As someone with no degree in English literature, limited reading, and not a single day’s experience with a publishing house, being a literary agent was always going to be an uphill task for me. Seven years and several hundred deals later I would have imagined things would improve. That is not the case, alas, and it is because the position of a literary agent in the Indian publishing ecosystem is a fragile and severely compromised one.

The new-old manuscript

Sample this: I get a submission in my inbox. I go through the synopsis and the first three chapters and enjoy reading them. I ask for the entire manuscript and pass it on to my team for their reader reports. All of us like the manuscript and I offer representation to the author.

I have numerous conversations and email exchanges with the author and discuss my strategy, the pitch, a list of publishers I feel might be interested in the book, etc. We are in agreement on almost everything. A few days later I send out the manuscript to seven or eight carefully shortlisted editors in publishing houses, fantasising about a bidding war and a high six-figure advance.

Minutes later emails from Penguin and Harper land in my inbox. Obviously, they’re interested and eternally grateful to me for finding such a promising manuscript, I tell myself. However, I am shaken out of my sweet fantasy when one editor tells me, "I already rejected this two years ago", and another says, "This was seen by a colleague a while ago and didn’t work for him."

I am furious and confront the author. Turns out, the book had been rejected by several publishers before it was sent to me. I am in a quandary. I like the book but my options are severely limited. I can either send the book out to the few remaining publishers who haven’t already seen it, or drop the submission, grudgingly accepting the loss of time and editorial investment.

Indian agents have to contend with good leftovers on a daily basis. After my experience with several such manuscripts and their unprofessional authors I’ve made it a point to ask all authors pointblank whether the manuscript has been shown to any publishers before taking things further. In most cases it has, even if just one or two. We are, obviously, not an author’s first choice.

But we know the publisher

There are several other problems I have faced as an agent. Most well-known authors and journalists are pals with top publishers. Not once but on several occasions I’ve been told rather haughtily, "But C is a friend and has been wanting to discuss a book for a long time now", or "I know the M family very well", or "A draft contract from H has been lying with me for months but I haven’t had a chance to look at it."

In other words: Who the f*** are you?

A well-known, award-winning journalist even told me over a cup of coffee, "You are a working-class publishing professional and not an aristocratic publishing professional." I was aware of a pecking order in publishing but certainly not of an aristocracy before this run-in.

The devious ones

Some authors can be very clever but also highly impractical. They approach me to act as their agent only for Penguin or Harper or Hachette – who have stopped looking at unsolicited submissions – and say they’ll deal with other publishers on their own. Where does this leave me? If I get an offer from one of these three after a lot of chasing, cajoling following up, and stalking on email/Facebook/phone/WhatsApp/SMS, while my “co-agent” (i.e. the author himself!) snags a better deal on his own what should I do?

Many authors sell rights for big books directly to publishers and saddle agents with manuscripts they know they can’t sell. This usually happens when a writer known for fiction forays into non-fiction or vice-versa.

‘You sell this, I’ll sell that’

Well-known authors also sell the Indian subcontinent rights directly and leave the herculean and near-impossible task of finding a UK or US publisher to the Indian agent. Years ago I had sent out feelers to a politician’s daughter through her friend when I learnt about her book on her parents. I didn’t get any response despite my friend having put in a very strong recommendation.

The book was sold in India un-agented, but I believe the author has signed with a rival agent to sell the book internationally. I can’t for the life of me imagine editors in Paris or NYC queuing up to buy a personal, controversy-free account of this particular politician and his wife, but I may be wrong.

Some authors also sell the more lucrative English language rights directly and expect agents to sell the rights in different Indian languages, where the usual first print run is a thousand copies, and the advance a princely sum of twenty to thirty thousand rupees. Even the ones who don’t know any editors personally manage to get their friends, or friends of their friends, or friends of their friends of their friends, to connect them to publishers.

How to cut the agent out

I had wanted to sign up a book on magic last year and the author was also very interested. Unfortunately for me, one of the most respected editors in Indian publishing agreed to meet him just when we were about to formalise our relationship. Immediately after this development, he told me he had fallen sick and had a big family to look after. A few days later, I saw the editor and the author congratulating each other on Twitter over the impending book. He didn’t sound particularly sick or overburdened with familial responsibilities.

I still can’t forget how a journalist unofficially acted as an agent for a fellow colleague’s book just so that he didn’t have to cough up an agent’s commission. He actually conducted an auction, got multiple offers and, finally, a high advance. I met the author at the Press Club of India to discuss his second book, targeted at a far smaller niche. When he told me he was looking for a better deal than the first book I lost interest. The unofficial agent had raised the bar for the official agent!

Numb over numbers

Many authors have no idea about the print runs and the advances prevalent in the industry. A writer from the film industry wanted Rs 1 crore for a seven-book deal. “If Ravi Subramanian can get it, why can’t I?” Subramanian delivered three smash bestsellers too, you see, but this fact went completely unnoticed by this particular writer.

Some authors expect the potential print-runs of their books to be a certain percentage of literate people in India, and sometimes even of the entire population of India. “We are a country of one billion people. I think it would be fair to do a first print run of ten lakh copies.”

Many well-known authors haggle over the commission and some don’t want agents to have a percentage of the subsequent royalties. I usually agree – because in all likelihood they are not going to see a royalty cheque in their lifetimes anyway.

But I must confess that  things are better when it comes to publishers. Most, if not all, welcome agented submissions. However, this has happened only after years of hard work, nurturing relationships, and gaining credibility. But there are some homegrown ones who are resistant, perhaps because we ask for good terms for our authors. When a publisher turned down one of my first proposals, the author managed to get a meeting with the publisher through a common friend – and a few days later, he got an offer for the very same proposal!

So what does an Indian agent do in these near insurmountable circumstances? What did I do? The answer: be flexible and adaptable.

Four things an agent has no choice but to do

Accept a lower commission from some authors – you won’t lose out on an SUV or an apartment by forfeiting five thousand rupees.

Let them keep all the subsequent royalties – most books never recover the advance on the first print run anyway.

Compromise. I really wanted a well-known writer specialising in the underworld on my list but just couldn’t justify my percentage since he runs an imprint with Penguin himself and is friends with all the top publishers. So, I decided to act as his consultant and worked editorially on his next three proposals for which he seceured extremely large advances.

Above all, accept your plight. I have.