My USP has always been promptness and aggression: Kanishka Gupta, literary agent

The Thumb Print interviews Kanishka Gupta, one of India’s foremost literary agent. He guides aspiring writers to better understand what sells today.

You were called ‘South Asia’s leading literary agent’. Which book has been your biggest success story?

Even though I have been selling the most among all South Asian agents for years, it’s only now that I am getting my due. About a week ago, a newspaper asked me to justify my claim of being the largest agency in South Asia. Just a day after this bizarre request a hugely popular portal gave me the byline ‘CEO of South Asia’s largest literary agency.’ While I haven’t had runaway commercial successes like Amish Tripathi, Durjoy Dutta and so on. However, I do have several books on my list that have become bestsellers and won big awards. Anees Salim’s Crossword prize-winning The Blind Lady’s Descendants, and his Hindu Literary prize-winning Vanity Bagh, Siddhartha Gigoo’s Commonwealth Prize-winning Fistful of Earth and Danish Rana’s Tata Lit Live Award-winning Red Maize are some of my big success stories. Forthcoming books that could be big include singer Shubha Mudgal’s  debut short story collection, Karachi-based novelist SabynJaveri’s literary thriller Nobody Killed Her, UK-based Anita Sivakumaran’s The Queen, Dominic Franks’s travel book Nautanki Diaries, Abhijit Dutta’s book on Burma and many more.

Which is the most popular genre of writing in India today?

Romance/commercial fiction and non-fiction, but I just don’t understand the former. In fact, most romance/commercial books seem, to me, similar sounding with similar plots. I actually marvel at the capacity of serial commercial fiction writers to churn out such books and the tenacity of loyal fans who consume them with such unfailing regularity.  Mythological fiction was a big deal because of Amish’s success but clearly there is a fatigue now, and authors seem to have exhausted many of their ideas.  In non-fiction there are genres like memoirs, biographies, business, politics and so on that do far better than the others like travel, sports and cinema.

How do you see the new breed of writers emerging from Northeast India?

I think it’s a promising trend since many new writers are coming out with new, unheard stories. I know that publishers like Ravi Singh and many others are always on the look out for new fiction and non-fiction from the Northeast.

How challenging is it for literary agents to chase authors in India?

For the first few years, I only represented debut writers because no established writers would come to me.  Things are changing now and several established writers and personalities are going through agents. I get most of my authors through my own network/connections, so thankfully I don’t have to chase them to sign with me. But I do have to chase them to deliver their proposals and books!

What ingredients, according to you, make a good author?

Basic writing skills are a must and I am afraid they just cannot be taught. Also, the ability to tell a good story. Many superb writers can’t sustain a narrative beyond a few chapters. Having a good idea or story is important, but execution is even more so. I would say it is a rare and enviable combination of flair and craft that makes a good writer.

What kind of books ‘sell’ in India?

Commercial fiction and non-fiction. Literary fiction when it receives a stamp of approval from the West.

How do you see the future of literary agents in India?

I would say the jury is still out on Indian agents, and it’s not going to be easy.  With direct commissioning and stiff competition from far more established UK and US agents, Indian agents will have to adopt very clever strategies and have a strong USP. My USP has always been promptness and aggression. There have been numerous instances where I have read, signed and even sold a book before a rival had a chance to read it. Personally, I am not intimidated by Western agents because they will never be able to understand a majority of the local fiction and non-fiction list of Indian publishers. And how many Aravind Adigas, Kanishk Tharoors, or Meena Kandasamys can you discover in a year? Chances are, very few. Indian agents are on par with Western agents when it comes to selling in South Asia.