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. 

kANIMG-20151018-WA0002How do you look back onyour journey of being a literary agent? Did you always believe that you would succeed as an agent?

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!

What does it mean to be a literary agent in India? Kanishka Gupta reveals it all in Scroll.in

Many authors have no idea about the print runs and the advances prevalent in the industry. A writer from the film industry wanted Rs 1 crore for a seven-book deal. “If Ravi Subramanian can get it, why can’t I?” Subramanian delivered three smash bestsellers too, you see, but this fact went completely unnoticed by this particular writer.

Some authors expect the potential print-runs of their books to be a certain percentage of literate people in India, and sometimes even of the entire population of India. “We are a country of one billion people. I think it would be fair to do a first print run of ten lakh copies.”