Kanishka Gupta, Writer’s Side: “All my authors know that I give my 100 per cent”

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It is, by now, a well-recorded fact that Writer’s Side, the Delhi-based agency, struck a record 100 deals in 2015. The agency’s services include editing, ‘agenting’ and mentorship. A no-nonsense agency – they usually tell authors quickly whether they want to represent them or not – it is led by the redoubtable Kanishka Gupta. An author himself, Gupta knows a thing or two about what authors want and help them go about it. Excerpts from an interview: 

Q: Did you have to go looking for an agent for your first novel, History of Hate? If you did, what was the experience like?

A: No Indian agent or publisher wanted to touch my book with a barge pole despite strong recommendations by highly respected figures like Namita Gokhale, Arunava Sinha and so on. I did have a high profile US agent though, who almost got me a deal with Penguin Press USA. Unfortunately my problem then (which is also an undying problem now) was that I am not suave, glamorous, silver-tongued and conventionally ‘writerly’ enough.

Many people think that being an agent helped me get a publisher and a ready platform for my book. On the contrary, it actually damaged me as the moment the book became available for preorder, all authors rejected by me started posting nasty reviews to get back at me. I also didn’t have any previous interactions or dealings with my editor Vineetha Mokkil who accepted the book within two days of submission purely on merit. Personally, I am conflicted about the book and, at times, find it to be too dark and ridiculous.

 

“I think an author should stick to his agent
if he has had a good experience with him and
there has been a genuine value-addition.”

 

Q: An agent is a manager for the author. So what does this entail in the current circumstances? What all does the ‘managing’ involve?

A: One has to basically handhold the author throughout the process from signing a contract all the way to post-publication activities. One has to be a patient listener, advisor and mentor rolled into one. It’s easy for me because I relate to all the highs, lows, doubts, anxieties, ego clashes, phases of self-importance and megalomania and so forth because I too possessed them in great abundance at one time.

 

I have a success rate of 85 per cent

Q: One hundred deals in 2015, out of a total of 418 titles. 2016 is looking good for you too. What changed in 2015?

A: Yes, 100 deals in 2015 and this year we are going to cross 150 deals. I think all the hard work in the previous years is finally bearing fruit. Agenting is a reputation driven business and happy authors can actually be the best ambassadors and PR for an agent. On the one hand there was very strong word of mouth in 2015 and, on the other, I also gained in confidence and started approaching seemingly unattainable and agent-averse authors directly.

In early 2015 I got ex-Harper Collins editor and novelist Achala Upendran on board and I believe she has played a huge role in taking the agency to the next level. In 2016, I started working with a well connected, hard to please scout who has put me in touch with dozens of good writers. I continue to keep a low profile in terms of public appearances, speaking engagements and so forth and let my work do all the talking.

Q: There aren’t many translations or translated work from your book list. Any particular reason for this?

A: I have a huge number of translations on my list and I am not looking at translations just from Bengali but also Hindi, Malayalam, Assamese, Marathi, Punjabi, Urdu, Dogri and so on. I was responsible for introducing the contemporary Urdu short story writer Ali Akbar Natiq to the English speaking world. The two recent award winning Intizar Hussain books translated by Rakhshanda Jalil were also shepherded by me.

Some of the interesting translations in 2016-2017 include Emmy award winning Ruchira Gupta’s River of Flesh and Other Stories: The Prostituted Woman in Indian Short Fiction, Malayalam writer Subhash Chandran’s epic Preface to Man, Sara Joseph’s Happiness Per Capita, N.S. Inamdar’s Rau (on which the film Bajirao Mastani is based), Gurdial Singh’s classic novella Anhe Ghore Da Daan which was made into a National Award winning film by Gurvinder Singh, Ranendra’s Global Gaon Ka Devta, Ahmad Nadeem Qazmi’s novella and short stories collection, MotiNandy’s boxing novel Shiva (translated by Bhaskar Chattopadhyay) as well as Chattopadhyay’s novelization of Satyajit Ray’s Nayak, Priyanka Nandy’s anthology of speculative Bengali fiction, Historian Rana Safvi’s translation of a seminal 1857 eye-witness account, Parimal Bhattacharya’s No Path In Darjeeling Is Straight,  V Madhavan Nair Mali’s classic children’s book Circus, Nabendu Ghosh’s children’s science fiction Me and I, noted journalist ReemaAbbasi’s translation of the short stories of a very controversial Urdu writer and several others.

I must say that the future doesn’t look all that great for translations and despite a strong reception in the regional market, good quality of translation and good media, a translated book doesn’t do much in terms of sales. I also feel that it is becoming increasingly hard to find that perfect combination of an outstanding original book and a very good translation; most submissions are sorely lacking in one thing or the other.

The term ‘labour of love’ applies to translators even more strongly than writers because there is just no money in translations since the total advance has to be split up between them and the copyright holder. Moreover, these days publishers are trying to package translated books as regular books, often relegating the name of at least the lesser-known  translators to the backcover and sometimes even the inside pages.

It’s a fraught and sensitive issue and some translators are very unhappy about it.  

Q: Why aren’t there more children’s writers in your author bank (I see Anuradha Kumar and Yannets Levi)? Do you get submissions for children’s books in a big way?

A: Although I have more than just the above-mentioned children’s writers on my list, I agree that this is one category I need to work hard on. Unfortunately, I do not get too many standout submissions in this genre as there is a lot of direct commissioning happening.

We have a handful of prominent children’s/YA writers in the country who have very close ties with/a strong sense of loyalty towards their editors. We also don’t have any new, bona fide bestsellers in this category and children’s/YA editors often struggle to notch up decent numbers for their titles.

Q: How do you deal with authors whose submissions have not been picked up by any publisher? How do you explain to them?

A: I used to have a 90 per cent success rate but now it has come down to 85 per cent because there is so much interference from sales and marketing teams in deciding what should be published. All my authors know that I give every submission my 100 per cent so there is very little room for blame-game and accusations.

Q: A literary agent looks after the author’s interests. Does the reverse apply? Do authors need to look after an agent’s interests?

A: Yes, they do but if they actually do it is a different matter altogether. I think an author should stick to his agent if he has had a good experience with him and there has been a genuine value-addition. Unfortunately, some authors cleverly liaise with their existing publisher or a new publisher directly without realizing that it is the agent who got them there in the first place.

I have reached a stage where I am happy to lose perennially unhappy and bickering authors. Then again I haven’t come across many in my seven-year old career.

 

Bad, hopeless writing and a clichéd,
badly executed plot is the main reason
I reject a submission.”

 

Q: What makes you happier? Getting the deal finally or the fact that you backed a book to get the deal?

A: Getting a deal for a book that I believed in ought to see the light of day.

Q: How important is instinct when it comes to settling on a submission for further action?

A: A lot of people don’t know that I am highly intuitive and have very strong instincts. In fact, in my early 20s family and friends routinely used to ask me to make predictions about events. There have been several occasions where I have shot down my trusted editors’ recommendation because I didn’t have a good feeling about the book and vice versa. I actually marry my innate instincts with a good understanding of the current publishing trends and requirements.

Q: Is there anything interesting you’d like to share when it comes to dealing with writers at various stages of their lives? Established vs New… Young vs Old.

A: I think it would be hard to compartmentalise experiences based on a writer’s age or the stage that he is at. In many instances, debut writers act like divas and god’s gift to the publishing world while established, public figures conduct themselves with humility. Similarly, some young writers are slower and less tech/social media savvy than much older ones.

Q: What is the most common reason that makes you reject a submission?

A: Bad, hopeless writing and a clichéd, badly executed plot.

Q: Is there any unusual pitch by an author submitting his manuscript that you remember in the six years that you have been in the business?

A: There is and it is already the stuff of legends and something I will not be able to forget forever. In 2010 when I was desperate to get one good writer, the now-famous Anees Salim sent me a query disguised as a certain Hasina Mansoor. I am reproducing the email exchange below:

Dear Kanishka,My name is Hasina Mansoor, and I have been a part of the Indian aviation industry for the last couple of years. No, I am neither an air-hostess nor someone you will find behind a check-in counter. You will find me somewhere between the workplaces of these two. I am a sales girl at a tea vending machine. The immediate neighbour of this vending machine is a well-stocked bookstall, and the sight of books has inspired me to write. Tales from a vending machine is my life story, though I sincerely wish it happened to someone I hate. Would you like to read a few chapters? Please let me know.Yours,Hasina

Send please.

K

Thanks, Kanishka.

Here is my submission: the first three chapters (about 64 pages) of the story that has trickled out of my poor little vending machine.

I look forward to hearing from you.

Yours

Hasina

interested. send the entire manuscript, biography and contact details.

K

Dear Kanishka,

Thanks for liking the sample chapters.  And do forgive me for querying you under a pseudoynm.  As I told you on the chat, this is my second manuscript. The first one is still under consideration.

I work with Draftfcb+ulka as the Head – Creative. I am a college dropout and has not attended any creative writing course.

Here is my entire manuscript. Plus a synopsis.

Many thanks.

Anees Salim

Q: Is there a lighter side to Kanishka Gupta when he is not reading submissions?

A: I actually have a very bizarre, outlawed sense of humour but only my close writer and publisher friends are privy to it. I am also very vocal about the problems I have faced as an agent and a publishing professional who appeared on the scene virtually from nowhere.

Although I would like to be my usual wild, enraged and unpredictable self I have to rein myself in because I am conducting a business after all. My friend the writer Rituparna Chatterjee actually called me a living Amitabh Bachchan movie from the 70s!

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