The art of sealing the deal

The relationship between writer and publisher is increasingly being shaped by literary agents, influencing the kinds of books that are commissioned and eventually read

June 05, 2016 12:16 am | Updated September 16, 2016 10:50 am IST

Vishwas Mudagal was a frustrated man. Three years earlier, when he had shown his friends a draft of his first book, they were pretty impressed. It was 2012 now, the draft had undergone many changes, but not one publisher was willing to take the risk. Just as Mudagal, an entrepreneur and motivational speaker, was toying with the idea of self-publishing, a friend introduced him to Kanishka Gupta, literary agent and CEO of Writer’s Side. Gupta thought Losing My Religion was a “fresh piece of writing” and pitched it to Fingerprint Publishing.

Changes in publishing Literary agents are almost indispensable in the West. In Merchants of Culture: The Publishing Business in the Twenty-First Century , John B. Thompson traces the evolution of agents in the U.K. and the U.S. to as far back as the late nineteenth century when printing technologies were mechanised, helping create an expanding market for the written word. This gave birth to informal literary agents. But over time these agents became advocates of their client’s business rather than intermediaries between the publishers and writers. In other words, they worked largely for the writers. This led to the collapse of traditional relations between the writer and publisher. The writer, not publisher, ruled the roost.

The 1980s and 1990s saw an explosion in the number of agents. The publishing industry was confronting dizzying changes at the time: the consolidation of publishing houses was leaving editors without jobs, and writers without editors. Stranded and confused, writers weren’t keeping abreast of all the happenings. Into this chaos burst agents, their importance growing as relations become less personal and the industry more market-driven.

India has also been seeing significant changes, perhaps more than anything the West has seen, especially in the last ten years, says Ananth Padmanabhan, CEO of HarperCollins India. The meteoric rise of commercial fiction spurred by authors such as Chetan Bhagat, Amish Tripathi, Nikita Singh, and Ravinder Singh has been taking place even as its highbrow counterpart, the literary novel, has been hobbling along. This meant a shift in the readership base too — the new readers seeking accessible entertaining reads were 18-25 year olds, says Padmanabhan. He calls them the “reluctant readers”. “Chain stores burgeoned, shrank because of economics, and are now seeing an upside again,” he explains. Flipkart, Amazon and Snapdeal made grand entries into the market, e-books were made available, and Nielsen BookScan began operations in India, helping publishers find out who and what is trending.

In the midst of all this noise, literary agents have been gaining ground, albeit slowly. “Ten years back, the industry wasn’t this busy,” says Shruti Debi, senior agent and director at Aitken Alexander Associates India. “Relations between authors and publishers were intimate. By 2010-11, it wasn’t so easy to have a direct relationship with the author, and literary agents became popular.”

Agents mediate between publishers and authors. Their fee is an average 15-20 per cent commission on advances (if any) and sales. They might be the intermediaries but their interests lie with the authors they interact with daily. “By that I mean I take calls at one and two in the night,” says Mita Kapur, founder and CEO of Siyahi. An agent’s hectic schedule includes reading a dozen manuscripts to separate the wheat from the chaff, negotiating deals, discussing book covers, editing, marketing, talking to authors, then publishers, and then authors again — the whole works.

“We live in a market-savvy society,” says Kapur. “And it is important to professionalise the relationship between the author and publisher. We hone manuscripts, hold the authors’ hands throughout the process.” This is why agents are like counsellors, says Gupta. “We spend a lot of time dealing with people, not just books. And that means I never switch off my phone. The point is to always respect them and care for them.” In other words, it means either answering anxious queries or getting them answers to these queries, says Debi.

It is a booming industry, so it natural that many agents deal with first-time writers. “I get about 10-15 mails a day,” says Kapur. “The quality is mostly terrible. Our rejection rate is 97-98 per cent. But I know a good book when I see it.” First-time writers struggle to emerge from obscurity and most get accustomed to a relationship with rejection letters. But there have been incredible tales too: Amish Tripathi was rejected by several publishers before Anuj Bahri’s Red Ink Literary Agency saw potential in him and made The Immortals of Meluha a phenomenon. “It is grunt work but we make the lives of publishers easier,” says Gupta.

Agencies often specialise in various other forms of writing. Red Ink, for instance, focuses on, but is not restricted to, South Asian writings. Writer’s Side is heavy on first-time writers, Gupta says, rattling off names like Danesh Rana, Anees Salim, Hussain Zaidi, Ali Hashmi. Others such as Priya Doraswamy’s Lotus Lane Literary represent a diverse list of debut and seasoned authors. Aitken, says Debi, does not look at the slush pile. “I only take literary writers,” she says; her list of more than 50 boasts of names like Tavleen Singh, Amitava Kumar, Rahul Bhattacharya, Samanth Subramanian, and Vivek Shanbhag. Why not? “Because no bathroom singer is ever going to be ready for a full concert,” she says.

Angels in disguise For the writers themselves, agents are angels in disguise. “It feels odd to take the advice of editors whose primary loyalty is to the publisher,” says Samanth Subramanian, author of This Divided Island: Stories from the Sri Lankan War and Following Fish: One Man’s Journey into the Food and Culture of the Indian Coast . “Also, they are very, very stressed. They publish over 150 books a year. They cannot give every book priority. Agents can and are supposed to do that.” Writers can trust agents, acquire better deals and coverage through them, split rights in different markets, and do everything it takes to get the book read, he adds. “Also, it is common for authors to place different books with different publishers depending on the subject, bids, etc. It’s a pain to develop a new relationship with a new marketing team, editing team. So the agent comes in useful.”

Yet despite these glowing testimonials, agents in India are few.

“I haven’t acquired any book from an agent till date,” says Premanka Goswami, commissioning editor at Penguin Random House. “It is important to ideate, find an author, and commission a book. You take responsibility for how the book does… India has a rich history of storytelling. If I conceptualise, I can get these stories to be heard. But what is the point of signing up authors left, right and centre? Yes, you have an Amitav Ghosh. But what are you (agents) doing to create another Ghosh? The point is to commission, not acquire.”

Working together In India, writers still have very strong relations with their publishers unlike in the West, explains Debi. “But it’s also true that many writers don’t know if they are ready. The agent is a sounding board,” she says. As agents are in touch with many publishers at once, they have a better understanding of which publisher is suited for the subject and temperament of the author. “Like I know the kind of voice that Ravi Singh at Speaking Tree likes, you know?”

Manasi Subramaniam, commissioning editor at HarperCollins India, agrees. There is no friction between agents and publishers, she says. In fact, they all work well together. And what about negotiating deals, doesn’t that lead to sticky situations? That’s only a part of the process, she replies. “Agents take care of that. And once money is out of the way, publishers and writers only talk about the book.”

While there are some who prefer to commission themselves (Subramaniam says the team at HarperCollins still likes to sit together a month and commission books), some others are moving towards the Western model of relying completely on agents.

“We need more agents. They are able to bring new voices, incubate and mentor ideas, pitch the right books to editors in the right houses,” says Padmanabhan. “We may not always get the right books. But this is a good start.”

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