Achtung Nepali authorsSalman Rushdie was a copywriter at an advertising company, Oglivy & Mather, in Pakistan in 1981 when he wrote Midnight’s Children.
Salman Rushdie was a copywriter at an advertising company, Oglivy & Mather, in Pakistan in 1981 when he wrote Midnight’s Children. When the book reached its audience, the literary landscape of South Asia was transformed. Rushdie, who later came to be known for controversies with Shame (1983) and the ill-fated The Satanic Verses (1988), brought to the Indian Subcontinent an unprecedented seriousness in writing in the Queen’s language.
Widely-acclaimed novelist and poet Vikram Seth’s former literary agent Giles Gordon recalled being interviewed for the position: “Vikram sat at one end of a long table, and he began to grill us. It was absolutely incredible. He wanted to know our literary tastes, our views on poetry, our views on plays, which novelists we liked.” Seth later explained to Gordon that he had passed the interview not because of commercial considerations, but because he was the only one who seemed to be as interested in his poetry as in his other writings. The anecdote shows what an author really needs in his or her literary agent—understanding of the writing and smooth handling of the commercial aspects.
India, the hub of the South Asian publishing market, is growing like never before. The South Asian publishing industry’s total annual business is to the tune of $2.5 billion. Books in English make up almost a quarter of this modest but encouraging sum, and India remains a favoured destination for subcontinental writers. However, South Asian publishers and writers are not familiar with using the services of literary agents. The scenario contrasts with that in the Western world where agenting is quite a promising profession for well-read individuals with a knack for business. South Asia has its own literary agents and inbound foreign agents, and they play crucial roles when it comes to high-end books.
Lure of commercial trash
The literary business kingpin of South Asia, Kanishka Gupta of Writer’s Side, has a reputation for ruthlessness. Gupta is a terrific snob about books, and he often makes a point with his strong impulses. A writer-turned-agent, Kanishka shares this up front, “Things are changing and my own list is testimony to the growing acceptance of agents. Since January 2015, I have sold more than 250 books to mainstream publishers, and the number is likely to shoot up in the last few months of 2016. Most newcomers who are not familiar with agents in India usually submit to a publisher directly. Many publishers openly encourage authors to submit directly because they are well aware that with the involvement of an agent, things will get competitive and they won’t be able to get a book at whatever random price they offer.”
Kanishka, an avid reader, reminded this writer that in India, the only fiction that is selling in huge quantities is commercial trash. While he has nothing against it, he believes that some of the writers of the genre would be well advised to experiment with subject, writing style and storytelling. Otherwise, it’s just the literary equivalent of the formulaic Indian soap operas half the populace of the country devours day in and day out. Indeed, the genres of literary and translated fiction have never been in greater danger than they are now. Most authors struggle to sell their already miniscule first print runs. Major reviews and profiles seldom boost sales, and subcontinental literary awards have no sway over the casual book buyer. The only books that manage to sell in decent numbers are those that have received some recognition in the West.
Commercially, however, the Indian publishing market is booming. The grim truth is that even now, little is known of it in Nepal. The Nepali writing scene is booming when it comes to those who write in Nepali, but those writing in English have not found the same kind of mileage. And that is where the Indian publishing scene can come to play. There have been some interesting publications from or about Nepal in the last few years, including the translation of Palpasa Cafe by Narayan Wagle, The Living Goddess: A Journey into the Heart of Kathmandu by Isabella Tree, Making it Big: The Inspiring Story of Nepal’s First Billionaire in His Own Words by Binod Chaudhary, and books by Manjushree Thapa, Samrat Upadhyay, Rabi Thapa, Baburam Acharya, Pranaya SJB Rana, Prawin Adhikari, Greta Rana, Prajwal Parajuly, Thomas Bell, Prashant Jha and Aditya Adhikari.
The sad truth is that one doesn’t get to see as much promising writing from the country coming into the Indian publishing market, certainly not as many as one sees from Pakistan and Bangladesh. Barring Manjushree Thapa, Samrat Upadhyay, Prajwal Parajuly and a handful of others, few Nepali writers in English have broken through globally. However, if Nepali writers are able to transcend national boundaries and produce literature that is universal to the subcontinent (and the world), they could very well benefit from Indian publishing. Thapa is a good example; she even has a foreign literary agent (Westwood’s Carolyn Forde) and has benefitted a lot by having a publisher like David Davidar (then with Penguin) early on in her writing career. Like Thapa, Nepali writers should strive to get access to literary agents who know the layout of the industry well.
Can Nepal’s literary scene benefit from India’s publishing boom? When asked for a take on this unusual disconnect, Gupta said, “I think this is because none [of these writers] has won a major international award. I also feel that there is a great lack of awareness among aspiring and even established Nepali writers in English of how pivotal the Indian publishing ecosystem is for subcontinental literature. You would be surprised to learn that I have hardly received any submissions from Nepal in my seven-year-long agenting career.” Indian publishing firms are on the lookout for deserving manuscripts from Nepal, and the writers’ interest will be best served if they are represented by professional literary agents. Nepal, home to many remarkable writers and journalists, should align itself with the immense opportunities offered by India, a real homeland of publishing.
Thakur is a New Delhi-based journalist, writer and literary critic