Kanishka Gupta is a literary agent, author and consultant. He is the founder of Writer’s Side, the largest literary agency and consultancy in South Asia. In less than seven years since forming Writer’s Side, he has represented more than 400 authors. In fact, according to Publishers marketplace rankings, he is currently one of the highest individual dealmakers in the world for English books. He is also the youngest literary agent in South Asia. His first novel, History of Hate, was long-listed for the Man Asian Literary Prize,2009.
NAW- Tell us about your journey. How did you become an agent?
I was very academically inclined in school, to the extent that my friends used to poke fun at me all the time. My whole world revolved around examinations and rankings. I also recall having a photographic memory and used to even mug up subjects like Maths and Physics. I did not have a smidgen of imagination or creativity. I was not a voracious reader either and never looked forward to the Library period. I took up commerce in 11th standard and had plans to establish a career in the financial sector.I think my whole brain was rewired after a serious illness at the age of eighteen. I began to take refuge in writing and reading books and lost all interest in formal education. Though I did end up doing a BBA course at a second-grade institute, I must say it hasn’t helped me at all. After a lot of grappling and exorcising my demons I managed to write a book. It did the rounds with some publishers through a friend of my father’s friend. Even the great Khushwant Singh read it but he told my uncle that he found it ‘too verbose.’ A lot of people might not know that I was a victim of one of the most notorious publishing scams in the UK in early 2000. I had a Scottish agent, but he knew no one in publishing. He used to send out elaborate submission updates to his clients, naming the who’s who of the publishing world without actually making a submission. I think the scam was exposed by an editor who told another victim that she had never received her manuscript from him. An uncle introduced me to Shobhaa De who invited me to Mumbai for a meeting. She put me in touch with top editors but they didn’t like my manuscript.Shobhaa ma’am kept shielding, counselling and motivating me. She once told me ‘Kanishka, writers wait for more than 10 years before actually giving up,’ but I guess I wasn’t good enough to be published.
Sometime in 2008, I dashed off a Facebook message to Mita Kapur of Siyahi, asking if she would be willing to consider me for a role in her new literary consultancy. She responded immediately and for a brief period, I read manuscripts for her agency. Since it was a freelance position, I was willing to do a lot more, so she put me in touch with the proprietor of Platform magazine and novelist, Namita Gokhale. I proof-read some issues of the magazine. Those seven months with Namita Gokhale changed my life. No MFAs or fancy publishing degrees could have taught me as much about publishing as interning with one of its big figures did. All of a sudden, I was thrust into the close-knit world of authors, editors, literary gatherings, festivals and so on.Ma’am knew I was a complete greenhorn so she used to encourage me by writing ‘Kan do’ on the prints outs of some of my first assignments. She even predicted that I would make a mark in publishing.
NAW- The Indian literary scene is still driven by genres, is it not? After the college romantic novel scene became passé, now everybody is into mythology just because Amish made it big. Why is there such a herd mentality among both writers and publishers in India?
The herd mentality is disturbing and not only do publishers imitate phenomena like ChetanBhagat and Amish Tripathi, but they also take a cue from global success stories. Everyone wanted a desi Stephanie Meyer, a desi EL James, a desi John Green at some point or the other. While this sort of opportunistic publishing certainly promotes reading habits, authors working on some seriously original, cutting edge fiction bear the brunt. Crime fiction is the latest rage among Indian editors but I still haven’t come across a bonafide crime bestseller. Commercial fiction is overcrowded and mythology done-to-death. Why we do this is partly because of our collective awe and wonderment of foreign publishing and partly because of our low opinion of ourselves.
NAW- Do you think that in the new Indian publishing scene, literary voices have sort of died down? Obviously, there are more people reading books today which is great but who will remember these authors fifty years down the line?
They have, but it’s market-driven and publishers and agents cannot be blamed for it. Publishers like Ravi Singh, Karthika VK, and David Davidar have been championing the cause of literary writers and paying very good advances. But what can one possibly do when the high quality of books and excellent mainstream media reviews don’t translate into sales? I think what we are really lacking are influencers and awards that mean something to the casual book reader. When an Indian or a foreign writer wins the Booker Prize, the book goes out of stock in hours. But when someone wins the Crossword Book Prize or Hindu Literary Prize, some bookstores don’t even have the book in stock or aren’t aware of its existence when someone asks for it. Literary activism can only find that much space in business. And publishing is first and foremost a business.
NAW-How did you manage to cultivate relationships in the Indian publishing industry which is not very well organised and many publishers still accept unsolicited submissions?
It wasn’t easy not only because publishers are in the habit of commissioning directly but also because I was a complete outsider. Luckily, I was able to develop a good rapport with stalwarts like Ravi Singh, Karthika VK and Vaishali Mathur very early on in my career. In order to be taken seriously, you have to consistently be able to find and nurture new voices and I believe that is something I have been able to do to some extent. Agents are becoming prominent now with almost 30% of most publishers’ list being comprised of agented submissions. Publishers like Hachette India have stopped entertaining direct submissions and have put together a list of literary agents on their website for prospective authors to route their books through. That’s a major step towards the legitimisation of Indian literary agents. There is always an underlying tension though because a commissioning editor would much rather sign an author directly since an agented submission also means competition from rivals and thus more and more pressure to offer better financial terms. I remember how a well-acquainted publishing professional told a public figure ‘Kanishka ke paas kahan se pahunch gaye (How did you reach Kanishka?)’ when he told her about his ongoing talks with me. I also feel it’s good for agents to be reasonable, friendly and respect a publisher’s perspective and not just the author’s. I think that has won me more respect over the years.
NAW- Describe your typical day at the office. How do you shortlist a potential manuscript?
I have never worked out of an office. Not only that, I don’t even have a proper workspace at home and I work from the same room where I sleep. Whenever I visit publishing offices I am overwhelmed by the cubicles, snazzy conference rooms, the strict order, hierarchy and formality. Most of my meetings are either conducted at home or in quiet cafes and restaurants. I am very accessible and a majority of my authors are happy to be in touch with me on email/Facebook/Whatsapp/phone. Frankly, it wouldn’t make a difference to my work if I was working from Delhi, the US, or even Mars. I also don’t have any fixed work hours and the workload varies from day to day. Crowds bog me down and I loathe small talk and pleasantries that are so typical of some literary gatherings and events, although I do make it a point to attend the book launches of my own authors. Essentially, I work when there is work and when I want to work.
NAW- If not an agent, what would you have been?
I can’t think of any other profession although I am suitably qualified for lifelong unemployment.