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What does a Literary Agent do?

Photo by Neil Thomas on Unsplash

Many people ask us “What does a Literary agent do? Is it any different in India?” We wanted to give real, solid advice.  So in addition to a lot of internet research, we’ve interviewed ten of India’s top Literary agencies. We also spoke to a few authors. This gives us deep insight into what a literary agency does, especially in India. We understood how they add value, what they look for in a book/author and so on.

We are assuming that you have a manuscript ready. If you don’t, then our “Beginners guide to writing a novel” might help. If you’re writing non-fiction, check out this guide to outlining your non-fiction book instead.

Think of this article as an introduction to a friend who can help you navigate this confusing world of Indian publishing. Ironically, the “friend” I will introduce you – an Indian Literary agent – herself (I am using the female gender given their dominance) can be hard to sign up. But don’t worry – we will also tell you how to sign one up in part three of this series. (to be published soon).

Introduction

There are many millions of written pages – literary works of art and otherwise – which have yellowed and aged without ever being printed. Many great writers are never been discovered, leave alone celebrated.

Why is it difficult to get published? One reason is that many authors are notoriously bad at the “moving and shaking” required to deal with the characters outside of their books. First-time authors don’t know anything about the world of publishing. The real world with its cast of characters: busy unresponsive traditional publishers, pushy self-publishing companies (to understand the difference between those two, read our article on Traditional V/s Self publishers) and the myriad people selling all kinds of publishing-related stuff on social media – can be a difficult lot to deal with.

The worst part is the rejection a debut author may have to deal with. Writers may foist much rejection on their protagonist, but they really don’t want to deal with it themselves.

Once you sign up a good agent, you have someone on your side who will hold your hand and make your publishing journey easier. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. First, why do you need an agent at all?

In India most publishers accept manuscripts directly. Practically all publishers have a “Submissions” page on their website. Then why should I sign on with a literary agent and reduce my already low royalty? How exactly will an agent help me? What will she do?

Lots.

The publishing industry has it’s own set of constraints, it’s own priorities, and limited time. Publishers are keen to discover the next star, but make the bulk of their money from already established, successful authors. They don’t put as much into the process of discovering new authors. Besides, publishing is a rapidly changing industry which has been severely hit by technology, and now Covid-19. They are struggling with a lot already and your book, dear first-time author, is not exactly at the top of their heap of priorities.

So how does it work behind that opaque wall of the submissions page? That irritating “Don’t call us. We’ll call you. Only if we’re interested.” stonewall message? As you press the submit button, hold your breath and head towards asphyxiation, the publisher may be busy doing everything but reading your manuscript.

 


Getting your manuscript read

Your gorgeously crafted synopsis and excerpt all go into what the industry calls the “slush pile”. The word slush pile originated from the time when writers submitted printed manuscripts (which some folks still accept, by the way) and was literally a physical pile.

The slush pile is usually read by “slush readers” or “First readers” who may not be employed by the publisher but working contractually. They decide if your manuscript has any merit. If they think its good they make the case for it, and so it goes. When times are tough or the number of manuscripts are too many, I imagine a few might get skipped over.

Even if your manuscript is looked at, the first reader will have limited time to devote to each one, and will probably do a quick assessment based on first impressions. Most slush-pile manuscripts are not fully read. Of course, a lot depends upon how the day is going for the First Reader. So you should pray she didn’t read your manuscript after an argument with her boyfriend.

Clearly, much can go wrong for even the best manuscripts out there. So how do you make sure your manuscript bypasses the slush pile and goes straight to the desk of a commissioning editor?  

Enter, the Literary agent. This is the first part of what a literary agent does. A literary agent is someone a publisher trusts. The publisher holds her judgement in higher regard than a first reader. So when the literary agent goes to a publisher and says,

“You should take a look at this manuscript. It’s really good!”

That manuscript leapfrogs over the slush pile and lands directly on a commissioning editor’s desk. A decent reading is now certain.

So why does the publisher trust the literary agent, you ask? The agent is usually an insider. Agents like Anish Chandy, Shruti Debi, Preeti Gill and Hemali Sodhi all started in publishing houses. Mita Kapur , Suhail Mathur and Preeti Gill are all authors, as is Kanishka Gupta of Writer’s Side. The Red Ink literary agency was founded and is run by Anuj Bahri of the famous Bahrisons bookstore in Khan market, Delhi.  

Literary agents have built their credibility and reputation over many years by working closely with the industry. They have relationships with multiple publishers. They have a good sense of which publisher is looking for what kind of content in the current or the next year. They use their industry insight and connections to pitch your book to the publisher who is the best fit. This increases the probability of your book being published a lot more than a blind direct submission to a bunch of  publishers.

In the west most publishers do not accept manuscripts directly. They only accept manuscripts through agents. Publisher websites mention names of the agents they prefer to work through. This is smart on the publishers part because they have outsourced the task of the first reading of the slush pile to the agent. They have also transferred the cost of going through the slush pile to the author, who now has no choice but to hire an agent (and therefore pay for one). In India only Hachette had done this at the time of going to the press. Their website lists out many literary agents they work with, although two agents on that list are defunct.  

So, coming back to what a Literary agency in India will do for you – it is more than getting your book a decent reading at a publisher.

Make your book better

A lot of writers don’t understand how much work a Literary agent puts into developing your manuscript with you. A good literary agent works closely with the author as an expert in the genre and an editor. This is another critical part of what a Literary agent does. The time that a good agent spends upgrading your book can run into hundreds of woman-hours. This effort often means the difference between an okay book and a great one.

It is almost unbelievable that most literary agencies do not charge you for this work. They include this in the commission they charge. So if your literary agent comes back with feedback or suggestions on your book, take her seriously. It is very tempting to defend your own work, and to stick with your guns, and you – the author – should finally take the call based on what you truly believe. Remember, your Literary agent’s and your interest are the same : making your book into a big success.

Negotiate a great deal

Let us fast-forward some more and assume that a publisher is interested in your manuscript which you submitted directly. They come to you and offer you a book deal. The deal is their boiler-plate contract. As a first time author, what will you do? Will you negotiate? Will you push for a bigger advance, or publishing overseas, or a multiple book deal?

This negotiation is set against you from the word go – on one end are you: a first-time, no-name author feeling indebted that someone is willing to publish your book. On the other is a large corporation with a brand, a strong market presence, and most importantly, the ability to say no if you act too tough.  You are powerless compared to your publisher as a “Please-please-publish-my-book” debut author. It is worse than David and Goliath. And no, you don’t get a slingshot in this one.

Most likely you will sign their contract as is. You will be just too delighted and indebted. At best you may change a clause or two, but most writers will make no changes. This is partly because you don’t know what to negotiate for, and partly because you are in no position to negotiate. For those familiar with the negotiation jargon, the author’s best-alternative-to-a-negotiated-agreement (BATNA) is that their book may never get published. Bummer.

Enter the Literary agent (Act 2). Here the agent is a great asset. The agent is not some first-time author desperate for a deal. She comes from a position of knowledge and strength. The publisher knows that the agent will be able to find deals with other interested publishers. The agent represents many authors and does multiple deals every year. So the negotiation is between two parties in a position of comparable power. It is not a David-Goliath situation anymore.

Also remember, the Literary agents in India – or anywhere, for that matter – is not paid by the Publisher. The agent earns a percentage of the authors earnings. So getting a good deal for the author has a direct impact on how much they earn.

Yes, I’ve read “Freakonomics” and know that theory about agents not caring too much. But I believe most literary agents in India go beyond just commercial interest – they are deeply passionate about their authors work. Also, here the % can be much higher than the 6% real-estate agents make in the U.S. I think this situation is very different from real-estate agents selling houses. Literary agents and writers work together as teams for long periods of time and over multiple books – so it is a deeper relationship than in real Estate, and a lot less transactional.

Help tackle the publisher

Okay, so fast forward yet again. You’ve signed the deal and now your book is going into print (Yaaay!), things are looking good, and many things crop up. The publisher does the cover design, and much else. Lets say you disagree with the publisher on that. You don’t like the cover the publisher comes up with. Enter the Literary agent (Act 3). She can mediate that disagreement. Even help you find a cover designer, if you are willing to pay for one. It’s just good to have a knowledgeable person you can chat with. And a seasoned literary agent in India will have seen hundreds of books printed and sold before yours.

Many Indian publishers are terrible when it comes to paying on time. We’ve come across horror stories of authors having published books but have received no royalty payments or even information from their publishers for years. This seems especially true of non-MNC publishers.

My wife Dr. Vandita Dubey published “Parenting in the age of Sexposure” with a prominent Indian publisher in 2016. Four years on, the publisher hasn’t paid her even one rupee beyond the initial advances, which were tiny. Requests for payments and/or sales data have resulted in nothing.

We could assume the book didn’t sell much, but we’ve met complete strangers who have said they have bought and read her book.

Ironically, the publisher came back to her and asked her if she would write a second book. If the first book was a failure, would they come back and ask her to write a second one? So we are assuming the publisher made a decent sum on the book but decided to not pay the author royalty honestly. So she refused to write the second book. We’ve heard similar stories from other authors as well.

Now, imagine if Vandita had gone with a literary agency. The agent would be able to get much more information on book sales. The Literary agent would also ensure that payments are made on time to the author – because that is how the agent makes money herself.

My experience with Penguin was much better with timely payments coming in every quarter. Yes, I am generalizing about Multi-national Corporation (MNC) Vs non-MNC printers. But either way, a Literary agent in India will ensure you get the information and money due to you. This is an important service offered by Literary agents relevant more in India than in the west.

Next, you have to market and publicize your book. Literary agencies in India can vary quite a bit on this. Some Lit. agents dive deep into this while others will advise you and point you in different directions without really getting involved. But honestly, I think they’ve more than earned their commission already.

Literary Agencies in India benefit not only debut authors but established authors as well. Most well known authors work with literary agents. Devdutt Patnaik is represented by Siyahi, Amish Tripathi was with Red Ink for ten years… and so on.

Literary agents are an essential support to authors. Now do you understand the cryptic picture at the beginning of this post?

I published my first book directly with Penguin. Now as I work on my second book, I intend to work with an agent. The reason is simple. Despite being a reasonably well-informed writer, I think an agent will be able to bring immense value to the table. Much more than the fees they charge.

To learn more about this world of literary agents, read our next posts on them. Know the India’s top literary agents, and How to pick and sign one on.

 

 

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12 Responses

  1. The article gives an interesting perspective and useful for a first-time author like me. I am working on a book and wondering if I am late to identify and work with a literary agent at this stage when I’m nearly two-thirds done with the first draft of the book?

    Also, I would like to understand how self-publishing works for first-time authors relative to going with a literary agent.

  2. Very valuable information to new budding writers. Hoping the next two series will be of immense value. Thanks a lot.

  3. Thank you for narrating a truly clear picture. Your article is very informative and gives an insight of the benefits of hiring a literary agent. Looking for your next article in this series.

  4. True a literary agent can act as a catalyst and help towards polishing and publishing both of one’s piece. It does help. Rightly pointed out. Lit agent supports comes as motivating factor too.

  5. Wonderfully informative and insightful article. I very much agree with the importance of finding an agent and really understanding the publishing process in and out, based on my experience going through the publication process for the first time in India last year.

  6. Really a very informative piece . Helps streamline my ideas on how to go about. Sometimes we don’t think of so many facets . Which this article Pens down . Amazing ..

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