New Delhi: As Indian authors write their way to international best-sellers’ lists, the country’s leading archive and auction house Osian’s Connoisseurs of Art Pvt. Ltd plans to launch a publishing and design firm as well as a literary agency.
The moves, scheduled to be announced on Friday, reflects a growing interest in managing talent in a country where writers have historically dealt directly with publishers.
“The whole practice of literary agenting has just started,” says Renuka Chatterjee, senior vice president of Osian’s planned literary agency. “We realized that the time is right for a professional literary agency given the ever-increasing interest in Indian writing and the way publishing in India has grown from strength to strength,” she adds.
There have been attempts before on this front. Jacaranda Press has been operating as a literary agency and consulting company since 1997, while Anuj Bahri of book retailer, Bahri & Sons, has been doubling as a bookseller and literary agent for more than a year.
Meanwhile, many recent blockbusters that have won literary acclaim and financial success—Kiran Desai’s The Inheritance of Loss and Vikram Chandra’s Sacred Games, for instance—have been authored by Indians resident abroad, who worked with agents in New York and London.
Indeed, in a recent interview with Mint, Desai’s agent David Godwin had said that he hoped to set up an India office. Godwin was also agent to Desai’s fellow Booker Award winner, Arundhati Roy, author of The God of Small Things. Sophie Hoult, a spokeswoman for David Godwin Associates, said on Wednesday that nothing was imminent.
India’s English trade books market represents Rs800-1,200 crore in sales every year. The last few years have seen some headline-grabbing advance payments—Raj Kamal Jha’s world rights to The Blue Bedspread to Picador were sold at £160,000 (Rs1.28 crore).
Observers, however, say that the book business within India still does not make it financially attractive to have an organized literary agency model.
Indian agents typically charge between 5% and 15% commission compared with the standard 15% in the West.
“Unlike the West, where an adult book goes for an average of say £5-6, or Rs400-480, in India it typically sells for anything between Rs150-250,” says Thomas Abraham, chief executive officer and president of Penguin Books India. “Can an agent in India sustain herself by merely being a literary agent?” he asks.
Indeed, many Indian writers, such as the best-selling Shobaa De, have no literary agent; De does have overseas agents, including Frauke Jung-Lindemann, who controls the German rights for her books.
Osian’s publishing arm will focus on books about arts, culture, cinema and philosophy. The literary agency will operate separately and acquire writers of fiction and non-fiction, Chatterjee explains.
Publishers say literary agents can add significant value to the writers they represent as well as to their publishers. For Indian writers, they might help garner overseas rights.
“Foreign publishing houses do not even look at manuscripts unless they come through agents. The Indian publishing industry is different in this respect, since authors can, and do approach publishing houses directly,” says Jayapriya Vasudevan, director of Jacaranda Press in Bangalore. Jacaranda has been working with authors such as Shashi Warrier, Anita Nair, Aditi De and Tushar Gandhi.
Agents assess manuscripts, pitch them, review contracts and help manage schedules for writing, editing, proofing and release. They not only bring value to both the writer and the publisher, but also help weed out manuscripts that don’t make the grade, notes Bahri, adding, “It is not an easy task for a publishing house to read through some 500-odd manuscripts that reaches its desk each month.”
For now, publishers feel the role of agents in India will be limited to talent scouting and selling world rights. “There is a high output of quality writing generating from India and the country will remain a prime ground for new literary discoveries,” says Abraham. “It would take a long time before agents in India start wielding power like in the West.”