Editorial by Tanuj Khosla
Blame Chetan Bhagat. After his debut novel Five Point Someone became a massive hit in 2004, English-educated Indians were instilled with the hope that they, too, could become overnight sensations. Since then, more a hundred such authors have gone on to publish their debut novels, taking their life experience as their subject. Many of these books have been resounding commercial successes, inspiring thousands more imitators.
While all this is good news for aspiring authors, publishers, readers and booksellers, this publishing boom has had one negative side-effect: the sudden proliferation of shady literary agents in India.
In the West, most writers engage literary agents to represent their works and assist in the negotiation and sale of their book to publishers. However legitimate literary agents are still relatively rare in India — over 90% of the authors submit their manuscripts directly to the publishers — and the concept of “representation” is itself relatively new.
Over the last few years several unscrupulous individuals in India have taken advantage of the naiveté of aspiring writers — and the absence of competition from established local or international agencies — to open shop as agents.
In New Delhi, which can rightfully call itself the publishing capital of India, self-styled “literary experts” and “consultants” have set up all over town. Unfortunately, many have little to no understanding of the trade; most have no direct publishing experience, and the few who do, are frequently authors themselves who moved into agenting after seeing their own literary efforts fail to set the cash register ringing at the bookstores.
This new breed of literary agent employs some unusual practices:
- Welcome One and All
- “Pushing” the Sales
- Milk the “Wealthy” NRIs (Non-Resident Indians)
- When All Else Fails, Self-publish!
Since so few of these agents lack any specialist knowledge of literary trends in the industry and the evolving tastes of the consumers, they accept any manuscript that comes their way and try to place it with whatever “contacts” they might have in the book business (which often might only extend to the publishers who have “friended” them on Facebook). Needless to say, the time they devote to each manuscript is minimal and their rate of success at selling manuscripts for publication is abysmal.
Part of the reason the agencies are so open to taking on new clients is that they don’t make the majority of their money by selling manuscripts but by charging their clients a hefty fee to “edit the raw manuscript and make it fit for presentation to publishers” — a practice that sometimes involves little more than adding a few commas and rearranging some few paragraphs.
When the agent does manage to land a book with an established house, as a “valued-added” service, they will offer to orchestrate the appearance of robust sales by buying up copies in bulk from bookstores using author’s own money. The idea is to help boost the book onto the bestseller list and thereby trigger some “real” sales.
There are tens of thousands of NRIs who aspire to publish a book back home. Some of these dreamers pen a few chapters and email them to an Indian agency — likely one with a slick website — only to be told they’ll be charged fees to “Indianize” the novel and to prioritize pitching the manuscript over similar books of the same genre. A few weeks later, the agency informs the NRI that while their books have tremendous potential, publishers have rejected them saying they are “not commercially viable in India.”
This is the most common ploy used by literary agents to extract even more money from clients. Not unexpectedly, NRIs and budding writers from well-off families are the most likely target of this bait-and-switch. “Self-publishing” suggests the agent is willing to go to any length to satisfy the writer — going so far as to print and market the manuscript themselves — while it is quite conceivable in such cases, not a single publisher set eyes on the manuscript in the first place. Naturally, this can be the most pricey service available of all.
So, with so much against them, is all lost for aspiring writers in India when it comes to working with agents? No, there are several home-grown literary agents with integrity and experience, such as Siyahi and Jacaranda. Just this year Aitken Alexander Associates from the UK opened in India. If the untapped potential of the Indian market is anything to go by, I suspect that many more shall soon follow them.
In the meantime there are two things common-sense steps an aspiring author can take to avoid falling for a dubious sales pitch and handing over their labor of love to an unscrupulous agent:
- Talk to Them
- Ask to Talk to Their Clients
All these agents have impressive websites and online profiles. However a chat with them over the phone can be a revelation. It is very important to judge their competence and gauge the seriousness with which they are going to try and place your book.
A candid feedback from a writer who has worked with the agent can be invaluable.
Yes, one can expect that the next few years in publishing in India you’ll see dramatic changes. The rise of agenting is just one consequence of this, and as the demand for agents increases, it is even more likely to bring in new, talented and experienced individuals to cater to it — as well several dodgy ones.
The professional development of agents in India will take time, but until that time comes it is always better for a writer to be safe than sorry.
Tanuj Khosla is a Research Analyst at 3 Degrees Asset Management, a fund management firm in Singapore. Follow him on Twitter at @Tanuj_Khosla contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Views expressed are his own.