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JAI ARJUN SINGH
WORDSMITH

Jai Arjun Singh is an author and runs the popular cinema and books blog Jabberwock.

The challenges facing literary middlemen

he concept of literary agencies – liaising between writers and publishers – is still a bit fuzzy in India, and I sometimes get queries from aspiring writers who want to know about the services provided by these middlemen. As Kanishka Gupta, founder of the literary agency Writer's Side, tells me on email, it's easy to undervalue an agent's role. "We don't only secure better deals for writers, we also negotiate problematic clauses like Right of First Refusal," he said, "I have heard horror stories about authors who signed away all their rights and were later harassed by a local publisher once a foreign agent showed interest in their works."

In a developing market, literary agents have to be multi-taskers, especially when dealing with first-time authors. Apart from assessing manuscripts and providing feedback and direction, they often end up managing publicity for their clients after a book has been published. They also have to negotiate the delicate business of "auctions", which can become tricky when more than one publisher expresses interest in a manuscript. (An initial offer made by a publisher must be shared with the others, without revealing the bidder's identity; this may be followed by counter-offers until a winning bid is reached. In the best cases, such a process can result in a much higher advance for a writer than he would get dealing directly with a publisher.)

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In a developing market, literary agents have to be multi-taskers, especially when dealing with first-time authors.

Since being a literary agent is a business like any other, good intentions and editorial rigour must balance with pragmatism. "In the first year I was very quality-conscious," Gupta says, "However, I soon found out that a lot of authors I was turning down were being snapped up by big publishers, and I was losing out on business. I am now taking on a lot of commercial fiction." He speaks with pride about his agency's achievement of having sold 37 books in the past 18 months, to major publishers like Penguin and Harper Collins. But he also seems to understand that this may reflect the current state of Indian publishing, with publishing houses hurriedly – and often indiscriminately – commissioning titles in the hope of striking gold. "Unless publishers tread with caution," he says, "the market for commercial fiction is going to implode. There are too many similar-sounding titles with the same themes jostling for attention."

An increase in commercial – or mass-market – fiction isn't in itself a bad thing; each new book must be assessed on its own merit rather than tarred because it belongs to a particular category. But it's also true that the democratisation of publishing has had downsides. Having a book out in your name is increasingly being seen as a good way to acquire peer-respect, and many aspiring writers (including some youngsters who take pride in not being avid readers) routinely overestimate their writing skills as well as the worth of stories derived from personal experiences. In such a climate, the old question of whether quantity is trumping quality is more relevant than ever. And literary agencies, which simultaneously serve the needs of overambitious authors and confused publishers, have some large challenges ahead of them.

The primordial love of despair and drivel

The entries for the annual Bulwer-Lytton prize – awarded to a deliberately terrible sentence – always remind me of a comic short story by the actor Steve Martin. The narrator of "Drivel" is the publisher of the American Drivel Review. Writing drivel is extremely hard to pull off, he says, and the point is underlined by the hilariously inept analogies used in the piece: "Our love was extinguished quickly, as though someone had thrown water from a high tower onto a burning dog."

Sentences like the above are intentionally overwritten, but every now and again I come across a completely straight-faced description such as this one from Binoo John's novel The Last Song of Savio de Souza: "Savio resisted the urge, that genetic urge, that primordial surge of love, to jump the wall and hug his father and bring him back to the home of their childhood, of their tinkling laughter, their sorrows, their surrenders, deaths and farewells."

This sort of thing makes me shake my head in despair, like a belly-dancer beset by blood-sucking leeches. (As you can see, drivel is addictive.)

 
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