Agents of change

Literary agents in India can be more than a bridge between authors and publishers. They can add value to both at different stages of book creation.

Kanishka Gupta

[Photograph by Rudy and Peter Skitterians under Creative Commons]

In 2002, the year in which I was desperately trying to find a publisher for my now-abandoned novel, publishing houses seemed like impenetrable fortresses. There was just one local literary agency catering to all the aspiring writers in India. If you didn’t know a well-known author or an editor personally, chances were that your book project would die in its infancy. I also realised that I was highly misguided during this time by avid reader friends and relatives, who may have been a bit reluctant to share their honest reactions with me. After a brief internship with an agency and a well-known novelist and festival director, I decided to set up a consultancy in 2008 to help debut authors with honest critiques and editorial support. Two years later, I opened a full-fledged literary agency.

In the last decade or so, the scenario has changed drastically for first-time Indian writers. Today they have the option of choosing from among at least ten literary agencies. Last year, my agency sold close to 100 books and this year the figure will cross the 170 mark. Contrary to popular perception, a well-connected, open-minded agency can achieve, and even surpass, the turnovers of established medium-sized publishing houses.

However, over the years, I have realised that just acting as a bridge between an author and publisher is not enough. Given the disorganised nature of Indian publishing, an agent can actually be a game changer of sorts, adding value to both authors and publishers at the different stages of book creation. This is even more important in the context of an Indian agent, because of the poor commissions and the possibility of being bypassed by authors once they have developed a good rapport with their editors.

I have narrowed these possibilities down to five broad categories:

1. Discover new talent

The idea is to find the Arundhati Roys, Aravind Adigas and Pankaj Mishras of tomorrow. And for that you have to be open to working with relatively new names, be patient, and wade through slush piles (or unsolicited manuscripts).

You will face frequent rejections as most new authors of such calibre would naturally tilt towards a foreign agent because of their strong network in the UK, the US, and other foreign markets.

However, not all of them manage to find an agent. A very small percentage of India-themed books speak to a foreign readership. The market for subcontinental literature has also shrunk in the West, thanks to the recession. Furthermore, with the Man Booker Prize now open to American authors, competition will become steep, and Indian authors will find it harder to figure on the list. And one cannot deny the sway of the Booker over the Indian reading masses. A win by an Indian author is always followed by a spate of foreign deals for more Indian writers, many of them first-timers.

This is where an Indian agent can step in and make a mark.

Contrary to popular perception, India is a level playing field for foreign and Indian agents. If foreign agents do broker big, news-worthy subcontinent deals, it’s not because of who they are but who they are representing: internationally-acclaimed authors and public intellectuals with an existing reader base or following. Several debut writers represented by foreign agents get sold for moderate and, at times, even miniscule advances. Many such agents sign Indian authors for world rights, but once they realise that the foreign market is not receptive and a foreign deal is not happening, they simply sell the book back to Indian publishers. It’s hard to imagine that in these circumstances an author would not have preferred working with an Indian agent because of proximity, easy access, and a more hands-on approach.

Even someone like investigative journalist Josy Joseph, who got a book deal for his debut non-fiction A Feast of Vultures through a UK-based agent, realises this. He says: “Indian agents are visibly more aggressive in the market, and make an extra effort to find new writing talent. They are playing a crucial role in the booming publishing world because of their willingness to go hunting for new talent, and operate at all levels of the food chain.”

Besides, in a scenario where most high-powered fiction and non-fiction authors are represented by foreign agents, and bestselling authors like Chetan Bhagat, Ravinder Singh, and Durjoy Dutta negotiate with publishers directly, Indian agents have no option but to consistently seek out new voices.

2. Scout on behalf of publishers

One thing that Indian agents and authors don’t realise is that reading and acquiring books is just one of the many roles of a commissioning editor. Most of her time is spent editing and handling other aspects of publishing such as design, strategy, and post-publication activities. A commissioning editor recently told me that at times she had to edit a full-length manuscript in just a few days, especially if the publication had to coincide with a particular event or date. This means, she usually has very little time to look out for authors to fit ideas developed in-house, or actively pursue them once contact has been established.

Agents can capitalise on the great opportunity to double up as scout for such publishers and commissioning editors. This has several advantages:

  • Since the idea has originated with the publisher, the likelihood of rejection is low.
  • Publishers usually pay good advances for ideas commissioned in-house since the vision and strategy for such books is already in place.
  • Scouting gives the agent an opportunity to not only gain an intimate understanding of a publisher’s list, but also understand larger sales and readership trends.

This has certainly worked for me. In early 2016, Hachette India approached me to find the right author for a book on the legendary wrestling coach, Mahavir Singh Phogat, on whose life the forthcoming Aamir Khan film Dangal is based. I had been in touch with Hindustan Times’ sports writer Saurabh Duggal for another book project that, for some reason, never took off. Duggal immediately took to Hachette’s idea—he had been covering wrestling for many years, and Phogat was a close friend.

Similarly, several other publishers have approached me with ideas for celebrity, business, and sports biographies, and sometimes even books on niche subjects. However, for this arrangement to work, a publisher has to have immense faith in the agent, since there is no way to stop the latter from selling the book to a rival for better terms. So, while most publishers share ideas informally on trust, some might want an agent to sign a non-disclosure agreement.

3. Exploit film rights

A few years ago, I negotiated a deal with a major publisher for the memoirs of an athlete. Since the book had been rejected by every other publishing house, I couldn’t negotiate fair monetary terms for the writer. And like most books that get a pittance, it suffered in terms of editorial support, marketing, and even bookstore availability. The only reason it managed to sell out its first print run was because of the athlete’s standing in her fraternity.

Then, just last year, she was offered a film deal by a major production house. According to her, the publisher started paying her more attention, because they were part owners of the film rights. Besides, an imminent film would drive up the book’s sales.  

It is ironic that in a country that produces the largest number of films in the world (1,500-2,000 annually, according to a Forbes report), you can count the number of literary adaptations on your fingers. Compare this to the US, where the number of books being adapted into films is going up every year. According to a report published on Yahoo Movies in November 2014, of the 89 major Hollywood releases in 2014, 22 were based on books.

In India, only Chetan Bhagat’s books manage to get made into big-budget movies. One hardly hears of debut writers optioning film rights to their books. The only books-to-film agency, opened a few years ago by two seasoned media professionals, one of whom is known for his proximity to a Bollywood superstar, shut shop because of flawed curation and a general lack of response from big production houses. In a meeting with Nitya Mehra, the director of Baar Baar Dekho, I was told that often the book is good and eminently adaptable but is pitched to the wrong production house. She said that it’s hard to imagine that in a country producing so many original books, hardly any get made into films.

This gap between Bollywood and publishing was partially addressed by Jio Mami (Mumbai Academy of the Moving Image) film festival’s Word to Screen Market, launched in August 2016. According to the Mami website, “The Word to Screen Market is a space where leading publishers and literary agents will meet with content creators. Leading publisher and editor Arpita Das of Yoda Press will curate the Market. Arpita and two jury members will work in collaboration with publishing houses to curate over a dozen manuscripts, which will then be pitched to producers at the Market.”

It’s still early days for Mami, and one has yet to see how many of these manuscripts get optioned by major production houses and made into films. But there are other avenues—with the coming of Netflix and emergence of web-based serials, an agent can look at selling audio-visual rights in different formats and not simply restrict himself to mainstream films.

In the West, film and television constitute a huge chunk of income for an author and his representative. In order to turn agenting into a large-scale and feasible business, Indian agents need to actively exploit audio-visual rights across different platforms.

4. Double up as PR managers

A few weeks ago, I saw a mail sent by a marketing executive at a publishing house to a leading online portal. It went something like this:

“We follow the content that goes on your news portal and hence would like to partner up or request you to review our book-----. This would help us to share a good buzz about the book.”

One would imagine that most marketing executives at publishing houses have journalists on their hotline. However, as illustrated in the above case, quite a few of them are merely young ‘resource’ people. The books editor of a prominent weekly magazine told me recently that most publicists have no idea about the kind of books the magazine usually covers. I have seen books represented by my own agency being mailed out to journalists who are no longer part of a paper or a magazine. Many of the publicists pitch books without being familiar with its subject or content.

First-time and lesser known authors complain that the bulk of the marketing time and budgets are spent on tier-1 authors, who, ironically, don’t need the kind of push that they receive. Such is the extent of this problem that I’ve had authors cancel their book contracts with publishers over marketing plans, or swear not to sign any of their future books with their previous publisher because of poor promotion. I often find myself pitching my authors to journalists, influencers and festival directors.

The Jaipur-based literary agency Siyahi has begun providing much-needed promotional services to authors, ranging from print and online (e-tailers, google Ad Words campaigns, emailing, website design and so on) to event and festival planning.

In order to distinguish himself from other agents, I think a literary agent could double up as his author’s PR agent. And like PR agents, he can charge an author per article/media mention or a lump sum for a promised number of media mentions. When I asked the well-known writer and blogger Arnab Ray if charging an author for book promotion would be unethical, he said “No. Because if you don’t charge then you are not accountable.”

Another unexplored avenue for an agent is getting his authors speaking engagements. Most top literary agencies in the West have a separate speaker's bureau. The Ed Victor Speakers Bureau is affiliated to the literary agency run by the famous Ed Victor. Their Facebook page says: “Ed Victor Speakers Bureau LLP provides a range of quality speakers for conferences, panels, keynote addresses, after dinner speeches and everything in between. We manage a broad list of celebrities, politicians, authors, explorers and more, and our team is committed to finding the right person to engage, inspire and entertain your audience.”

Naturally, only an established Indian agent with well known, bestselling and public figures on his list should explore this option. According to the novelist Amitabha Bagchi, who suggested this idea to me several years ago, “Publishers support authors with speaker placement (in festivals and other venues) only around the time a new book is out, a little before and some months following. For most authors, especially of literary fiction, it can be years between books. In this time, if an agent acts as a booking agent for public appearances, it would make a big difference and help keep the author, and his or her books, in circulation. Nowadays, if we look at the list of speakers at lit festivals, we see two trends. Firstly, more and more topical/political sessions that have only a marginal connection to books are being scheduled. Secondly, all the fests at a given time seem to have the same set of people who are all promoting a recently published/soon to be published book. This creates a kind of sameness, especially if festival directors are only reaching out to publishers for options. If agents offer their clients as speakers and work with festival directors to create meaningful session line ups, the offerings at festivals could be richer with a better blend of topical and enduring.”

5. Print on demand/ebook publishing for authors rejected by publishers

No agent has a 100% success rate. In a given year, an agent could have at least 5-10 unsold manuscripts. Many of these books are rejected not because of any lack of merit, but for marketing reasons and, sometimes, because a publisher has already acquired something similar. I think agents should assist such authors with print on demand publication (provided they are open to it) or putting the book out as an ebook. This would not only help the book reach potential readers, but also allow the agent to contribute positively towards a book he has failed to place with a publisher.

In my conversations with several entrepreneurs and senior journalists, I always got the sense that publishing is not an important sector for them. One obvious reason could be the low turnover and profitability of publishing houses. But I think the bigger reason is the disorganised and haphazard way in which the business is conducted on a daily basis. There is a great opportunity for the agent to address and rectify this problem. What is equally important is to bring in multiple streams of revenue for authors so that writing a book and publishing in the subcontinent makes financial sense for them. At the moment, it rarely does.

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About the author

Kanishka Gupta
Kanishka Gupta

Founder and CEO

Writer's Side

Kanishka Gupta runs Writer's Side, the largest literary agency in South Asia. According to Publishers Marketplace rankings, he is currently the highest individual dealmaker in the world for English books. In the six years of his agenting career, he has sold more than 500 books to mainstream publishers. He represents authors who have won awards such as The Emmy, Commonwealth Prize, Padma Vibhushan, Padma Bhushan, Padma Shri, national awards and most of the top Indian literary prizes such as the Crossword Book Prize and the Hindu Literary Prize.

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