Monday, November 28, 2011

The Rise of Literary Agencies in India

[Published column 7,]

Who, what, where, why, and how – let’s get into the heart of the literary agency renaissance in India straightaway – since this vocation has, in the recent days, changed the function of the word ‘agent’ as more of a verb or an adjective. So now we have ‘agented’ scripts (that have the stamp of approval from an industry professional before they get to a publisher’s evaluation desk) and ‘non-agented’ or ‘unsolicited’ scripts (that come straight from the author and are usually raw). The latter category seems to be going out of fashion pretty fast with the recent rise of more literary agencies either out of good old ‘binary fission’ or the entry of new professionals into the arena.

Literary agencies usually serve two important purposes if they are good at their job: (a) they separate the wheat from the chaff; and (b) they edit/prune/polish the selected manuscript so that it is ready for publishing, thus reducing the publisher’s work and time investment considerably. In the coming years, some publishers may stop entertaining unsolicited manuscripts altogether.

Most agencies these days do not charge a reading fee as they used to earlier. However, if they accept a project, there is a fee for editorial services (substantive as well as copyediting). Charges vary, depending on the amount of work a script requires, or according to word count. There may be no editorial charges at all for a ready script. Others could cost a good sum if they require more work or a complete overhauling.

Once the process is complete, it is the agent’s job to sell the ready script to a good publisher. Interestingly, a script may take anything between a day and a year (or more) to sell. The agent’s commission varies from 10% to 20% (on the advance and royalty). Some agents have a flat rate for sales in the sub-continent as well as foreign countries, while others charge a slightly higher percentage on the sale of foreign rights. The commission is split with a sub-agent, in case they work with any. These days, since the Indian publishers usually go in for world rights anyway, it shouldn’t be too much of a concern.

Agencies like Siyahi, and Sherna Khambatta’s Literary Agency have been around since 2007. Jacaranda (now in Singapore) has been around since 1997. Writer’s Side began in 2009 and has been growing steadily. There are two new players on the circuit now – Urmila Dasgupta’s Purple Folio.

It is a misconception that if a person has a publishing business alongside a literary agency, it’s bound to be a vanity-publishing business. On the contrary, the businesses are independent and separately run, have separate submission guidelines and processes, and allow a project to be submitted only to one of the two. Their merit/quality can be easily judged since their products are already out there in the public domain.

The genres agents deal with range from fiction to non-fiction, to translations or works in regional languages. Mita Kapur of Siyahi says, ‘Genres don’t limit us, although we are going slow on taking up poetry. Would love to, but publishers have to have a demand for it.’

‘I cannot guarantee placement, but work to the best of my ability to get one,’ says Sherna Khambatta. Urmila Dasgupta is confident of selling most of her scripts. ‘In most cases, yes,’ she says. ‘Only in a few do I wait till the author reworks on his/her own or after I have edited the script and the author has carried out changes to my satisfaction.’

Most of the agencies do have a pretty high success rate. The number of projects a literary agency does in a year ranges from ten to thirty, depending on the resources available to it and the time the negotiations take. If they cannot sell a project within the stipulated time, the rights revert to the author.

Apart from quality control, agents help to expedite the entire process and, as mentioned elsewhere earlier, may be able to get the author some amount of money as an advance if it is a strong script.

If you plan to approach a literary agent, first of all – please make sure that you find a genuine one. There are also agents who charge a fee and then set you up with a vanity publisher. Beware of such offers. Secondly, do make sure that your contract is clear to you, and that you do have an exit route available along with a reversion-of-rights clause in case the agent should fail to sell the script to a publisher within a reasonable period.

A list of literary agencies follows below, along with their details:

Contact person: Jayapriya Vasudevan and Priya Doraswamy
Add: 331 River Valley Road, 0903 Angsana 1, Yong An Park, Singapore 238363.

Purple Folio
Contact person: Urmila Dasgupta
Add: 75 National Media Centre, National Highway-8,
Nathupur, Near Shankar Chowk.

Red Ink
Contact person: Anuj Bahri

Sherna Khambatta Literary Agency
Contact person: Sherna Khambatta
Add: Gold Croft,
39 B. Desai Road
Bombay 400026

Contact person: Mita Kapur
Add: D-241, Amrapali Marg,
Hanuman Nagar

Writer’s Side
Contact person: Kanishka Gupta

Monday, November 14, 2011

Should I Approach a Publishing House or a Literary Agency?

Lately, we have been talking a lot about the transforming scenario in Indian publishing. One of the major changes has been the literary agency renaissance. It would be wrong to assume that India never had any literary agencies earlier. Mita Kapur’s Siyahi,  Sherna Khambatta’s Literary Agency, etc are a few that have been around for sometime.

However, with the growing number of writers as well as publishers every day now, the requirements of the industry also seem to be changing rapidly. Hence, more literary agencies have come up in the recent past, catering for all kinds of writers – from young, college-going authors doing young adult fiction, to serious literary writers, to writers of non-fiction.  Most of the new literary agencies are run by young professionals, some of whom have already been a part of the publishing industry earlier and are familiar with the prerequisites.

One query I come across most often is: I am a writer with a ready script. Should I approach a publishing house or a literary agency? What’s the difference? How does it matter?

One could approach either but, following the recent trends, a literary agency may be a safer bet. There is a very realistic possibility that some publishers may stop accepting unsolicited manuscripts altogether in the next few years.  Small independents do welcome unsolicited scripts. And many of them produce excellent work that can compete with any other in quality.

Let’s look at some more questions regarding literary agencies.

Q. What exactly is a literary agency?   

A. A literary agency is an agency that acts as a mediator between an author and a publishing house. A literary agent represents the author. He/she reads the author’s script, evaluates it, decides whether it is publishable (or can be made publishable by working on it), decides whether it has the potential to sell, and then takes it on.  Once the agent accepts a script, he/she acts on the author’s behalf and interacts with various publishers till the script is sold and published, and also keeps a track of its performance right up to the time when the author receives his/her royalty.

Q. How is a literary agency different from a publishing house?

A. An agent is an agent – a catalyst in the process. A literary agency charges for its services. Some agents charge a reading fee for reading submissions; others don’t charge for reading, but charge for editing once they’ve accepted a script. Editing includes both substantive and copyediting services. The agent receives a percentage as commission on the author’s royalty once the script has been sold to a publisher. Usually, it’s fifteen per cent. Some agents do have an independent publishing business, but the submissions for that are separate. The submissions to an agency are particularly for the services they offer, including selling the script to another mainstream publisher.

 Q. What are the advantages of going through a literary agent?

A. Quality control. One of the main advantages is that if the author’s script is not print-worthy, the agent makes sure it will be before it reaches the publisher’s evaluation desk. The chances of acceptance hence become much higher. Many times, if a script has been rejected once, the publisher is reluctant to look at it again. That can be prevented right away.  Another advantage is that the script moves faster since it has already been through one round of editing at the agent’s desk. Yet another advantage is that if the script is really strong, the agent may be able to get some amount from the publisher as an advance for the author.

Very recently, I received a query from a first-time author on my linkedin forum: I'm a first time author and I've got a literary agent who is offering me 5% on cover price but I've to pay Rs 15,000 to the publisher he sets me up with apart from his agenting charges.

Please beware of such offers. Make sure you tie up with a genuine agent who will not charge for his/her services and then set you up with a vanity publisher. If at all you wish to go in for self or vanity publishing, there are publishers you could approach directly. If you have doubts, please ask a proper publishing professional/established author. Join online author groups where you can have your queries answered.
In my next column, I’ll provide more details about literary agencies old and new, so watch this space.