literary culture

Friend, guide, editor, critic: The booming business of literary agents in India

Literary agents have already started making giant strides, their turnovers surpassing those of highly reputed medium-sized publishing houses.

For literary agents in India, business is booming.

Though a relatively recent phenomenon in the country, agents have already started making giant strides, their turnovers surpassing those of highly reputed medium-sized publishing houses.

India has a growing reader base. With the establishment of local divisions of big multinational publishers such as Hachette and Bloomsbury and the advent of mass-market best-sellers, sales, and subsequently advances, have increased manifold.

A debut fiction writer with no credentials can now easily get a Rs 1 lakh advance against royalties. This figure could go higher for a debut non-fiction writer. Fiction and non-fiction by established, award-winning, and celebrity writers can get between Rs 10 lakh and Rs 15 lakh. Best-selling writers can get upwards of Rs 50 lakh and, sometimes, even Rs 1 crore.

And literary agents play a big role in securing these advances.

Making the cut

In 2013, the New Delhi-based Red Ink literary agency, in operation since 2006, made it to the front pages of all top newspapers in India by securing a $1 million advance for publishing phenomenon Amish Tripathi. That remains the highest payout to an author, Indian or otherwise, by a domestic publishing house.

An agent gets a percentage (usually 15%) from the advance and future royalties of an author. This advance is not a one-off payment but an advance royalty calculated on the first print run and adjustable against future royalties. Since an advance is not refundable and puts pressure on publishers to market and sell books aggressively, most agents aim to secure higher advances for all their books.

This is how it works: A publisher usually pays a non-refundable advance based on the estimated print run. So, if the first print run is 3,000 copies priced at Rs 250 each, based on the royalty percentage of between 8% and 10%, the author’s advance would be 3,000 multiplied by Rs 250 multiplied by, say, 10%. Future royalties – over and above the advance – accrue to the author only once the advance itself has been recovered by the publisher. In the above instance, the author will get the 10% of the Rs 250 only from the sale of copy no 3,001 onwards.

Agents the world over usually charge 15% from the author on the advance and future royalties. In case of well-known and established authors, though, this may be brought down to 10%.

Several published authors, established journalists, and celebrities have in recent times avoided the more common direct commissioning route. Instead, they have to signed up agents for reasons other than money, suggesting that the industry has come a long way since its origins in 1997.

Building the business

While the first Indian literary agency was launched in 1997, it was only in 2007, with the establishment of the Neville Tuli-backed Osian’s Literary Agency, that the contours of the profession began to emerge in the country. Although the agency soon folded due to financial difficulties, it did discover writers who went on to create best-selling books, including Omair Ahmad, Saeed Mirza, and Madhulika Liddle.

Osian’s was followed by other literary agencies such as Siyahi, Writer’s Side, Lotus Lane, Purple Folio, and Book Bakers. In 2011, much to everyone’s surprise, the UK-based Aitken Alexander Associates set up an India office. In an interview with Business Today, their India head said, “We look to represent our authors in all markets across the world. But primarily, we look to sell Indian authors in the Indian market.”

This last line would have surprised many industry-watchers a decade ago, but it’s not so shocking today. Besides, over the years, the role of the literary agent has evolved, making them a big asset to many of India’s most popular and established writers for a combination of reasons. An agent is a lot more than someone who just connects an author to a publisher.

Aditya Mani Jha, a seasoned literary critic with a major newspaper, notes that an agent is a lot more than someone who just connects an author to a publisher.

“I look at the job of a literary agent as a combination of talent manager, literary sounding-board (on some days, everything you write will be horse manure), chartered accountant (although I’ve always loved math, not all authors do), and soothsayer (never underestimate the value of those),” he said.

As a debut author, he didn’t feel he could do all these jobs as well as his own day job, and still write his book, Jha said. This made the prospect of having an agent alluring.

For senior journalist and columnist Aditya Sinha, the literary agent route had another benefit. “It saved me the embarrassment of haggling with people I know, leaving this necessary activity to a third party,” he said.

For others, it is an essential step in the process of becoming a writer. Amrita Tripathi, for instance, signed her first book, Broken News, directly with a publisher and yet chose to go through an agent for her second book. “Having an agent not only offered me some validation but also, and perhaps more importantly, raised the bar for me,” she said. “I also thought an agent was a prerequisite for being taken seriously.”

Lack of awareness

Many authors in India go to publishers directly not because they are averse to working with agents but because they are completely unaware of their existence.

One such author, the best-selling film writer Yasser Usman, was always under the impression that the usual way to reach out to a publisher was to get his or her contact details or email address from a published friend or colleague. Luckily for Usman, who wrote Bollywood actress Rekha’s biography, Rekha: The Untold Story, one such connection led to a contract for his first book on the late movie star Rajesh Khanna.

Ironically, he now completely understands the role and importance of an agent but feels that introducing him or her into his writing career at this point may cause confusion and embarrassment for his publisher, with whom he gets along very well.

But gradually even authors represented by foreign agencies, such as investigative journalist Josy Joseph, see how working with agents in India can bring big benefits.

“Indian agents are visibly more aggressive in the market, and make an extra effort to find new writing talent,” Joseph, author of A feast of Vultures, said. “They are playing a crucial role in the booming publishing world because of their willingness to go hunting for new talent, and operate at all levels of the food chain.”

The biggest concern for Indian agents now is losing the authors they discover to editors who may have developed a good rapport with them. Then the writer may not see any point in having an agent for future deals.

“Redundancy is an agent’s biggest enemy,” Bhaskar Chattopadhyay, a translator and novelist, said. “As long as the agent is doing his job and bringing in results, I don’t mind paying him. The day I realise he is not getting me the best deal I could have possibly got, including the one I could have clinched on my own, he becomes redundant.”

Yet, for now, the agents’ role as a bridge between budding authors and publishers is only deepening.

“I think agenting in India came at the right moment when both publishing and the quality and diversity of content from authors began to grow both in depth and breadth,” HarperCollins India CEO Ananth Padmanabhan said, noting that 10 years ago there was simply no commercial fiction, for instance.

“Submissions have changed as agents better understand publishers and the kind of books they seek,” Padmanabhan said.

This article first appeared on Quartz.

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Removing the layers of complexity that weigh down mental health in rural India

Patients in rural areas of the country face several obstacles to get to treatment.

Two individuals, with sombre faces, are immersed in conversation in a sunlit classroom. This image is the theme across WHO’s 2017 campaign ‘Depression: let’s talk’ that aims to encourage people suffering from depression or anxiety to seek help and get assistance. The fact that depression is the theme of World Health Day 2017 indicates the growing global awareness of mental health. This intensification of the discourse on mental health unfortunately coincides with the global rise in mental illness. According to the latest estimates from WHO, more than 300 million people across the globe are suffering from depression, an increase of 18% between 2005 and 2015.

In India, the National Mental Health Survey of India, 2015-16, conducted by the National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences (NIMHANS) revealed the prevalence of mental disorders in 13.7% of the surveyed population. The survey also highlighted that common mental disorders including depression, anxiety disorders and substance use disorders affect nearly 10% of the population, with 1 in 20 people in India suffering from depression. Perhaps the most crucial finding from this survey is the disclosure of a huge treatment gap that remains very high in our country and even worse in rural areas.

According to the National Mental Health Programme, basic psychiatric care is mandated to be provided in every primary health centre – the state run rural healthcare clinics that are the most basic units of India’s public health system. The government provides basic training for all primary health centre doctors, and pays for psychiatric medication to be stocked and available to patients. Despite this mandate, the implementation of mental health services in rural parts of the country continues to be riddled with difficulties:

Attitudinal barriers

In some rural parts of the country, a heavy social stigma exists against mental illness – this has been documented in many studies including the NIMHANS study mentioned earlier. Mental illness is considered to be the “possession of an evil spirit in an individual”. To rid the individual of this evil spirit, patients or family members rely on traditional healers or religious practitioners. Lack of awareness on mental disorders has led to further strengthening of this stigma. Most families refuse to acknowledge the presence of a mental disorder to save themselves from the discrimination in the community.

Lack of healthcare services

The average national deficit of trained psychiatrists in India is estimated to be 77% (0.2 psychiatrists per 1,00,000 population) – this shows the scale of the problem across rural and urban India. The absence of mental healthcare infrastructure compounds the public health problem as many individuals living with mental disorders remain untreated.

Economic burden

The scarcity of healthcare services also means that poor families have to travel great distances to get good mental healthcare. They are often unable to afford the cost of transportation to medical centres that provide treatment.

After focussed efforts towards awareness building on mental health in India, The Live Love Laugh Foundation (TLLLF), founded by Deepika Padukone, is steering its cause towards understanding mental health of rural India. TLLLF has joined forces with The Association of People with Disability (APD), a non-governmental organisation working in the field of disability for the last 57 years to work towards ensuring quality treatment for the rural population living with mental disorders.

APD’s intervention strategy starts with surveys to identify individuals suffering from mental illnesses. The identified individuals and families are then directed to the local Primary Healthcare Centres. In the background, APD capacity building programs work simultaneously to create awareness about mental illnesses amongst community workers (ASHA workers, Village Rehabilitation Workers and General Physicians) in the area. The whole complex process involves creating the social acceptance of mental health conditions and motivating them to approach healthcare specialists.

Participants of the program.
Participants of the program.

When mental health patients are finally free of social barriers and seeking help, APD also mobilises its network to make treatments accessible and affordable. The organisation coordinates psychiatrists’ visits to camps and local healthcare centres and ensures that the necessary medicines are well stocked and free medicines are available to the patients.

We spent a lot of money for treatment and travel. We visited Shivamogha Manasa and Dharwad Hospital for getting treatment. We were not able to continue the treatment for long as we are poor. We suffered economic burden because of the long- distance travel required for the treatment. Now we are getting quality psychiatric service near our village. We are getting free medication in taluk and Primary Healthcare Centres resulting in less economic stress.

— A parent's experience at an APD treatment camp.

In the two years TLLLF has partnered with APD, 892 and individuals with mental health concerns have been treated in the districts of Kolar, Davangere, Chikkaballapur and Bijapur in Karnataka. Over 4620 students participated in awareness building sessions. TLLLF and APD have also secured the participation of 810 community health workers including ASHA workers in the mental health awareness projects - a crucial victory as these workers play an important role in spreading awareness about health. Post treatment, 155 patients have resumed their previous occupations.

To mark World Mental Health Day, 2017, a team from TLLLF lead by Deepika Padukone visited program participants in the Davengere district.

Sessions on World Mental Health Day, 2017.
Sessions on World Mental Health Day, 2017.

In the face of a mental health crisis, it is essential to overcome the treatment gap present across the country, rural and urban. While awareness campaigns attempt to destigmatise mental disorders, policymakers need to make treatment accessible and cost effective. Until then, organisations like TLLLF and APD are doing what they can to create an environment that acknowledges and supports people who live with mental disorders. To know more, see here.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of The Live Love Laugh Foundation and not by the Scroll editorial team.