Role of Literary Agents in the evolving Indian publishing world

A Times of India reporter reached out to ask me about my views on literary agents (here’s the published article). The interest in the topic was triggered by the recent announcement that Amish Tripathi (author of the Shiva trilogy) has recently got an eye-popping Rs 5 crore advance for his next series. That’s a million US dollars!

In the international market there are authors (and non-authors / celebrities) who get multi-million dollar advances. What makes Amish’s win commendable is that it’s happening in India, where publishers are tight-fisted when it comes to advances. When the book gets marketed outside India, the advance and royalty income with grow multi-fold.

Amish’s Shiva trilogy has done phenomenally well in a country where the only mass market appeal for fiction was attributed to Chetan Bhagat. With authors like Amish, Ravi Subramanian (Banker series) and Ashwin Sanghi (Chanakya’s Chant, Krishna Key) the publishing world and thousands of aspiring authors have new role models to look up to. The writing stars who can sell lakhs of copies, make crores in the form of book royalty and think about leaving their cushy jobs to focus fully on their writing career.

Apart from the excellent writing and well-planned marketing strategies, there’s someone else who’s played a key role in the success of the Shiva Trilogy – Amish Tripathi’s agent Anuj Bahri who manages the Red Ink Literary Agency.
The Times of India reporter published a few of the things I shared and the rest got edited out (whether it’s books or newspaper articles…editing can be equally brutal!). So I thought I’d post those thoughts here.

I think the literary agenting model in India is caught in a little bit of a time warp. A short, historical context to explain what I mean.

Outside India, the operating model has been very different. In the US, for instance, most of the reputed publishing houses don’t even look at unagented manuscripts. The roles of the author, agent, editor and publisher are clearly demarcated. In such markets, agents have traditionally wielded a lot of power. They were able to get their authors good advances and favourable clauses (e.g. marketing support) in the publishing contract.

In contrast, an overwhelming number of Indian authors approach publishers directly and manage the legalilities directly. So Indian agenting hasn’t had a chance to come of age.

Now there’s another challenge as a big ‘disruption’ happening in the international publishing industry. With the advent of e-books and self-publishing, there’s a whole new model emerging. Authors are able to bypass many of the intermediaries and reach their readers directly.

This raises a lot of questions about the roles traditionally played by distributors, retailers, agents and in fact, even mainstream publishers.

However, despite technology making things a whole lot easier, publishing is still a very complex game. Literary agents should still be able to play a key role in the publishing process if they are able to adapt themselves to the ‘new world order’ & re-define what they can do for authors that technology can’t.

This also means that the Indian literary agents will not have the same amount of time (that their western counterparts did) to reach the same level of scale & influence. Their evolution curve for them will be much steeper. That’s the time warp I was referring to.

For the old-timers who understand the essence of how publishing works and who are able to look at the exciting new prospects & mould themselves accordingly, it presents a huge opportunity.

Phew! Feels so much lighter now…to share the story, the whole story, on the blog. See why I keep encouraging you to start your own blog? 🙂

I’d be interested in hearing about your preferences. Would you prefer going to the publishers directly or waiting for a literary agent to represent you?

30 Comments

  1. R-A-J says:

    I’m told by many authors that the current literary agents scene in India is a sham and they’re just another front to swindle money from new authors.

    I’m not sure whom to believe.

    fc*klove

  2. PIERRE FRANCIS says:

    Given my very limited experience with literary agents, I tend to agree with R-A-J.

    I have sent my synopsis to at least three reputable literary agents. One rejected it outright, without giving any reason, and the other two just didn’t respond.

    Literary agent sites I have visited, seem to offer “editorial” services to authors, which, I believe, are really the core business of these so-called agencies. Authors (especially those unsure about their language skills) are encouraged to such services (where the real bucks are made!). Abroad, literary agents do not take a cent from aspiring authors. They might advise an author to use professional editing services, but they have no bias and DO NOT promote their own editing services, simply because they don’t have any.

    Self-publishing has certainly enabled authors to avoid scamsters, but authors must also bear the burden of ensuring quality material and promoting the same (both of which might prove expensive).

    It’s really a Catch-22 situation; however, having written a novel that I am confident about – at least as far as quality is concerned – I would still like to pay for world-class editing services, provided that a publisher or agent guarantees to take on my work. I’m sure any author concerned with attaining acceptable standards would do likewise.

  3. Sameer says:

    @Raj: Except for a handful of literary agents that manage things in a professional manner, I’d tend to agree with what you’ve heard from your friends.

    @Pierre: Agenting in India isn’t very lucrative. The royalty rates are low, the book pricing is intentionally kept low (so more readers will buy). That is probably why there’s pressure to introduce additional revenues streams to the main business.

  4. Prashant says:

    Literally agents in India are good for nothing. I am a published author. Recently, my book got published and I am completely agree with R A J and PIERRA because I got my book edited by professional editors who was agent as well. She took a long five month to edit my book and that too with sever poorness. I had to get it edited again before publishing.I had an impression that if she is taking longer she would get me a good deal with publisher but she didn’t. After a long four months, she just did firs round of editing and that is too non-meticulously. I am disappointed with these so called Literary Agents and their useless editorial services.

  5. Sameer says:

    @Prashant: Seems like the Indian author community in general has been disillusioned by how the process works.

    Wondering if anybody here has any good experiences to share too.

  6. Vicky Singal says:

    I completed my manuscript recently and I contacted four of top literary agencies of India.
    I got rejection mail from all of them within a week. They said, My manuscript was really poor and it needed editing services from them. Finally I have paid a good amount to one of them. It been a month , I am waiting to hear from them. Keeping my fingers crossed!

  7. Sameer says:

    Good luck, Vicky.

  8. Ranga says:

    as a debut author it is indeed quite a struggle to keep yourself motivated. i had sent my manuscript to a literary agent and not heard anything yet. going by what i am hearing, there are very few individuals who are good, but as you rightly said, the ROI is low and hence they try to cross sell / upsell without bothering too much about what you really need. hmm … good luck to all aspiring authors 🙂

  9. Amar says:

    Hi Sameer,

    I finished reading (almost) all of your blogs- and thanks for the wonderful insights related to book publishing. For my first book, I was not considering going via the literary agency route, but now there’s a bit of a re-think. I have contacted a couple of the folks you have mentioned, let us see how things go.

  10. Sameer says:

    @Ranga: It’s game of patience and persistence, as much as the art of writing itself. So hang in there.

    @Amar: Hope you hear some good news from the literary agents you’ve approached.

  11. Vicky Singal says:

    Just to update you guys, I am feeling that i have been ripped off.

    As commented above, i submitted my manuscript to them on 11th April and waited to hear from them but It never came back from them.

    So i kept on Emailing them to update on the status of my manuscript. First they said we need more work, then [name edited] said that he is ill, then he said, his editor is ill. They really pissed me off and after so much follow up the delivered to me something which was full of crap. Actually they never even read my book fully (Its my feeling) and they just send a small report (instead of inline edits).

    Kindly beware of them. Here is the agent’s address:

    [Details edited].

    Never go for them

  12. Sameer says:

    @Vicky: Sorry to hear about your experience.

    I’ve edited the details of the agency to avoid turning this blog into a battleground of who’s good and who isn’t.

    Though I can see (from the meta-data associated with the comment) that this is an authentic comment, there’s no way for other readers to validate what’s real and what’s been planted.

    But I hope without having the specifics details mentioned, writers will be careful about who they work with and set the scope of work / expectations upfront.

    I also hope that you are able to put this negative experience behind you and focus on the bigger goal of making your book better and getting published.

    Good luck.

  13. Sanchit Gupta says:

    Hi Sameer

    Thanks for your reply on the self-publishing question earlier.

    1. I have heard great words from you and others as well about Jacaranda. I sent them the query letter 4 weeks ago and they asked for the full mss. But it has been more than 2 weeks since then and I haven’t heard from them. How much time do they generally take to revert on a mss? And would it be advisable to contact other agents simultaneously?

    2. I have found that most of the agents (apart from Jacaranda) are also asking for editorial fees. Before Jacaranda, I had also contacted one such new agent who has now agreed to rep but she has asked for hefty editorial fees (20 k) plus hefty agency commission (20%). I asked her what the editorial fees is for and she said to “clean up the mss lang”. Would you suggest a first time author to pay those? Secondly, if the agent is new how can we ensure that they are going to help find a publisher in good time, esp if we have paid them upfront? After the contract is signed, they also ban the authors from approaching anyone else.

    I am in a bit of quandary over the situation right now. Would be thankful if you could offer some advice.

    Thanks and Regards
    Sanchit

  14. Sameer says:

    Sanchit:

    It can take anything between a few weeks to months for agents to get back. So go ahead and contact other agents as well.

    I prefer to have a clean segregation about the two functions – editing and agenting. I’d never pay an agent for anything. They are expected to get their income from book sales (i.e. from publishers, not from authors).

    With new agents, it’s tougher to take a call, as there isn’t much of a track record to go by. And if the contract is too rigid or one sided, I’d stay away.

    If you’ve approached all the good literary agents and things haven’t worked out, you should try approaching publishers directly.

  15. Eklavya says:

    hi Sameer,

    Luck has favored me in finding a literary agent, and a reputed one for that matter, so I am happy about it. I haven’t been asked to pay any fee, only the commission, on the sales generated by the book. But it’s been a year since I signed the contract and I am yet to get anything positive out of this relationship. I don’t hear from my agent, don’t know if my book is even being offered to the publishers, what type of responses it is getting, if any; I have never received any update from my agent.
    I have read on many forums that it’s better to leave the agents alone because they usually are under extreme work pressure and have to work on multiple manuscripts at the same time. But in my case, all communications, whatever has taken place, have been initiated from my side, since after signing the contract. I feel a little concerned at times and am not sure if I should start putting my foot down or not. Any suggestions…?

  16. Sameer says:

    Eklavya,

    The ‘extreme pressure’ argument doesn’t fly.

    In any professional relationship, the service provider (literary agent in this case) has the obligation to keep the client (you) posted on what’s happening.

    Constant pestering on the author’s part isn’t good. But the other extreme (staying quiet for ever, assuming some magic is happening behind the scenes) also isn’t.

    If the agent has been struggling to get your book published for a year, somebody has some answering to do.

    If you have questions regarding the capability of the agent or the strength of your writing or not falling in the publisher’s flavour of the season, you need to take a stand and decide if you want to continue waiting or consider alternatives.

  17. Uday says:

    Aspiring authors need to be careful in searching the right literary agents. Not every agent is the right guy to appreciate the work in genres such ‘Crime, Mystery and Thriller’. Many agents often commit the folly of judging a manuscript from the eyes of a traditional literary novel. Hopefully, the situation might change in the next few years.

  18. Monika Dhawan says:

    Hi All,

    I am Monika Dhawan. I have written my first non fiction book and have been guided by people (who have got their book published) to approach literary agents.
    I have sent the synopsis to [edited]. Have heard a lot about them.
    I hope things fall in place.

  19. Carol says:

    Hi Sameer
    What a wonderful thing you’re doing for authors everywhere. Keep up the good work and thank you. I’ve noticed that HachetteIndia is now only accepting submissions through literary agents, except for children’s literature. Am I right? I wonder if other main publishers in India will gradually begin going that way; it may be a disadvantage to many. All the best, Carol, UK

  20. It seems like this model is similar to the venture capital model in the financial world where entrepreneur submit their business plans and VCs evaluate the plans and decide whether they should move forward or not. In this day and age where email has reduced all friction in communication, I am sure VCs and literary agents and publishers have developed a process/strategy to filter. The sheer quantum of proposals that reach them must be high.

    Even in the entrepreneurial world, most plans are rejected. The ones that move to the next stage involves a lot of time and resource commitment from entrepreneurs. I think there are 200+ Venture capitalists in India and just about 8-10 literary agencies. VCs make a lot more money than literary agents and can afford a larger teams of analysts (editors in publishing world).

    So my assumption after seeing this parallel is that LAs must be drowning in scripts so aspiring authors need to do their own work to get their scripts read by the most relevant publisher. Personal references work best. Loose the ego. We all feel our baby is the most beautiful 😛

  21. @Carol: Apologies, but I’ve been drifting away from the publishing world and focusing more on my entrepreneurial venture. I’m not aware of the submission policy changes.

    @Akhil: Perfect analogy! If you look at the underlying business model, that’s exactly what it comes down to.

    The issue is – after all these years and with all the technology at their disposal – the industry is still old-fashioned and unwilling to change.

    I assume you are working on a book too. Good luck with it.

  22. JustAnotherGirl says:

    Hello, I have read your article above and i am very confused regarding the publication of my book. I am very new and have completed my novel and have submitted to a few publishing houses and I have got rejected by one saying their calender is full at the moment and other houses haven’t responded yet, it hasn’t been long though as it’s written to wait for 3 months but it’s almost 2 months and I guess it’s more of a rejection. Actually my novel is basically focused on a love story of an 18 year old girl and although after one rejection I still think it has chances of being read, as being 18 I love my book and my friends have liked it too and I wish other people can read it. So should I consult any literary agency? Because I don’t have any connections in this media and I barely write but I think my story has a good storyline and needs a little help.
    Please tell me what to do, I am stuck.

  23. Neha says:

    My husband just finished writing his first book and we’re battling the question of – agent or direct to publisher. My question is, do publishers also take on editing services? I’m guessing they do so given how the Indian publishing industry is, do you think it’s worth contacting an agent at all? Can we reach out to both agents and publishers and just try our luck?

  24. Moksha says:

    Hi Sameer does it make sense to try all platforms to get your book published, from self publishing to sending your manuscript to mainstream publishers? I have been doing that with not too many responses from traditional publishers but quite a few from self publishing sites. They keep calling to start the process but my super self critical mind keeps telling me to wait and see if publishers like my work. After reading your blogs and posts of others writers I realise that I may have to wait an eternity.

  25. @JustAnotherGirl: Sure, you could approach literary agents. But they will ask you where you’ve submitted earlier. If you’ve already put a tick mark on the usual suspects, then the opportunity pool for them drops.

    @Neha: Publishers do have inhouse editors, but they get involved only after you get into a publishing contract. Nowaways many publishers have started doing anything and everything that’ll get them money, and started offering editing services under a different umbrella (their independent vanity publishing company).

    @Moksha: Don’t do it all in parallel. If traditional publishing is still a top priority for you, stay away from self-publishing companies. Once you get into that arena, traditional publishers will generally shun you, not just for this book but probably for subsequent ones too.

  26. Amit says:

    Hi Sameer,
    I’d like to start by thanking you for taking the time to do this, self serving or not.
    I have one question is all. Agent and publisher’s websites alike ask whether a potential client has submitted their work to their competition as well, so to speak. I’d love for you to share some light on why they do this. Does it spur them on to take you seriously or are they all in bed with each other? My cynicism would love a reply.
    Thanks again.

  27. Hi Sameer,
    I recently self-published a book of poems on Kindle and CreateSpace on a whim – my actual goal is to publish a philosophical fiction some time next year, so I said let’s test the waters.
    The poems have been appreciated, but it’s getting difficult to reach a wider audience
    I have a page on Facebook and a Twitter handle but have not spent a penny yet and if I do would like to have its worth.
    My questions are as below:
    Since I self-published, what are my options for marketing my book?
    Can I still approach traditional publishers for the marketing part?

  28. Hi,
    I love your posts. I aspire to become a writer someday and I occasionally blog despite having created it some years back. After reading your articles, I’m going to delve right into making good content for my blog, However, as a student of mass communication, I have to write a research paper on Print Media and the publishing Industry in India intrigues me. Do you suggest I go ahead with writing on,” the Changing face of the Publishing Industry in India?”.Or can you suggest any other interesting topics for my research paper? I’ll be forever grateful.
    Thankyou. Your articles are a blessing.

  29. @Amit: Agents ask the question because they don’t want to waste time and effort approaching publishers who already have your query letter or manuscript.

    @Handshake: Traditional publishers don’t get involved in a piecemeal basis (e.g. for marketing only). They want to control the entire process. There are several posts on this site that suggest marketing options that you can manage on your own.

    @Shumaila: Sounds like an interesting topic to research. Only a handful of mainstream publications have written on the topic like Business Insider and Forbes India.

    Both are opinion based rather than using statistics to highlight the trends (which is what makes a research paper more credible).

  30. Newton Luiz says:

    I’m a Pediatrician and I’ve completed a book on Baby and Child Care. I sent it to a reputed publisher 4 months ago, but my monthly reminders always elicit the same reply, “please give us another two weeks”.
    a. Is it ethical to send my book to 5-10 publishers at a time?
    b. Could you suggest a few good Publishers and/or Literary Agents?
    c. Are there any Publishers/Literary Agents who specialize in this field? Most publisher websites focus on fiction, I suppose.
    I used to have a lot more doubts, but your blog has clarified most of them.
    Thanks, NL

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