Interview with Kanishka Gupta
Kanishka Gupta is a literary agent, author and publishing commentator. He runs the literary agency Writer’s Side, and is also the youngest author to be long-listed for Man Asian Literary Prize, 2009. In this interview with Rifat Munim and Mir Arif, he talks about his agency, prospect of agenting in South Asia and his experience of working with Bangladeshi authors.
Let us begin with the story of Writer’s Side. How did you come up with the idea of establishing what is the largest literary agency in South Asia today?
I don’t have a publishing background. No one from my family has a publishing background. I got interested in publishing after my own underwhelming experience as a writer trying to break through. I realized that it was almost impossible for debut writers to get good, professional feedback on their manuscripts. Writer’s Side started out as a manuscript assessment agency and we did not agent any books for the first two years. The agency started in earnest in 2010 with the sale of Anees Salim’s books to HarperCollins India. It took another five years for publishers to take me and my submissions seriously. It’s been a fraught journey full of personal and professional problems.
Your book, History of Hate, was long-listed for Man Asian Literary Prize. How do you balance both—your own writing and working for your agency?
The answer is simple: I don’t write very regularly. I wrote a novel in 2009 and it’s only now, almost nine years later, that I have finished my second book. I write in creative bursts which don’t come to me too often. I also write only when I feel very strongly about something. My only regret is that I never have enough mindspace to revisit or edit my book. The agency work takes up most of my working hours and weekends. I also write a lot on publishing for Scroll.in. In fact, I have published more than 40 articles just for them.
How do you see the prospect of a literary agent’s career in South Asia?
Agenting in India is extremely difficult because of the rampant and accepted practice of direct commissioning. Almost all top publishing houses in India accept submissions directly from authors while established, internationally known authors inevitably sign with agents from the UK or US. Even if you sign a promising writer there is no guarantee that he/she will come to you for their next books. It is therefore very important for a good agent to be in constant touch, keep giving constructive feedback, promote the authors within his network. The author must never feel that you’ve stopped adding value to their book/writing career. I’ve now reached a stage where some authors involve me in contracts even if they’ve got a direct offer from a publisher. It’s a lot of toil for negligible money but I like doing it.
Short story collection or novel, which one has a more optimistic future in South Asia market-wise?
I think literary fiction in general is struggling to rake up good numbers. The only novels that sell are international bestsellers or those that are published globally. It’s very difficult for locally published literary novels and short stories collections to make their presence felt.
You’ve represented a few authors from Bangladesh. Tell us about your experience of working with them.
I signed on my first Bangladeshi author, Nadeem Zaman, sometime last year. After several rejections, his book got accepted by Picador India. Since then, I have signed the memoirs of pioneering LGBT activist Shakhawat Hossain Rajeeb's (co-written with Ikhtisad Ahmed), Bangladeshi American writer Sharbari Zohra Ahmed’s novel Dust under our Feet and late author Numair Choudhury’s fascinating and complex novel Babu Bangladesh. The advance received for Numair’s novel is the highest advance I have managed to get for any literary fiction author on my list. I am also helping another promising Bangladeshi novelist rework her novel. I have a 100% success rate with my Bangladeshi writers. While Indian publishers welcome authors from Bangladesh, Pakistan and other countries of the subcontinent, I don’t think they’re ready to have a program exclusively for authors from these countries.
Many Bangladeshi writers are currently working on their debut novels. How do you see the English writing scene in Bangladesh compared to its South-Asian neighbors?
It’s promising but it needs to be more evolved. For instance, I’ve not yet received one good work of nonfiction from Bangladesh. The same goes for genre fiction, commercial fiction and translations. I think one reason could be the relatively less interest in Bangladesh as opposed to India or Pakistan. I think this perception will change only if we have more Bangladeshi authors breaking through globally. Arif Anwar’s novel has got significant attention after its US release and I was very happy to learn that Saad Z Hossain is publishing his next book with a major US publisher.
Many aspiring writers today are looking for a literary agent to work with. Any word of advice for them?
I think first and foremost you need to write a good book. I suggest getting lots of feedback from your peer group/fellow writers before making a formal submission to an agent. In publishing, first impression is usually the last impression and it’s very unlikely that a rejected work will be reconsidered by an agent or a publisher. Authors must focus on writing a compelling query note. I never even read submissions that come with a standard, bland query letter. While credentials like MFA rarely help for fiction, they do help for serious works of non-fiction. Lastly, never submit to an agent if you’ve already submitted to publishers directly.