New Delhi, India
Having finished your first novel, you have polished it to the best of your abilities, got rave reviews from your peer group of ‘wanna be' authors, and you think the most difficult part of your journey, of becoming an internationally published author is over. But, it is not. Before you seek an international publisher in mature markets like London or New York, you have to find a literary agent. ‘Finding a literary agent is akin to finding God…..if you believe in God,' says Anees Salim, whose novel Tales from a Vending Machine is slated for release by HarperCollins India later this year.
Agrees Vikrant Dutta, whose debut novel Dark Rainbow is soon to be published by an Indian publishing major. He says, “We have heard legends about Arundhati Roy. Ms. Roy submitted her manuscript of The God of Small Things to Pankaj Mishra of Butter Chicken in Ludhiana fame, who, at that time, was an editor with a publishing house. Impressed with Ms. Roy's writing, Mishra sent it to a few agents and editors in London; and David Godwin was one of them. The rest is the history we all know.” Vikrant further adds, “But, everybody may not be as lucky to have a Pankaj Mishra vouch for them. For lesser mortals, it is a long and tiring voyage. I have been striving to get an agent for the last fours year, but with little success. Then one fine day I decided to send my manuscript to Indian Publishers, and was fortunate to get an offer.” But he strongly feels that to sustain a long-term writing career, one must find an agent.
Many first-time writers, especially those not familiar with the ‘behind the scenes' of publishing industry, would ask: Why do we need a literary agent in the first place? To answer this question, we need to understand what exactly an agent does. An agent, for an author, is an editorial consultant, a writing coach and a critic rolled into one. She markets your work to the right publishers. She also takes care of your financial interest. Above all, she understands the nitty-gritties of publishing, everything from e-book royalties and permission forms, to movie option agreements. Kanishka Gupta, one of India's prominent literary agents, reflects: “Having a literary agent increases the chance of your manuscript being accepted for publication manifolds. Not only will you be taken seriously by a publisher, but you will also have an advocate with the right connections in the industry, and most importantly, someone who believes in your work.” Moreover, in the West, no publisher will touch your manuscript if it is not submitted by a legitimate literary agent. In India too the ‘literary agent culture' is catching on fast.
Anees cannot agree more. “After being disappointed by the agents abroad, I also started to submit it to Indian publishers, but heard nothing from them. Then I submitted my manuscript to Kanishka Gupta of Writer's Side Literary Agency, and within 15 days my novel was sold in an auction. Ironically, among the bidders was a publisher on whose table the same manuscript had been languishing for last six months. So, being an agented author really helps.”
If finding an agent is such a mammoth task then what should one do? Nothing, but keep trying. Persistence is the key. There is no other way, feels Vikas Swarup, the author of hugely successful Q&A that was made in to the multi-Oscar winning movie, “Slumdog Millionaire”. Vikas himself was lucky to find an agent rather easily. Peter Buckman, a former editor who had just started a literary agency at that time, had him signed on as his first client. For aspiring writers from India, he says, “It is not easy to get an agent, as most of them will take on a new author only if they are 100 per cent sure that the manuscript will sell. Every new writer should get hold of the latest edition of the Writers Handbook and send the first three or four chapters of the manuscript to as many agents as possible and hope one of them will take him on. That is the only way, unfortunately. Alternatively, he should try his luck in the Indian market first with Penguin, HarperCollins, Rupa and Tranquebar and, having been accepted by an Indian publisher, foray into the international arena.”
There are many examples when, after more than a hundred rejections, a writer has landed a very good agent. Even J. K. Rowling had been signed by Christopher Little Literary Agency after collecting dozens of rejection slips. Susan Abulhawa, the Palestinian-American novelist whose novel Mornings in Jenin has been translated into more than 20 languages, had to go through a very agonising phase on the way to find an agent. Narrating her experience she says, “It was a long journey. I was published first by a very small publishing house that went out of business just before the book was due to be distributed. So, all my work seemed to be dead on arrival. But luckily, it was translated by Buchet Chastel in France during that time and, through them, I was able to get an agent. My editor at Buchet Chastel, Marc Parent, introduced me to Anna Soler-Pont in Barcelona and she agreed to take on my book. Shortly thereafter, she sold it to Bloomsbury and to about 19 other publishing houses around the world for translation rights.”
For a beginner, it is very important to understand the basics of ‘How to approach an agent'. “You should know whether a particular agent is right for your kind of work. An agent specialising in young adult fiction or romance will never take on a writer of ‘high-brow' literary fiction, even though it is well written. Further, you should follow the submission guidelines of the agent you are submitting to. For example, if an agent wants a query only at the first instance, sending sample chapters to him or her will certainly not help,” says Zafar Anjum, an author and journalist based in Singapore. He further adds, “An author should submit to an agent only a fully polished work. If there is an iota of doubt in the mind about the readiness of manuscript, I would like to advise him to avail the services of a good manuscript assessment agency. They will not only point out the loopholes in the plot but also take care of structure, grammar and give the manuscript a professional look.”
“Ninety-nine per cent of manuscripts are rejected simply because authors approach wrong agents,” says Noah Lukeman, a New York-based agent who represents many big names, including Pulitzer Prize winners.
Good first impression
Writing a well-crafted query letter is the first step to success while submitting to an agent. According to Noah Lukeman, it should be brief and to the point, three paragraphs to be precise. “Don't send a long cover letter, long letters are annoying anyway, unless you are sending it to someone special,” warns Ahmede Hussain, a Dhaka-based author and editor. Siddharth Banerjee, a London based freelance writer and aspiring novelist, adgds, “Most of the submissions are accepted or rejected on the basis of query letters or covering letters. So, they are certainly very important.” Further, your credentials as a writer also help to land an agent. An aspiring author with dozen articles and short stories in prominent newspapers and magazines will always have an edge over the ‘to be' writers who have published nothing so far.
Knowing somebody in the industry is another factor that dramatically increases your chances of finding an agent because in the publishing world, in Susan Abulhawa's words, having a connection works. Take Ahmede Hussein for example. Ahmede's friend introduced him to Pinki Virani, author and journalist, who was kind enough to tell Jayapriya Vasudevan of Jacaranda, a literary agency, that he would be a good catch. So, unlike many first-time authors, his was a smooth sailing.
During last two decades, the success stories of Indian authors like Arundhati Roy, Kiran Desai, Aravind Adiga, etc. have inspired many an Indian author to try publishing in the markets abroad. All well known agents are swamped with submissions from India. “Many Indian authors believe that there is a huge demand for books written by an Indian or a novel based in India; which is a wrong notion,” says Siddhartha . “Recently, I attended a writing conference in London and got a chance to interact with a few big literary agents. And they opined that there was limited market for Indian novels in U.K. The market in the U.S. is even tougher.”
Good fiction sells
Noah Lukeman has different views on this issue, “There is always a market for great fiction (and great books, in general), regardless of whether they are set in or outside of the United States (as has been proved by many recent bestsellers set in other countries). There is no reason why your novel's being set in another country (for example, India) should be a deterrent to its sale, or should make it harder for you to land a literary agent. As an agent, I myself was never biased against a particular work because of it being set in another country. Of much greater importance to me was the strength of the writing, the depth of the characters, the richness of the plot, the authenticity of the dialogue. If all of these (and other) elements were there, then the country was of no consequence. What is important, however, is that, artistically, the country (or the setting, in general) be authentically inherent to the other elements, and not forced onto the work simply for the sake of it.”
All great writing has been born of great conviction and relentless hard work. Aspiring writers should focus on creating the best possible work, and then try his/her luck. The key is to keep trying without losing heart. There is no alternative to self belief backed by perseverance and commitment. As Anees Salim says, if someone writes well, he will certainly find an agent and a publisher one day. Susan Abulhawa in her message to all new authors says, ‘Write, write, write, even when rejection letters mount. The one thing to always have — and this is truly essential — is a core belief that your work will be published. The universe has a special way of turning an unshakable belief into a reality.'
This article was first published in The Hindu