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.


  1. Thanks Divya,

    I always participate in the writers columns in LinkedIn and have got terrific feedback from there. Its worth it really.

  2. liked good inputs really...

  3. Sharing this with my writer friends.Good, Divya.

  4. You're most welcome, Julia, Moinak, Abha. :)

  5. Hi divya,
    A very useful article indeed. As you said, budding authors must beware of bogus agents who dupe you and take you to vanity publishers.
    Is there a directory of genuine literary agencies and agents in India?
    Can you please publish such a directory of literary agencies and agents on your blog as this will be very helpful to all of us.

  6. Hi Vikram,
    I plan to do just that. Just hang on for a while. I'll be giving you more details soon enough.

  7. HI Divya,

    Some of the recent literary agents who have risen up do not do the job of vetting the manuscript. They send it forward if the plot is saleable without regard to the quality of writing.The publisher will send back his comments and then they represent it without even highlighting the changes. This imposes a huge time and cost burden on the publisher. The publisher's response to this type of agents is to ignore them and focus on already published authors.

    Thus new talent loses out. Perhaps what is required in India is to develop courses in creative writing. Even in England, the home of high quality publishing, there are innumerable creative writing classes.

    Kamaljit Sood
    Thames River Press/Anthem Press

  8. Hi Kamaljit,
    It's a pity because such agents are obviously not doing the job they're being paid for. No point entertaining them. In India it's different since this is still a new field; there are few players, and most of those who do enter the fray are people who already have some experience and are familiar with the prerequisites. I'll be giving more details in a few days, so do keep an eye out for it.

    There are a few creative writing courses here as well, though not on the same scale as in the West. Jadavpur University runs one, and Aurobindo Instt (Delhi) runs another.

  9. google search brought me to this... in India better to approach publishing houses directly. A cool one I know - Pirates, a publishing house based in delhi who have published Tushar Raheja's new book Romi and Gang..they seem fairer than the rest D 1 Maharani Bagh Delhi and email -

  10. Interesting article this.
    There are some more and growing Literary Agents in India. Check out who are based in Mumbai.