Warning for writers in India: Beware of dubious literary agents

Tanuj Khosla writes how some unscrupulous individuals in India have established dubious literary agencies and how they are  taking some unaware aspiring writers for a ride. 

ChetanFollowers of Indian publishing world are only too aware of the boom that has taken place in the industry, especially in mass market fiction, since investment banker Chetan Bhagat churned out a bestseller on his days in college in 2004. The book captured the imagination of almost every age group and catapulted Bhagat into instant stardom. It made every second English-educated person in India believe that he/she has a best-seller in him/her. Since then over a hundred such first time authors who had full-time jobs have gone on to write their debut novel on anything from school days to college life to experiences at workplace. Many of these books have been resounding commercial successes thereby inspiring thousands more.

However, while all this is a  good news for aspiring authors, publishers and readers, the trend has had one negative side-effect  –  birth of shady literary agents in India.

In the West, most writers engage literary agents to represent their works in front of publishers and assist in the sale and deal negotiation of the book. However, literary agents are still a very new concept in India and over 90% of the authors submit their manuscripts directly to the publishers. Over the last few years, many unscrupulous individuals in India have taken advantage of the absence of big names in the country and lack of awareness among aspiring writers and established dubious literary agencies. Unfortunately, most don’t offer a single service that a literary agent should.   New Delhi, which can rightfully call itself the publishing capital of India, is leading this trend with ‘literary experts’ setting up shops at every nook and corner. Most of them don’t even have a post-graduate degree while a few are authors whose only effort failed to set the cash register ringing at the bookstores.  So what are the common tricks these crooked individuals play with unsuspecting writers? I try to list a few.

  • Take them all: I don’t think that most of these agents have read more than ten books in their lives and yet they are supposed to dish out advice on the readership trends in the industry to aspiring authors. Since they don’t have much idea about which manuscript shall work and which won’t, they accept everything that comes their way and try to place it with whatever ‘contacts’ they have in the industry. Needless to say, the time they devote to each manuscript is minimal and consequently they are the proud achievers of a 95% failure rate.
  • Pay to Edit: Never mind the literary agent’s own command over English, almost each of these shady shops ask for a hefty amount to ‘edit the raw manuscript and make it fit for presentation to publishers’.  In some cases the ‘editing’ is just adding a few commas here and there and re-arranging the paragraphs!!
  • Butcher the gullible NRIs (Non-Resident Indians):  There are thousands of NRIs in the world who feel that they can combine the experiences of their formative years in India along with those in the foreign land where they stay to come up with the next bestseller. ‘East meets West, we have a winner on our hands!!!’ they think. Some of these dreamers end up penning a few chapters and mailing them to these literary agents most of whom have a chic website. It is like walking into a shark’s jaws. These agents completely exploit the overseas authors’s inability to visit India frequently to pitch their books. From charging service fees to ‘Indianize’ the novel to asking for a premium to pitch their manuscript over another one of the same genre, they come up ingenious ways of milking their well-heeled wannabe writers. A few weeks later these budding authors are informed that their work is ‘good but not commercially viable in India’.
  • ‘Push’ the sales:  These literary agents are masters at jacking up the number of copies sold by buying them in bulk from bookstores (of course with the author’s money). The objective of this exercise is to make the book enter the bestseller’s list, and thereby trigger some ‘real’ sales. The author is desperate to be the next Chetan Bhagat and the literary agents have absolutely no problem in offering this ‘value-added’ service. Most of these books are purchased at a discount (mostly bought online) and later make their way back into bookstores at a slight mark-up.
  • Rejection is no problem. Let’s self-publish!: This is the most common trick used by literary agents and not unexpectedly, NRIs and 15-16 year old budding writers from well-off families,  are sitting ducks for this. The dishonest literary agent informs these that while in his personal opinion their books have tremendous potential, the publishers don’t agree with his view and thus have ‘rejected’ the manuscripts. (It is quite conceivable in such cases that not a single publisher even gets to set his eye on the manuscript.) So what’s the way out?  – “Self-publishing” suggests the ‘concerned’ agent. He then graciously offers his services of printing and marketing the book, of course for a ‘small fee’. The agents does precious little once the book in is in print and if the same does well, then more often than not it is due to the author’s own initiatives at marketing the book.  However in majority of the cases the book is not edited and marketed properly and ends up as unsold inventory of books stores. This can be extremely disheartening for authors who lose confidence to ever pick up the pen again.

But all is not lost for aspiring writers in India. There are few home-grown literary agents who reject a bad manuscript when they see one but go all out to push the few they believe in. Recently a well-known global literary agency opened a branch in India and if the untapped potential of the Indian market is anything to go by, I suspect that many more shall follow suit soon. Their professionalism and integrity should bring about the much needed clean-up in this occupation.

So what should aspiring authors do in order to avoid falling into a trap? Well, I am no expert at this but have come up with a checklist of a few basic but important things that one must check before handing over his labour of love to a literary agent:

  • Talk to them:  All these agents have fancy websites and online profiles. However a chat with them over the phone can be a revelation. It is very important to know their intellectual level   and seriousness with which they are going to try and place your book.
  • Don’t be fooled by the presence of a best-selling author or a well-known publisher on their Facebook’s friend list or LinkedIn‘s contact list: More often than not the are accidental overlooks or rewards given for persistent ‘friend requests’ by these authors and publishers.
  • Talk to some of the authors these agents claim to have represented: A candid feedback from them can be invaluable.

In conclusion, writing a book is like raising a baby. One expects others to nurture it the way he/she does it.  Unfortunately India is going through a transition in publishing industry at the moment and this has given an opportunity to a bunch of shameful individuals who think nothing of playing with other people’s hard-work and dreams for making a quick buck. Things shall change in the next few years but up until that happens, it is better to be safe than sorry.

Tanuj Khosla is an ex-banker from India and currently works at a hedge fund in Singapore. He writes poems and short stories and blogs for some Indian news portals. This article was first published in Publishing Perspectives.