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The Business Of Agenting

Agenting is an intense, difficult, and occasionally, thankless profession involving high risk and low rewards. If making a quick buck is your sole motive, then you should steer clear of it

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Mainstream Indian publishing has seen tremendous growth in the last decade or so. Greater transparency and accountability due to the availability of sales data from the Nielsen Book Scan has, to some extent, cleared misgivings about the publishing world. A few industry insiders say that mainstream Indian publishers bring out 3,000 titles a year, of which roughly 30 per cent are fiction. Despite such optimistic numbers, the growth of the middleman, the literary agent, has been relatively slower.

Unlike in the West, where agenting is a high-powered, full-time job, full-time agenting in India has very few takers. The single most important reason for this is the difference in the advances paid to authors in the West and in India. In the UK and the US, debut authors are frequently paid five-figure advances. The advances for established writers are often in the range of six or seven figures. In India, the amount rarely crosses six figures (in Indian rupees) for first time writers. Established authors usually get anywhere between Rs 3 lakh and Rs 15 lakh.

While an Indian agent collects tiny pickings from most book deals, he or she is usually expected to work as hard (if not harder) than his/her Western counterpart, because of the pervasive culture of direct commissioning and bypassing the middleman. Often, they need to justify the commission as the author moves from being a clueless first-timer to a published/ bestselling writer with direct access to publishers. Even so, agenting in India can be highly profitable, provided certain ground rules are followed.

The manuscript: The business of agenting is purely reputation-driven. The business model relies solely on good word-of- mouth and referrals. Nobody champions an agent better than his or her roster of satisfied authors and no amount of funding or PR campaigns can help an agent whose instinct and editorial acumen are not taken seriously by writers and publishers.

Genre fixation: Owing to the relatively smaller advances, Indian agents cannot afford to restrict themselves to a few genres such as literary or commercial. One has to be open to all kinds of books as long as they are good and marketable. If you are struggling with manuscripts in certain complex genres (business or semi-academic space), seek the help of subject specialists.Agenting is a business first and foremost, and while individual taste plays a great role in shaping an agent’s list, it should not end up colouring his/her perception of what constitutes good and bad literature.

The handshake: What distinguishes a good agent from a not so good one, is the speed at which he gets back on a submission, and the extent of his involvement with the author and the book after the contract has been signed. In fact, an agent’s role effectively begins after the author signs a contract with a publisher. Since the agent-author relationship lasts for a year or two, it is important that the two are compatible on more levels than just their views on a particular book.

Doing the math: The possibilities for agenting in India are limitless. For instance, Penguin, Random House India and HarperCollins India publish more than 450 books collectively per year. An agent who manages to capture even 10 per cent of this pie, gets 50 book deals.

Agenting is an intense, difficult, and occasionally, thankless profession involving high risk and low rewards. If making a quick buck is your sole motive, then you should steer clear of it.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors' and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house. Unless otherwise noted, the author is writing in his/her personal capacity. They are not intended and should not be thought to represent official ideas, attitudes, or policies of any agency or institution.

Kanishka Gupta

The author is the founder of Writer’s Side, South Asia’s largest literary agency and consultancy

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