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Literary agents: Emerging as key ancillary of publishing

Press Trust of India  |  New Delhi 

Literary agents are emerging as the new kingmakers in publishing, acting as commissioning editors and helping writers realise their dream besides taking care of packaging, sales potential and marketing as well.

According to Kanishka Gupta, who heads Writer's Side, an agent scours the market to find the best possible deal and editor for an author.

"An individual author, howsoever well-connected he may be, doesn't have this luxury. At Writer's Side, we handhold our authors right from the proposal development stage to contract signing, editing, publishing and even post-publishing activities," he told PTI.

Mita Kapur of Siyahi feels the scope for literary agents is on a steep incline with both authors and publishers preferring an organised and professionally nurtured relationship.

"An agent has the vision for an author's writing career and where-how-what-why of the industry which makes it a perfect combination," she says.

Publishers like HarperCollins India say they don't have any one preference - seeking new talent themselves or engaging literary agents.

"Agents regularly pitch books to us, and we find new voices and commission fresh work too," says its CEO Ananth Padmanabhan.

He also feels that new writers can get a fair deal if they approach a literary agent.

Denmark-based Tabish Khair, author of books like "The Thing About Thugs", "How to Fight Islamist Terror from the Missionary Position" and the recent "Jihadi Jane" was already an established writer in India, and with two novels published internationally by a major house, before he got agents.

"I cannot say to what extent agents help you break into print. But agents help me avoid the troubling business-side of writing, which they take care of, and for that I am most grateful. They also give good advice about where to publish, etc., because they know the market better than an isolated writer like me can," he says.

He feels it is always good to get another perspective, but finally any serious writer writes what he or she wants to write.

For Shruti Debi, agent to authors like Yuvraj Singh, the late Vinod Mehta and Aatish Taseer, agenting is a "wonderful profession for someone committed to the culture of reading and writing, very rewarding in an everyday sense, enriching" but for which "you have to have certain fine skills and a big heart".

She says while there is a great demand for content there is a slide in the habit of buying content and perhaps the hardest hit "content generator" is the author of books, whose income flows from royalties per sold copy.

"How do we sell more copies? This is the challenge,

fundamentally, and it is shared up and down the chain: author (and agent: I mean the brackets literally, to indicate that the agent is parenthetical), publisher, distributor, bookshop. We all worry about it and try to find inventive or innovative ways to meet this challenge," she says.

On whether we seeing more of new writers because of agents helping them structure stories, she says, "Probably not. In my experience publishing is an inclusive industry and publishers have always needed new writing. Books editors are very smart, generous people. A lot is owed to their hunger and commitment."

Renuka Chatterjee, who stopped being a literary agent in 2014 when she joined Speaking Tiger publishing house, says the past five-seven years, however, have not as such seen a growth in the number of agents - there are still only a handful, not more than 5 or 6 - whom you can regard as proper, professional agents.

"The real change that has happened is that more and more authors are now seeking representation from agents, rather than try and find a publisher on their own - as publishers tend to sit on slushpiles or unsolicited manuscripts, especially from first-time authors - whereas an agent will push for a response within a certain period of time; also, they find it easier to let the agent negotiate the money, contract, chase up advances and royalties and so on.

"This being the case, publishers have to deal with agents much more frequently than earlier, and because agents usually go in for a bidding process, and offer the manuscript to several publishers simultaneously, we also quite often have to pay a higher advance for a manuscript than we would have, if we really want it," she says.

For Palimpsest Publishers, which is relatively new on the Indian publishing horizon, submissions inbox remains its primary catchment area.

"But as our choices get more specific we are increasingly turning to agents to put on our counter what exactly we are looking for. Agents from London and New York are always in conversation with us. They do their research well and send you something keeping your market in mind. We have already picked up a couple of books from their tray," says Palimpsest CEO Bhaskar Roy.

"Regrettably I have not yet been able to say yes to anything offered by an Indian agent who has always been very supportive. I hope to do that soon," he adds.

Pan Macmillan says it seeks new talent themselves as well as engages literary agents.

"It's not a choice or a matter of preference; it depends on the idea, the manuscript, the writer in question," says Pan Macmillan India publisher Diya Kar Hazra.

First Published: Sun, November 13 2016. 10:48 IST