A generation of aspiring Indian authors, including myself, have grown up on the story of how Arundhati Roy was discovered by the UK-based literary agent David Godwin, and landed more than a million dollars as an advance.
The subsequent success of the book and the Booker win led to many high-profile literary marriages between Indian authors and global publishers. Although many such books failed to live up to the hype, all the media hullaballoo around them made the evasive UK/US agent a household name.
In the West, literary agencies are as old as publishers. The concept of unsolicited or direct submissions is severely discouraged and all publishers recommend that authors come to them through an agent. This agent-inclusive or agent-only publishing ecosystem has turned some agencies into business empires and the agents at their helm, into the stuff of legends. Many old established agencies don’t just make money from new rights sales, but also from the estates of literary giants they have been handling.
Agents are kingmakers and wooed by publishers and authors alike. Such is the clout of some of the agents that the notorious Andrew Wylie, popularly known as 'The Jackal' in publishing circles for his frequent poaching of big authors from the stables of his rivals, recently took the publishing industry hostage by announcing an e-book only imprint called Odyssey books with Amazon for his authors. More recently, the Spanish-speaking world collectively mourned the demise of legendary agent Carmell Balcells, who represented giants such as Mario Vargas Llosa, Gabriel García Márquez, Camilo José Cela and Pablo Neruda. In 2010, her personal archives, spanning a period of 50 years, were sold to the Spanish Ministry of Culture for 3 million euros.
In India, literary agents are just about beginning to come into their own. For a long time, one couldn’t have imagined making a living out of being an agent here because of the money involved: The advances usually ranged from zero to a princely sum of Rs 10,000. Publishers acquired all their books by reaching out to potential authors directly or through references from their existing authors and journalist friends. There were also some mentor-authors such as the legendary Khushwant Singh, who is known to have mentored generations of Indian writers in English.
While the first Indian agency started as early as 1997 out of Bangalore, it was the setting up of the Neville Tuli-backed Osian Literary Agency in May 2007 that was a turning point in the fledgling agenting scene in India. Such was the buzz around this full-time literary agency that Mint Lounge did a whole feature on it after it signed its first five authors. A measure of how far agenting has come since the time of Osian’s would be the complete lack of coverage for an agency that sells hundreds of books in a year now. Sadly, Osian’s shut shop because of several problems.
Khan Market-based Red Ink got its major breakthrough with the unprecedented million dollar three-book deal for its author Amish Tripathi. It’s not only the highest payout to an agented author, but any author in Indian publishing history. The Jaipur-based Siyahi has been consistently selling books since 2008 and represents Devdutt Pattnaik.
Agenting in India got another shot in the arm with the setting up of the Indian arm of the revered UK-based Aitken Alexander in 2011. It was headed by an ex-Picador editorial director and managed to secure some high profile signings including the late Vinod Mehta, Yuvraj Singh and Tavleen Singh. It also managed the subcontinental rights for high profile authors represented by the UK arm of the agency.
In 2010, I set up Writer’s Side and have been steadily selling books by debut and established writers to mainstream publishers.
Nearly 10 years after the first major agency set up shop in India, the business of agenting remains niche, complicated and highly precarious. This is because of the sad systems in place which don’t allow our tribe to function to the best of our abilities. Barring Hachette India, all Indian publishers accept direct submissions. Most newcomers, who are not familiar with agents in India, submit to a publisher directly. Many a time, debut writers become aware of agents after having approached publishers, making the possibility of a future relationship terribly complicated. Many publishers openly encourage authors to submit directly because they are well aware that with the involvement of an agent, things will get competitive and they won’t be able to get a book at whatever random price they offer.
This dispensability of Indian agents gives rise to a lot of unfavourable practices and negotiations. Not only do authors haggle over the standard, universally acceptable 15 percent commission rate, but many don’t want an agent to have anything to do with the lifelong royalties that kick in after the advance is earned out. If anything untoward happens, the blame is likely to fall squarely on the agent and the author often laments signing up with an 'Indian' agent and not going to a publisher directly. An Indian agent has to work much harder than peers abroad in order to justify his commission and retain the author who may have already developed a close working relationship with the publisher/editor.
In India, agencies have survived and, to some extent, even flourished, because of their strong individual USPs. There is the well-connected agent who manages very good media and festival invitations for authors, the aggressive agent who doesn’t accept small offers, the masterful editor-agent who takes manuscripts of authors to another level, the agent who gets back on promising manuscripts within hours and so on.
However, since ours is an impossibly complex market, where agents are competing with their own buyers, only the creative and proactive agent will be able to last. An agent developing an idea with a promising author is far more vulnerable than a publishing editor doing the same because there is no guarantee of the final proposal/manuscript ultimately finding the right home.
However, this is the only way ahead for agents in a market where nearly 75-80 percent of books across all genres are commissioned directly. Not only this, but an Indian agent just doesn’t have the luxury to represent a certain kind of book and should be open to all books as long as they have some merit and are marketable. Despite their inherent problems, opposition, and less than overwhelming presence in the subcontinental market, I daresay that in another five years, most Indian publishers will be forced to adopt the agent-only model. And this will only be because of authors!
The author is CEO of the literary agency Writer's Side.