How book business middlemen become reliable doorkeepers to literary realm

Literary agent Preeti Gill
Lavanya Lakshminarayan’s vision of a dystopian world, where Black Mirror meets Bengaluru of the future, will soon smell of freshly printed paper. She is 29, a gaming designer and now a sci-fi writer. Her story, however, is less than suspenseful: she wrote a manuscript, attended a writing workshop, found an agent and received an offer from publishing house Hachette. 

Lakshminarayan’s story is also unusual. Consider these instead: A broke J K Rowling received 12 rejections before she became arguably the world’s most famous author. Ernest Hemingway was called a “bombastic dipsomaniac” when he submitted The Sun Also Rises. George Orwell’s Animal Farm was rejected by T S Eliot. One editor declared that Vladimir Nabokov should be “buried under a stone for a thousand years”. In our own backyard, the success of novelists such as Chetan Bhagat, Amish and Preeti Shenoy is accompanied by conversations about their struggles. Many of India’s best-selling authors were once self-published. Ashwin Sanghi claims to hold the “world record for rejection”. But then, none of them had an agent. 

Kanishka Gupta of Writer’s Side
Anees Salim, who won a Sahitya Akademi Award in 2018 and the Crossword Prize in 2015 for his novel, The Blind Lady’s Descendants (Penguin India) hasn’t kept count of the rejections that preceded his success. “Publishers would send rejection notes or not respond at all,” says Salim.

In 2010, as Salim was dealing with this ordeal, Kanishka Gupta was yet to convert his unsuccessful stint at writing into a career as a literary agent. His first client was Salim, and he got him a contract with HarperCollins for his first novel, Vicks Mango Tree. “We kind of grew together from there,” says Salim. Gupta’s agency, Writer’s Side, now represents over 400 authors, including first-timer Lakshminarayan. “Gupta responded within two weeks of receiving my manuscript,” she says. Most publishers take a few months.

The idea of the literary agent is still in its infancy in India. Compared to the UK, which has them in a few thousands, they are easily numbered in India, perhaps less than 20. Even so, the websites of international publishers, such as Hachette and Penguin Random House, state that they do not accept unsolicited work, and submissions have to be routed through a “reputed” literary agency. Hachette even lists the names, websites and emails of prominent ones.

Sorabh Pant
Most of these agents are familiar faces in publishing. They have been authors, commissioning editors and even publishers. They speak at literature festivals and also organise them.

“It does help to have an agent as a third party between a publisher and an author,” says Parth Phiroze Mehrotra, commissioning editor (non-fiction), Juggernaut. The reputable agents follow industry practices, understand standard contracts and help with negotiations. “An agent is especially useful if there are disagreements with the author. For example, if the edits are problematic, they can help in reaching an understanding,” says Mehrotra.

Unsolicited submissions that do not bear a recognisable name are very likely to end up in slush piles. So it’s an advantage that many big publishers now give priority to proposals sent by agents over unsolicited work. Mehrotra says that publishers also use agents to negotiate deals with regional publications for translations as well as for deals struck directly with authors.

Anees Salim
For new writers, an agent who rallies behind their stories can help polish the proposals, suggest editorial changes and find the right commissioning editors to pitch them to. “Good agents develop a raw manuscript, edit it, make it more marketable and reach out to the right publishers based on its subject,” says Bikash D Niyogi, owner of Niyogi Books.

Ranjana Sengupta, deputy publisher at Penguin Random House, says that while she has bought exactly three books from three agents in the last few years, the proposals she received piqued her interest. Apart from one from Gupta, the other two came from industry veterans Anuj Bahri, owner of Bahrisons bookstores, who also runs the agency Red Ink from Delhi, and Mita Kapur of Siyahi in Jaipur.

Sengupta also sometimes encounters agents who are roped in by authors she approaches at the negotiation stage. “While they might try to increase the advance of an author, they also have established procedures and a position on a lot of things, which makes a publisher’s decision quicker,” she says.

A typical contract between a writer and an agent entitles the agent to be the first to receive a manuscript. Especially since the agent gets paid — between 15 and 20 per cent of the writer’s take home — after an agreement is reached with the publisher, many authors rely on their agents for general feedback and even editorial advice before approaching a publisher.

Stand-up comedian Sorabh Pant, who is also a novelist, worked with Kapur of Siyahi on his last two books. He wrote his first novel at 21, which was promptly rejected. “Penguin had a template of 15 reasons to explain why this work is being rejected. My rejection slip had nine of these boxes checked,” says Pant, who has published three novels since.

He says the editorial feedback he got from Kapur for his last two novels, Under Delhi (Hachette, 2014) and Pawan: The Flying Accountant (Rupa, 2017), was extremely helpful. “She advised me on the length of the novel and the character arc, etc, before we pitched it,” says Pant. 

Red Ink’s Anuj Bahri with daughter Aanchal Malhotra
Kapur started Siyahi with two writers in 2007. She has now about 200 authors signed with her agency, including very successful ones such as Devdutt Pattanaik and, more recently, fashion designer Wendell Rodricks. “I fight for the authors I believe in, especially for the marketing and promotion of their works because this is where India really lags behind,” says Kapur.

Independent literary consultant Preeti Gill has been in publishing for over 20 years and is a former consulting editor for Zubaan Books and Kali for Women. She has worked with Sanjoy Hazarika on his Strangers No More: New Narratives from India’s Northeast (Aleph, 2018) and with C S Lakshmi, who writes under the pen name Ambai, for A Night with a Black Spider (Speaking Tiger, 2017). She’s picky about the books she works with. “An agent’s job is to hunt for good stories. Even if it’s not the best writing, it can be helped by a good editor,” says Gill, who also owns Majha House in Amritsar, a space for artists. She only advises on the narrative and characters but does not like to edit the manuscript herself. “I take a compelling story to a publisher and leave them to decide on the editing with the writer,” she says. She charges 15 per cent of the advance given to a writer by the publisher when a deal is reached. But her writers are not bound by any contract to share their royalty.

It may be offering a helping hand to authors, but agencies are not open-to-public literary fairs. They apply their own filters to sort the wheat from the chaff.

Mita Kapur of Siyahi
Sample these proposals: “I can make you lucky,” reads the subject line of an email — a collection of poems sent to Gupta’s Writer’s Side. This is trashed without a second look. Another email that starts with, “I herewith attach a synopsis of my book to seek your guidance…” elicits no response for a month, which, as stated on the agency’s website, means it has been rejected.

“I am mostly just looking at proposals that come through good references, but it doesn’t mean that a good proposal or story won’t catch my attention,” says Gupta. One such proposal is sent by a Pakistani-American fiction writer. It is titled, “Goodbye Freddy Mercury”, which neatly details the parallel, first-person perspective of the two lead characters, along with chapter outlines, a synopsis, a brief note about the author and a link to her website. You can woo an agent, not buy them.

So that Mita Kapur is not bombarded with manuscripts that then pile up, Siyahi’s website states that fiction proposals may be submitted only between the 10th and 15th of each month. Non-fiction entries are welcome through the year.

Oxford University Press India, which, till recently, primarily published books of academic interest, has started working with literary agents to acquire titles of wider interest. The Aadhaar Effect: Why the World’s Largest Identity Project Matters by N S Ramnath and Charles Assisi (2018) was one such agent-routed publication. “We consult agents to find authors for specific subjects. Authors too, at times, are reluctant to negotiate themselves because they feel that the agent can fetch them a higher advance,” says an OUP representative.

It often starts a bidding war, since a good agent knows how to fetch the highest price for good work. A first-time author can fetch anything between Rs 20,000 and Rs 5 lakh. For established writers, figures are coyly withheld.

Finding a good manuscript and marketing it is a full-time job and commissions limited to successful buys are not enough for all agencies. So while some agencies offer editorial and assessment services of manuscripts, others are aggressively looking out for alternative sources of income, such as tapping the content market for web series for streaming platforms like Netflix and Amazon Prime.

Bahri of Red Ink, who recently parted ways with Amish, but has been widely acknowledged for the author’s initial success, recently sold filming rights of Mainik Dhar’s first novel, Sniper’s Eye to Reliance MediaWorks for an undisclosed amount. Apart from a legacy store in Delhi’s Khan Market and two attractive bookstores-cum-cafés, one each in Delhi and Gurugram, he has a growing list of authors whose names he’s proud to reel off: Vikram Sampath, Anuja Chauhan, Shrabani Basu, Andrew Otis, Ira Trivedi…. His latest discovery is 21-year-old Kevin Missal, who is sticking to India’s best-selling mix of romance and mythology, for his novels in Kalki: The Series.

“It’s a slow process. Maybe I am not as impatient because I have other sources of income to rely on,” says Bahri. But he’s confident that the next six to seven manuscripts that he is working on this year will fetch the writers at least Rs 10 lakh per book, and subsequently a good share to him.

David Godwin, who sold Arundhati Roy’s Booker Prize winning The God of Small Things to Penguin has said that a manuscript that does not have him hooked in the first five pages is not worth his time. Of the ones that do, he reads about 500 a month. If the East is indeed following the West, more agents in India means there are more eyes looking for that next big book. And if you think your genius may be slowly sinking to the bottom of a pile somewhere, you might be missing a real page turner at your corner.