Jaya Bhattacharji Rose writes about the rise of literary agents in India.
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.”
“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.”
“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.”
“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.
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