In the Indian publishing world today, there is no dearth of anomalies. Non-writers become successful authors, real authors struggle to eke a living out of their books, and marketing is truly King.
It should therefore come as no surprise that one of the most successful literary agents in the Indian publishing industry is a self-confessed anomaly in the field.
Delhi-born Kanishka Gupta, 30-something and wannabe writer who runs Writer’s Side (WS) -an agency that has over 500 titles to its credit in the six years of its existence- has no prior background, or ‘pedigree’, as he likes to call it, in publishing.
Yet, according to Publishers Marketplace rankings, Kanishka is currently the biggest individual deal-maker in the world for English books. He is also the youngest agent in the subcontinent.
He is known among his writers to be a risk-taker and for his prompt responses. He is also known to read manuscripts and impart key advice, even when the book is not be commissioned by him. Other qualities include aggressiveness and irreverence.
Not one to mince words, when talking about the publishing industry in India, Kanishka readily admits that the going wasn’t at all easy, when he started his own agency:“I am a complete outsider. So I faced a fair share of resistance, discrimination and condescension. Publishing is very insular, credential-driven and hierarchical. It takes decades for an entry-level publishing professional to reach a level of seniority, let alone be treated as some sort of a spokesperson for the industry.
All top publishing professionals in India come armed with stellar degrees and work-experience. I have a BBA from a second-grade institute. Not only do I not possess any formal qualifications for publishing, I had zero work-experience.”
But Kanishka is one who thrives under opposition, and wears the outsider badge with ease. In six years, Kanishka who works out of a home-office has garnered a lot.
According to him, not much has changed in the publishing landscape: “All the cliques and networks that have infiltrated award and festival circuits to some extent are now also instrumental in deciding who gets written about, and how.
If you’ve been following publishing for some time, it’s very easy to join the dots, and understand how someone landed a big agent, deal, profile in an enviable paper or magazine, and so on.”
Quick to concede that Indian publishing is meritocratic in many ways too, Kanishka feels that it is also not averse to outsiders and new talent: “Otherwise, I would not have come this far.”
Recalling the early years, Kanishka says: “Sometime in 2008, I dashed off a Facebook message to Mita Kapur of Siyahi, asking if she would be willing to consider me for a role in her new literary consultancy. She responded immediately and for a brief period, I read manuscripts for her agency.
Since it was a freelance position, I was willing to do a lot more. So she put me in touch with the proprietor of PlatformMagazine and novelist Namita Gokhale.”
The seven-month stint with Namita Gokhale taught him more than a publishing professional might ever learn in 20 years.
“All of a sudden, I was thrust into the close-knit world of authors, editors, literary gatherings and festivals. Ma’am knew I was a complete greenhorn so she used to encourage me by writing ‘Kan do’ on the print-outs of some of my initial assignments. She even predicted that I would make a mark in publishing,” he recalls.
Struggles were not new to Kanishka. As a student, he went to one of Delhi’s top schools: “My schoolmates used to call me a villager, because I lived in West Delhi, while all of them were from the more posh southern end.”
After class 12 Board exams, he had a breakdown, and during the recovery phase, he took to reading and writing: “Writing was indeed a refuge.”
At the time, the success of Arundhati Roy’s God Of Small Things had made Indian writers the toast of the global publishing community.
After he wrote his first book, (which Khushwant Singh read and found to be ‘too verbose’), he was introduced to Shobhaa De by an uncle. Although she did put him in touch with top editors, they didn’t like his manuscript.
De counselled and motivated him. “Writers wait for more than ten years before actually giving up,” she told the young man. But Kanishka felt that he wasn’t good enough to be published.
The experience of trying to be a writer helped him immensely. Over the years, he has become a self-professed counsellor for first-time authors: “I know what the book means to them, because I sat at home for six to seven years trying to become a writer.”
Anees Salim -author of best-seller Vanity Bagh- the first author Kanishka signed up six years ago, agrees: “Earlier he used to be brutal in his rejections, but now he is mature and doesn’t break the writer’s heart.”
Kanishka is perhaps the only agent in India who is comfortable with all genres: “Quality is the only underlying criterion. Apart from a combination of story-telling, craft, skill and literary potential, what works for me is the level of engagement and emotions it arouses in me. Being a novelist myself, I am very quick to spot, appreciate and reward talent.”
Kanishka believes that Indian Writing in English (IWE) is taking on new shapes and forms, and the coming years could throw up some really good talent. According to him, non-fiction is the genre of the future.
2016 has been a bumper year for WS. The deals made include chess Grandmaster Viswanathan Anand, gymnast Dipa Karmakar, celebrity hairstylist Sapna Bhavnani, Aamir Khan’s nutritionist Dr. Nikhil Dhurandhar and celebrated anti-acid activist Reshma Qureshi.
Other memorable non-fiction deals include Swarajya Editorial Director R Jagannathan’s debut non-fiction, and sports-writer Saurabh Duggal’s authorized biography of the legendary wrestling coach Mahavir Singh Phogat among others.
“While in my initial years, I took on a lot of stuff purely for its commercial merit, in the last 2-3 years I have been taking on only those books that I personally believe in. And I have too many extraordinarily and dare I say, under-rated literary gems on my list.”
WS also plans to publish a series of titles on music by renowned singer Shubha Mudgal and her husband Aneesh Pradhan.
Mudgal says that one of Kanishka’s admirable qualities is his promptness, and unlike others, who don’t take the trouble to get back to you, he does actually acknowledge and respond: “He may not always agree with you, but he is open to listening.”
The key to his success -Kanishka opines- is people management: “Authors are sensitive people. One must respect that. But it is important to safeguard the interest of both the publisher and the author. An agent is hence a bit of a diplomat too.”
Not one to rest on his laurels, Kanishka is all set to take on the West: “I will prove that an Indian agent can be a force to reckon with in global publishing. And I am going to do that in my own way, on my own terms.”