How to sell, and buy a book
Wondering if your words are rotting in a publisher’s slush pile? A literary agent could change all that.Updated: Mar 17, 2012 17:18 IST
Like all first-time novelists, Anees Salim mailed his manuscripts to every publisher in the country – and got no response. Not even a rejection. So, he pretended to be 20-year-old Hasina Mansoor, the protagonist of one of his novels, and mailed samples as the opening chapters of her autobiography. Again, no response.
Next, Anees sent his manuscript to a few literary agents instead. “The first to respond was Kanishka Gupta, who wrote back in five minutes,” says Anees, whose first novel, The Vicks Mango Tree, will be published by HarperCollins in May this year. “Kanishka agreed to represent me. It took him a fortnight to sell the rights through auction.
Then he auctioned two more of my manuscripts in the one and a half months. Ironically, the bidders were the same publishers on whose tables my manuscripts had been gathering dust. I had not changed a word in them. What I had changed was that I got myself an agent.”
In a country which, according to the Nielsen BookScan India figures published in the latest edition of international trade magazine The Bookseller, spent Rs 3.38 billion on books in 2011, the concept of literary agents is just about seven years old. On a basic level, a literary agent is a person who represents the author to publishers, working out deals and contracts for a commission or fee.
But the relationship between an agent and author goes beyond that, say Jayapriya Vasudevan and Priya Doraswamy, founders of seven-year-old Jacaranda, India’s first literary agency.
“Submission to a publisher, especially for a first-time author, is very angst-driven,” says Jayapriya. “As agents, we are expected to manage the author’s nervous energy.”
Right now in India, there are very few literary agencies recognised by publishers. Jacaranda was followed by Siyahi, headed by Jaipur-based Mita Kapur. Writer’s Side followed, launched by Kanishka Gupta in Delhi, and Mumbai-based Sherna Khambatta established her agency in 2007, dealing with non-fiction.
There are also a few international players, such as David Godwin (the man who took Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things to a £500,000 advance), the Aitken Alexander agency which set up in Delhi in 2011, and this year, the Tibor Jones Literary Agency with their South Asia prize for unpublished manuscripts.
“It’s healthy for an author to have an agent,” says Shruti Debi, head of the Indian office of Aitken Alexander. “A book is a durable item and writers usually have no parameters of the quality or nature of the deal that they are getting into. An agent is a sounding board for the author and publisher.”
And a sounding board is necessary in an industry that is getting extremely competitive, as author Hari Kunzru notes. “It’s now more or less impossible to access editors at mainstream publishing houses without going through an agent,” says the author who was on the verge of giving up the literary life until his agent casually sent him a cheque for £1 million for his first novel, The Impressionists.
“The volume of unsolicited submissions means that the ‘slush pile’ is enormous. Apart from using an agent to get connected to the right editor at the right publishing house, agents also help you negotiate the complex world of book contracts.”
Not miracle workers
But an agent is not necessarily a miracle worker, warns David Godwin. “To find an agent you have to write a terrific book,” he says. Which is why some agencies like Siyahi prefer to work with established writers.
“I get around five submissions every day but we select only two or three out of the blind submissions we receive every year. The number of authors with Siyahi is growing because either they are published authors or have come through a reliable source, and we decide to take on only if I am convinced of the book,” says Mita Kapur.
Still, since direct submissions to publishers are still pretty much the norm in India, most authors can still get by without an agent, says Advaita Kala, author of Almost Single. “I didn’t have an agent when I submitted in India,” she says. “It was only when Almost Single was solicited by Random House in the US that I needed representation.”
This means that Indian publishers are happy about the arrival of literary agencies. “Literary agents make it a level playing ground,” says Karthika VK, publisher & chief editor, HarperCollins Publishers India. Kapish Mehra, managing director, Rupa Publications, believes that the biggest advantage of agents is that “they can help you find writing.”
Despite this, some publishers, such as Sayoni Basu, publisher, Amar Chitra Katha (ACK) and Scholastic India, publishers of children’s and young adult books, prefer to commission books from authors directly. “A couple of Indian agents have been sending manuscripts to me but we are yet to find something which has resulted in a published book!” says Sayoni.
Just book placers?
That, in fact, is a trend that Renuka Chatterjee, chief editor at Westland, and Dipa Chaudhuri, chief editor, Om Books Publishing, worry about a little. Are agents merely selling books, or are they selling good books?
“The advantage of agencies is that they sift the wheat from the chaff – at least that is what they are supposed to do,” says Renuka. “The reality is that very few of them do.”
Still, these are nascent problems in an industry that is becoming more and more professional. “In fact in 2012 we are expecting an Indian Kindle, some sort of self-publishing to happen,” says Shruti Debi. “This is an expanding market and there will be space for genuine professionals with a nose for the right kinds of books,” adds Saugata Mukherjee, publisher, Pan Macmillan India.Author speak
Award-winning author based in Denmark who prefers to have an Indian agent represent him worldwide.
Having grown up in Gaya until I turned 24, the path to becoming a writer was a dark and confusing one. So the notion of having a literary agent did not cross my mind even after becoming fairly established as an author, and moving to Denmark.
Living there, I realised I needed agents based in the centres of literary publicity. But I wanted my main agent to be based in India, as I see myself as an Indian writer, with co-agents in London and New York.
I realised this was not commonly done, but I went ahead anyway. And I am happy I did
He is an author, who had an agent, but left him and is now on his own, happily. So, our English publishing industry is not very organised, so agents who normally have a much fuller function in publishing are reduced to being only book placers and not much more.
These book placers often do harm, for instance with my second book, because they are limited to just their own individual contacts in the industry. All this is dismal and the only hope, for me, is to do my job and wait until someone discovers the work and wants to take it ahead
Author for kids, young adults and adults. She is finally on the verge of signing up with a literary agent.
I just think that the time for agents in India is finally here. I feel the need to have someone professionally committed to looking after my interests. I want someone who is able to look outside my contacts. And I don’t want to have to sell myself any more
Jaya Bhattacharji Rose is an international publishing and literary consultant. She may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter @JBhattacharji
From HT Brunch, March 18
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