishers do understand the role of agents, I would like to mention a young Delhi-based publishing house which unfortunately has little or no regard for the system. Forget the next book, they deliberately try to keep only the author in the loop the moment the author is introduced to them. Authors, especially first-time ones, can often be cowed down by such publishers, who know little about ethics and wish to enforce their will on the unsuspecting. In fact, when confronted, their only excuse was that they forgot! This response reeks of unprofessionalism."

All this harms the agent's bargaining power, since authors know that they are not indispensable. Many authors bargain over the globally accepted 15% agent's commission, and there are those who won't allow the agent to get a percentage of anything over and above the signing advance. Some authors also sell the more lucrative English rights themselves, and saddle the agent with rights deals in regional Indian languages, where the advances are almost negligible, and there are severe transparency issues. Some of them assign the foreign rights to their books to Indian agents, even if they are aware that the readership of their book is limited to an Indian audience.

According to well-known translator Arunava Sinha, "Indian agents are highly underrepresented in the Indian media. Most of the writers don't even know about their existence." The role of middleman is regarded as somewhat shady, he adds. But he feels that it's good for authors (and translators) to let agents handle negotiations. "In fact, the Indian agents should get together and probably hold a conference to create more awareness about the field among the masses," he suggests. Sinha himself had briefly signed up with an Indian agency to see "what the agent could bring to the table that I couldn't".

"The number of agented submissions has risen and Indian agenting has come into a sort of formal existence during this period. It has a lot of maturing to do. In order for this to happen, they need to give publishers confidence that their clients will submit complete manuscripts that live up to the promise of the proposal," says Chandy. According to Red Ink, "The agenting scene has certainly evolved. It's much more vibrant with agents selling books from both established and debut authors across genres. And because of the author/ agent having a personal one-on-one relationship, the agent is able to focus the sale of his title to specific editors."

Kanishka Gupta runs Writer's Side (http://www.writersside.com), the largest and  most successful literary agency in South Asia. According to Publishersmarketplace rankings, he is the leading individual dealmaker in the world for English books. In the six years of his agency he has sold more than 500 books to mainstream publishers. His authors have won awards including an Emmy, the Commonwealth Prize, the Crossword Book Prize, the Hindu Literary Prize, and others.

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