With publishers scouring through tons of manuscripts on a daily basis, rubbishing the not so great ones, putting away a good idea for further work and discovering a great book after much effort; well-presented scripts by agents are any day a better prospect. Of late there have been a handful of successful Indian agents, who are making a mark on the literary scene.
‘Writer’s Side’ founded by Kanishka Gupta, is one such agency that is growing from strength to strength. It has been six years since Kanishka started the agency, and over the years has sold over 500 books including works of award-winning authors to publishers. And according to ‘Publishersmarketplace’, he is the highest individual dealmaker in the world.
“Today Writer’s Side is by far the largest and most successful literary agency in South Asia,” shares Kanishka as he relates his journey from choosing to become a literary agent to becoming one of the most successful, and youngest agent in India.
What is the story behind Writer’s Side, and your inspiration behind beginning WS?
After a devastating life-altering episode right after school, I gravitated towards writing. After sleepwalking through college I started looking for publishing possibilities for my novel. At that time there was just one Bangalore-based agency and a Delhi-based representative of a major foreign agent. In short, access to publishers was near impossible.
Several years of unemployment later, I joined an agency as an evaluator. Thereafter, I started working for JLF director Namita Gokhale as an assistant. It was she who told me that she saw me becoming an entrepreneur- at that time branching out on my own seemed impossible because I was a nobody in publishing. A few months later I did start my agency and editorial consultancy but found my first writer Anees Salim after more than one year.
I signed up Anees without telling him that I knew only one editor in the entire publishing business - I believed that once I had a good product, convincing publishers won’t be difficult. Thereafter, I frantically started contacting publishers on Facebook and Saugata Mukherjee - then the commissioning editor of HarperCollins- asked me to submit the book. He bought two of Anees’ books and rest is history.
Can you share a few experiences of your initial days as an independent literary agent?
I have been tracking publishing trends since I was 22. I was fortunate to have been mentored by people like Shobhaa De and Ravi Singh during my formative years. I faced a fair share of discrimination and condescension.
It didn’t help that I am pretty unconventional, aloof, and unliterary (according to some) and someone who does not like to hold forth on books at literary festivals and gatherings. My story illustrates that contrary to popular perception, publishing is meritocratic in some ways.
What was your first big book that changed fortunes?
Anees Salim changed my life. He continues to be my star literary writer although there have been many successes after that. While there have been 2-3 Writer’s Side titles that have crossed the sales figure of 30,000 there has been greater literary acclaim for my writers. I am also rather happy with my list of authors from across the border!
As an agent, what was that one quality that helped you reach where you are?
I would say versatility. I am open to doing all sorts of books as long as they are good. I don’t like to pigeonhole myself as an agent for ‘literary’ books or ‘blockbuster’ books. I find such positioning laughable. I would be very uncomfortable rejecting a book just because I don’t know much about the subject or it doesn’t interest me personally.
No entrepreneur in his right mind would think like that. I also feel that I am very easy to work with and perhaps that’s why publishers are comfortable dealing with me. I am also very objective and unbiased about my selection process and don’t get easily swayed by track record, prizes won in the past, clout in the literary circuit.
What do you look for in a book, and how do you pitch it?
Quality, quality and quality, but sometimes, something is so urgent and vital that it overshadows every other criterion. It’s not enough to just have access to publishers but one should have an intimate understanding of every single commissioning editor’s likes and dislikes and then pitch the book accordingly.
This requires constant interaction, brainstorming and data gathering. Some publishers even share ideas with me before signing an MOU. There have been more than half a dozen instances, where I have found them the right writer for an )idea. I work on trust and do all sorts of strange things like signing up authors on Facebook and WhatsApp or even over the phone.
What are the advantages and main challenges of being a literary agent n India
Indian agents are making big leaps. For me personally, the biggest problem is the long running tradition of direct commissioning. While I am established, I am still new and it’s not easy to convince authors not to go to publishing stalwarts directly.
You end up justifying your 15 per cent to such authors all the time. That’s why I prefer to work with first-time writers, who are developing ideas conceived by me, or writers who respect what I am doing for them. I also find myself constantly battling this perception that I do ‘commercial’ books when the last commercial book I did was in 2014.
In fact, I am drawn towards niche subjects and this year alone I am doing a book on Darjeeling, Burma, the classical Urdu poets of Delhi, a translation of Sara Shagufta, a book on the history of the Indian graphic novel, a book on the root bridges of Meghalaya etc...