Kanishka Gupta is an Indian literary agent who has launched over two dozen Pakistani authors.
Ammara Ahmad: Is there something about being a literary agent that you wish more people knew?
Kanishka Gupta: People should stop calling agents ‘sharks’ and understand that there’s very little money in it even for very successful and prolific agents. I don’t like being looked down upon just because I am neither very rich nor famous. Monetary considerations are as important for agents as they are for any other stakeholder in publishing. They must also realise that at the end of the day, an agent is only a facilitator and not a publisher, who is at the top of the publishing ecosystem. No agent can eliminate the inherent problems plaguing Indian and international publishing. I wish authors were more realistic and less judgemental.
AA: We know you have launched quite a few Pakistani authors but which ones are your personal favorites?
KG: I would say Sabyn Javeri, Ali Akbar Natiq, the writer couple Haroon Khalid and Anam Zakaria, and the US-based thriller writer Saqib Mausoof. I also take pride in discovering and successfully placing the works of two highly talented, extremely young writers: Asad Alvi for his book on the tragic poetess Sara Shagufta and Sadia Khatri for her book on Aga Shahid Ali.
KG: Why not? I think Pakistan is producing some very good fiction and non-fiction. A large part of it has to do with the authors’ engagement with the region’s fraught and complex political, social, cultural and religious landscape. It was also a very tempting business opportunity, as the country doesn’t have a vibrant publishing industry or any agents. Pakistani authors were getting deals either through foreign agents, unofficial agents, friends in their homeland who were connected to the Indian publishing fraternity or even friends in India.
I must add that I have no vested interest in representing authors from Pakistan, nor am I looking for any renown/notoriety in the country. Some of my authors were surprised by my decision to profile Shandana Minhas’ new indie publishing house, Mongrel Books, because they felt she was ‘direct competition’. I think the whole South Asian publishing community needs to be less inward-looking and see the larger picture.
AA: Is there, by and large, any difference between agenting for a Pakistani versus an Indian author?
KG: Yes. My Indian authors don’t make frantic calls at midnight asking me to pray that their Indian visa comes through in time for a forthcoming literary jamboree. Nor do they censor my use of the words ‘RSS’ or ‘ISI’ during casual conversations for fear of being intercepted by the authorities.
Jokes apart, I don’t make any distinction between my Indian and Pakistani writers. Everything other than their authorial identity is insignificant and irrelevant. I also feel that Pakistani writers writing about localised issues face a greater struggle in gaining acceptance within the subcontinent and the rest of the world, more so than Indian writers doing the same. Both Pakistani and Indian writers are equally obsessed with everything Western and Booker.
KG: Not only in India but globally, there are very few ‘full-time writers’. It’s an irresistible, tempting but quixotic term. In fact, most famous and award-winning writers, Indian or otherwise, have full-time teaching or other jobs. Ravinder Singh runs a publishing house and Durjoy Datta writes for television. With advances for first-time writers ranging from Rs 50,000 to 200,000 payable in two or three instalments and a good, fully realised, full-length book taking at least one year of the authors’ time, not only can writing not be a full-time profession for 99% of writers in India, they cannot even afford to take long breaks from their full-time jobs to work solely on their books.
I don’t know why there is this perception that a book deal in the UK or the US means a lifetime of riches. The truth is that not every author publishing overseas gets the coveted million dollar advance. In fact, in many cases, the advances are as low as a few thousand dollars and sometimes even under a thousand dollars. One of my own authors, who published with a famed editor of several award-winning books, including the Man Booker Prize, was the recipient of such an advance.
AA: Do you think Pakistani authors might some day have to face what Pakistani actors had to recently in Bollywood?
KG: I don’t think writers are big or important enough to attract such bans. You need to understand that those who seek such bans are looking to attract the widest possible attention. However, there are subtle and more insidious ways in which opposition and resistance can operate: For instance, invitations to festivals could be withdrawn at the last minute without good reason, or reviewers from magazines and papers could become unresponsive to publicists assigned to a Pakistani author.
AA: What are some of the mistakes we can avoid while sending their work to agents or publishers?
KG: First and foremost, you have to have a good book. I cannot emphasise this enough. Try and follow an agent’s submission guidelines.
AA: Are there certain genres you wish were being written in Pakistan?
KG: Pakistani writers have come of age. Moni Mohsin does satire better than any Indian author; Omar Shahid Hamid does world class crime; Ayesha Tariq Bhatti published a fun graphic novel this year, stand up comedian Sami Shah is doing a novel set in Karachi about djinns and the other world. We already have stellar fiction and non-fiction coming from the country.
AA: Do you pitch to Pakistani publishers? Are there some publishers you look forward to collaborating with?
KG: No, but I look forward to building a tie-up with Mongrel Books and see them leaving an impact. The only big publishing house in Pakistan is OUP Karachi. Unfortunately, I rarely represent the kind of books they publish.
AA: Are you writing a book? If yes, when can we read it?
KG: No, I don’t think I am a writer although I do plan to pen my memoirs when I become truly successful. That may or may not happen.
AA: You have recently started a blog. Tell us more about it. And why a blog?
KG: It’s just a space for provocative and politically incorrect pieces on publishing. So far, I have published only five or six pieces, including one on being a gay poet in Pakistan!
AA: Which is the one marketing trick you wish every author knew?
KG: There’s no secret sauce for a making a book successful. Several things have to come together seamlessly to make a book a major success.
AA: Name a book or author you wish you had launched.
KG: All the prize-winning literary authors who were published when I was in diapers.
AA: Which one incident made you who you are?
KG: It took me very long to reconcile to the failure of my novel history of hate. But I deserve that failure because I rushed with it like most debut writer. I am glad I realised early on that I didn’t have the discipline and skill set to write a really good book. I do have ideas and a good sense of humor but that’s not enough.
AA: There must have been some adversities you faced in life?
KG: I had a very rough time at school and suffered from a massive inferiority complex. Whenever I stepped out for parties or on social occasions, a friend used to joke that it’s the ‘Baby’s Day Out’ (after the popular film) – since anyone at Modern School Vasant Vihar, who was not into drinking, dating and driving without a license, was deemed a baby. I spent endless hours every day getting bullied and abused by frustrated writers in the Books and Literature Room 1 on Yahoo chat for almost five years. I think it was because of this that I am very comfortable dealing with authors and editors on social media. After college I decided to stay at home and write the next magnum opus. I didn’t give in to the pleadings from my family and relatives to do a six-month internship, a prerequisite to having the word ‘honours’ suffixed to my already useless BBA degree!
This interview was first published in the Friday Times.