Dealmaker and path-breaker for many a writer | Sunday Observer

Dealmaker and path-breaker for many a writer

Since setting up the literary agency Writer’s Side in 2010, Kanishka Gupta has accrued over 500 publishing deals for over 400 authors. Gupta is today one of the most successful literary agents in the subcontinent whose perseverance and passion ensured his name be a force to be reckoned with in the thriving market of South Asian fiction. He has gained repute as one of the top literary agents in South Asia and his highly successful streak has caught the eye of the mainstream media in the subcontinent in no small way. A young man whose presence in the publishing industry has certainly opened opportunity’s for many a new writer to be signed on by leading publishing houses in India, Gupta can be seen as a dealmaker who has become a ‘path-breaker’. In this interview via email Gupta reveals how he got started and shares his thoughts about the current trends in publishing market and more.

Q: You are an acclaimed literary agent in India, and an author whose debut novel was long listed for one of Asia’s most prestigious literary awards. But who was Kanishka Gupta before making the mark in the competitive field of big league publishing? Tell us a bit about yourself and where your literary ambitions started.

A: Kanishka Gupta was a cynical, wannabe, frustrated writer who sat at home and churned out one lousy novel after another. I think I got interested in writing after falling grievously ill at eighteen. After finishing college, I was unemployed for five years. I briefly interned with a Jaipur-based literary agency and the Jaipur Literature Festival director and novelist Namita Gokhale. I started Writer’s Side with an investment of INR 7,000 on a blog-like website. Since I had no prior experience in publishing, I learnt everything on the job and on a trial-and-error basis.

Q: What was the playing field like when you decided to start as an agent for authors? What were the advantages and hurdles?

A: I was pitted against well-networked, respected and far-more experienced former-editors-and journalists-turned agents. Each time a new agency was announced, friends and authors would send me consolatory messages suggesting perhaps it was time to look for other avenues. There were no advantages, but too many disadvantages. I had to rely completely on the ‘slush-pile’, pouring over agonisingly bad and half-baked writing. I don’t think anybody referred me to senior journalists and celebrities like they do now. Several editors didn’t respond and treated my submissions shoddily. But I am an obstinate chap, and kept at it despite the atmosphere of indifference and silent resistance.

Q: What is the Writer’s Side personnel setup like? How did you assemble your team and on what basis did you select them for their designated functions in the agency?

A: The agency was run by me and Rahul Soni (now with HarperCollins India) for the first 5-6 years with freelancers who came and went. What has changed in the last couple of years (which is, perhaps, also responsible for the sudden growth) is that now my editors are all seasoned publishing professionals who know the business and intricacies of publishing as well as they know their literature.

Some, such as Achala Upendran and Sujatha SV, are published authors themselves. I now have a dedicated international rights manager who will be selling foreign rights on my behalf.

Q: What was the big break, the ‘game changing’ manuscript that marked the turning point for you as an agent?

A: Ironically, my first author Anees Salim continues to remain my most critically acclaimed, breakthrough author. In fact, some journalists tell me that Writer’s Side is synonymous with Anees and the serendipitous way in which I happened to sign him.

Q: In terms of nationality and ethnicity how diverse is the pool of writers you now represent?

A: Most are Indians or NRIs, but I perhaps represent the largest number of Pakistani writers (30 as of today) amongst all agents in the world. While I would like to sign more foreign writers, sadly, they don’t hold much appeal to Indian publishers.

Q: Do you limit your representations to selected genres or do you explore all possible categories?

A: I look at everything as long as it is good.

Q: What do you see now as the current trends when it comes to the fiction market in the subcontinent?

A: It’s almost impossible to sell a debut fiction writer unless s/he is exceptional. I think debut literary fiction is harder to place than debut commercial fiction, although both are equally hard to sell in this market.

Publishers are even cutting down on translations, although one encouraging development in recent years has been that translations from languages other than Bengali are being published. But all is not gloom and doom, and the fiercely eclectic and bold publishing lists of indie publishers like Speaking Tiger is testimony to that.

Q: In your opinion, how closely are these trends, related to the present trends in the west?

A: I think the same scenario is unfolding in the West with non-fiction outselling fiction.

Q: There is a notable volume of Indian English writing coming out based on the classic Indian epics and other related mythological figures and stories. How well do books of this genre work in the market and do you think it is a sudden wave or will it prove to be a genre that will continuously grow and evolve with time?

A: I think barring Amish Tripathi and Anand Neelakanthan, we don’t have any big success stories in the mythological genre. Yes, there have been good retellings and adaptations, and such authors have sold well, but the benchmark for a commercial bestseller is not what it used to be a decade ago.

Q: How closely do you work with the authors you represent? Do you believe in directing them to change the narrative or craft the story in a way that subdues the writer’s original literary vision to achieve saleability?

A: I am a reader, mentor, sounding board, counsellor and PR person all rolled into one. I do believe in helping authors develop their pitches and books.

At the same time, I am aware that if a book has promise a discerning commissioning editor will spot it. Unlike some other agents, I am not obsessed with pitching perfect, error-free manuscripts. And I never ask my authors to compromise their literary vision in favour of saleability.

Q: What are the key points you would look for in a submission? What must a synopsis and a sample of the manuscript tell you immediately to interest you to explore the manuscript further?

A: Well, the writing and the storyline has to leap out. In certain genres, such as non-fiction and translations, pedigree and qualifications matter a lot. Most debut authors betray their poor writing skills in the query letter itself making my job a lot easier.

Q: What are the future plans for Writer’s Side? What do you see as the next big move in your operations as a literary agency?

I need to establish a footprint overseas because I don’t know what more I could do in the subcontinent. I also want to start selling film rights on a regular basis. 

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