There is still a lot of room for debut writing: Interview with Indian literary agent Kanishka Gupta
by Zafar Anjum
In this in-depth interview, novelist and now a well-known literary agent, Kanishka Gupta, talks about his journey of becoming a literary agent and shares his observations on the publishing trends in India. Gupta’s agency, The Writers Side, represents more than 400 writers.
When I look back on my journey I marvel at how I managed to survive and get even this far. I have no qualifications to be a publishing professional and became an agent without a proper understanding of the role of an agent, nor did I have any contacts in publishing. I knew only Ravi Singh (then the head of Penguin India) who was introduced to me by novelist Namita Gokhale. Through him I met his colleague Vaishali Mathur, who was just setting up the Metroreads imprint. I remember how I sold some of my early books for zero advances because a publisher told me they had a no-advance policy. Later on, I came to know the same publisher was shelling out even seven-figure advances to big authors and foreign agents. I also didn’t know what an agency clause was and actually let my authors sign directly with publishers without any mention of myself in the agreement. Obviously the authors paid me my due share on time, but this is not how ‘professional’ agents function. One thing I did right was wait for the right manuscript to make my debut as an agent. Surprisingly my first two submissions–the now-famed Anees Salim’s two books and Singapore-based Navneet Jagannathan’s Shakti Bhatt-shortlisted Tamasha in Bandaragon–got multiple offers. I knew about auctions but didn’t know how they were conducted. I thought just because publishers had deigned to make an offer to a wannabe agent, I should fall at their feet with the manuscripts and shed tears of joy. I remember I learnt the process while actually auctioning them. A publisher called me and chided me for revealing the rival bidder’s name to her. ‘You never do that Kanishk,’ she said.
Apart from Shobhaa De and Namita Gokhale, I was lucky enough to find influential supporters along the way. The writer and journalist Sheela Reddy introduced me to a lot of senior journalists after I assisted her with her book deal. Rakhshanda Jalil introduced me to half of Pakistan’s literary community and several other writers because she liked my aggression. For a wannabe publishing professional who did nothing but invest Rs 7,000 in setting up a ghastly website, I got a lot of media attention. One week after the launch of my website, the noted writer and critic Jai Arjun Singh featured an interview with me in Sunday Business Standard alongside my guru Shobhaa De’s interview. Even more surprising was a half page devoted in the main Indian Express a few weeks later. I don’t think I can manage that even now. I think there were at least a dozen pieces on Writer’s Side when it launched and I can’t figure for the life of me why! Mine is the unlikeliest story in Indian publishing, like it or not!
Do you think writers in India now understand why it is important to have a literary agent?
Some do but alas, most don’t. Since direct commissioning is very active in India, an agent has to constantly justify his commission and contribute a lot more than just finding a publisher for the author. I circumvented this problem by focusing on debut writers in my earlier years, but now I am in a position to help all kinds of writers in several ways, from sharing ideas with them, developing proposals, giving legal advice, and helping with promotions because of my contacts.
How many writers do you represent now? How do you manage to represent a large number of writers?
I have lost count but I think I represent more than 400, although I have sold more than 500 books since 2010. I manage to do this because I love multitasking and juggle 100 things at one time. Sadly, this is also one of the reasons why I haven’t been able to realise my potential as a novelist. Communication is my lifeline and I would wither and die without the interactions with my authors and publishers. I also have a very competent and loyal team of editors, consultants, website designers, lawyers and so on.
What are the pros and cons of being a literary agent of such a large number of writers? How do you cope with the pressure?
The main advantage is obviously the clout and the relatively high revenues. The disadvantage is that I am unable to give as much attention to every single writer as I would like to. Critics fail to understand that I am the CEO of a very large agency with a lot of administrative duties and have a team of editors helping me in the selection and pitching process. While I give detailed feedback, I am not a copyeditor or proofreader; superior editing skills do not make an agent. People-management does. I am fascinated by how some agents edit and rewrite their authors’ manuscripts for years and then sell them for an advance royalty for 5-10,000 copies. That makes no business sense to me. Publishers are looking for promising manuscripts and not manuscripts that are ready to be sent to the printers. Also, the money that even a huge agency like WS makes is a pittance compared to other businesses. I have made peace with the fact that I will not become a Gautam Adani or a Sachin Bansal in this lifetime. The reason I haven’t abandoned agenting and joined my family business is because of my passion and the unshakeable conviction that I can make huge inroads into publishing.
What do you love most about your work? And what do you hate most?
There is no greater thrill in this world than discovering a promising new writer or manuscript. I also find writers a fascinating ilk. Since I was also a writer once I completely relate to the perpetual anxiety, nagging doubts, the occasional megalomania, questions of self-worth and self-importance. For most debut writers, their book is the centre of their universe and becomes a life and death matter. At times I feel I am a life coach and counsellor rather than a book agent.
How can you help writers who live outside of India?
With foreign markets becoming increasingly insular, most Indian writers outside India have no option but to look to the Indian market for publishing possibilities. Many times, they are writing on subjects that would appeal only to the subcontinent’s readers and that’s one more reason why signing up with an Indian agent makes a lot of sense. I have dozens of authors living outside of India and have had no problems at all despite distance and time zone differences.
How do you assess writers or their work? What kind of writers click with you?
Writing quality and storytelling skills for fiction and subject, expertise, and narrative in case of non-fiction. I have a soft corner for debut writers and personally I am more of a non fiction agent, conceiving and developing projects with writers much like a commissioning editor. Our ace editor Achala Upendran reads and selects most of our fiction titles.
Do you think there is a marginalisation of the literary writer? Has the market pushed him to the sidelines?
There is, but it’s market-driven and publishers and agents cannot be blamed for it. Publishers like Ravi Singh, Karthika VK, and David Davidar have been championing the cause of literary writers and paying very good advances. But what can one possibly do when the high quality of books and excellent mainstream media reviews don’t translate into book sales? I think what we are really lacking are influencers and awards that mean something to the casual book reader. When an Indian or a foreign writer wins the Booker Prize, the book goes out of stock in hours. But when someone wins the Crossword Book Prize or Hindu Literary Prize, some bookstores don’t even have the book in stock or aren’t aware of its existence when someone asks for it. Literary activism can only find that much space in business. And publishing is first and foremost a business.
Most writers hardly make any money. What motivates them to write?
The advances have gone up significantly and now even first-time writers with solid proposals can command decent six-figure sums. During the early days of Indian publishing, most advances were in the range of Rs 10,000. However, I agree that this money can be no substitute for a regular salary and authors are mostly driven by their passion for the written word and interest in the subject. That said, publishers and agents are no better off and the industry as a whole is one of the lowest paying among all industries. But I would still choose a low paying profession like agenting over running a factory or a restaurant. The intangible benefits are hugely rewarding.
There was a time when writers became ‘famous’ because of their work. Now, ‘famous’ people (celebrities from all kind of backgrounds–film, TV, sports, politics, bureaucracy, and so on) are getting published and their books are topping the charts. The pure writer can feel lost in this environment of hype and publicity. Your thoughts?
I find this whole trend of celebrity driven publishing rather disturbing. A few years ago, when I pitched marathon runner Sumedha Mahajan’s book to publishers, some of them told me that while her story is remarkable, they would much rather publish a running book by Milind Soman because of his stardom. If you’ve worked under a celebrity or a public figure and have an independent book of your own, nine out of ten times you will be asked to collaborate with the celebrity on a book. I know of an author who turned her five-minute brush with a big cricket star into a full fledged book and it is currently ruling the charts. I once joked with a commissioning editor that we should simply compile a list of the 100 most-searched Indian celebrities on Google and start sending out contracts to them or their managers without as much as a discussion. Both of us had a hearty laugh over this. Even though celebrity-driven publishing is on the rise I would say there is still a lot of room for debut writing. It just has to be outstanding to make it in this difficult and competitive market.