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What does a Literary Agent do?

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.


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 publishing industry has its own set of constraints, its 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 that 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.

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 were literally a physical pile.

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?  

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 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 the names of the agents they prefer to work through. This is smart on the publisher’s 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 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.

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.

What does a literary agent do? 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.

What does a literary agent do? Help tackle the publisher

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 multinational Corporations (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.

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.

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13 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 ..

  7. Very informative and assuring for first time authors. Great insight about publishing industry. Thanks Chetan.

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