Correspondent Priyanka Tanwar spoke with literary agent, publishing commentator, and author Kanishka Gupta at the 2022 in-person Jaipur Literature Festival about agenting in India; representing International Booker 2022-winning translator Daisy Rockwell; the lack of publishing bodies in India; and, the challenges faced by literary agents.
IPP – How did you become a literary agent? How long have you been doing it?
Kanishka Gupta – I have been a literary agent for more than 10 years. I did not intend to be an agent, in fact, I did not even intend to be a writer. Because of personal reasons, I started writing after the age of 18 and at that time I did not find any support system for first-time writers. They were hugely dependent on feedback from friends and family and they would not say anything bad about the book, so I set up Writers Side in 2008. It did not start out as an agency; we were a manuscript critiquing service giving feedback to first-time writers for a fee and helping them hone their work. A couple of years down the line, I grew tired of editing and critiquing, and I wanted to introduce new extraordinary literary talent, and that’s how I got into agenting. In fact, my first writer is Anees Salim and he’s won many prizes. It all happened accidentally.
IPP – Please explain what a literary agent does in the Indian publishing industry.
Kanishka Gupta – We have come a long way, but it’s nowhere close to the influence that the UK and US agents wielded over publishing, internationally. One of the primary reasons is that publishers like to commission directly, and why not because they end up getting books for a cheaper price? An agent normally sends out the proposal to many publishers and tries to pit one publisher against the other. But a very good agent will also negotiate over smaller things such as the term of copyright of the contract, other rights that are being offered to the publisher, and the territory of the contract. Agents have made great inroads. In fact, two of the biggest deals that have happened in Indian publishing are via agents: one of them involved the Red Ink Literary Agency, which was instrumental in a three-book deal for Amish Tripathi with Westland Books. It was a record-breaking deal, and so high was the advance that it was on the front page of The Times of India. Now, the Tata biography, which has been picked up by Harper Collins, involves an agent and that’s also a record advance for a work of non-fiction coming out of India, but we have a long way to go.
IPP – A Hindi translation recently won the Booker Prize. What’s your view?
Kanishka Gupta – That’s my book. I represent the translator, Daisy Rockwell. That’s unprecedented and I would say that this has never happened before. I don’t know why people are just saying Hindi translation because no South Asian language book has ever won the International Booker, or appeared on the long list.
You have so many Indian languages. What about some other countries of the subcontinent? Those books are also translated into English, and some of them get published in the UK, but there has been no English translation of a South Asian language that has won the International Booker or appeared on the long list, so it’s unprecedented. Many Indian authors have won the Booker Prize, so many of them have been long-listed or shortlisted, but this is a first. It’s always good to be a part of a historic moment like this.
IPP – Indian translations have recently done very well. What are your thoughts on this?
Kanishka Gupta – A well-received, well-reviewed English translation of a fiction work originally written in any Indian language will do as well as a well-received promising work of fiction originally written in English.
IPP – How do you select the books that you want to represent?
Kanishka Gupta – I represent books across the spectrum. We are very genre-agnostic. I need to connect with the book, I need to see value in it, and if I feel that a book deserves to be published, then I am going to champion it and try and get it a publisher even if the returns are not very high, at least immediately. We are open to working on graphic novels, poetry, and even academic works.
For fiction, we need to read the whole manuscript unless it’s a very, very big name, and even then, I encourage my authors to submit the full book. Sometimes, one runs the risk of getting a lower price because publishers can always give the excuse that we are taking a risk, we do not know how this is going to end. In fiction, one needs to read till the very end to make up one’s mind about the book.
In nonfiction, we work on proposals, and ideally, I would like the authors to submit a chapter or two, but we are happy to pick up works of non-fiction based on a proposal and the expertise of the author. I mean, why is this author working on this book? Are they like experts in the field? Do they have access to some material or research that nobody else does?
IPP – In what ways do Indian literary agents differ from their foreign counterparts?
Kanishka Gupta – We don’t have as much influence as agents in the UK and the US. We cannot get big advances for all our authors. But because agenting has become well known in India, it has also created a lot of awareness among South Asian writers – now they expect us to pitch to OTT platforms, they expect us to sell audio rights, they expect us to sell books in Indian languages, but most importantly they expect us to be on a par with the UK/US agents for the representation of their books.
Anybody would want to get their books reviewed in The New York Times and The Times, and they would like their books to be eligible for the Booker prizes and other prestigious prizes. Most of these prizes do not entertain books that are not published in the UK or the US. So yes, we are not at all as influential as the UK and US agents, but that doesn’t mean we are not as good as them. And I think things are going to change.
For instance, I discovered a Booker-shortlisted writer this year – Girl in White Cotton by Avni Doshi was represented by me. It was agented by another agent in the UK and the US and came out under the name Burnt Sugar. I have a translator who has won the International Booker Prize and is represented by me internationally. I was involved in the sale of Tomb of Sand in the UK, the US, and South Asia.
IPP – What are your views on literary bodies such as the Association of Authors’ Representatives (AAR)? Do you think that having such a body in India could work wonders for the Indian publishing industry as a whole?
Kanishka Gupta – Of course, we need them, we need them, and we need to band together like even agents need to come together. We need these bodies – we need to safeguard the rights of authors and creative professionals. We don’t have any professional publishing organizations in India, it is pitiable and pathetic, but what to do?
IPP – Are you friends with other literary agents?
Kanishka Gupta – I used to write a lot for Scroll, and I also put together a series called ‘Publishing in the Pandemic’ during the initial Covid-19 period, which received significant critical acclaim. I have a platform, and I have rival agents too, and I have written about rival agents as we need to be pretty objective. They also need to be profiled, and if the story is interesting enough, then why not?
IPP – What challenges does a literary agent face in the process of getting a publishing contract?
Kanishka Gupta – Just like you need to find the right editor and publisher for the idea of the story that you are pitching, it’s very, very hard to pitch debut fiction because sales are always in the range of one thousand to two thousand. And even if the book is acclaimed and wins an award, it doesn’t normally translate into sales. It’s always difficult to sell fiction but I have persevered during the Covid-19 pandemic. I have pitched poetry collections during the pandemic, offbeat works of fiction, and genre fiction during the pandemic. The struggle is to get a publisher and the right editor for the right vision of the book.
IPP – Do you have a message for our readers?
Kanishka Gupta – I would request your readers and book lovers to read more Indian fiction and not just the fiction that is getting acclaim from the West. They should read the home-grown writers and genre fiction by Indian writers.
Some Indian writers write good crime, they write good horror stories, and they are good with science fiction. I feel that Indian readers are really not interested in reading genre fiction from India and have their old favorites. Please read, promote fiction from India and write about it, and recommend it to your fellow readers.
IPP – Thank you for speaking with Indian Printer & Publisher