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India’s top literary agent

Last updated on August 27, 2019

Kanishka Gupta makes books a profitable proposition in the times of Netflix

What’s meant to be will always find a way. That’s the story of India’s youngest (at the time of starting) and one of the most influential literary agents: Kanishka Gupta. He meets young writers, as well as those who have made a name in the publishing world, on a daily basis. He has done more than 600 books, two dozen of them are the best sellers. They say he has the Midas touch. If he takes up a book project, rest assured, it will see the light of day. Not only will it be published but also publicised, reviewed and reach the intended readership.

He’s matter-of-fact in his dealings, and doesn’t shy away from calling a spade a spade. He’s not bothered what intellectuals have to say about him as long as the work is well done. A shade practical, he doesn’t waste time in small talk. It doesn’t mean he’s not warm. If he doesn’t like a book, he says so, even if the book is a recipient of the Booker Prize. “I refuse to be politically correct,” he asserts and he’d never “sell his soul to do a book by a spiritual leader.” He does add after a pause, “The two I have published have good writing skills.” His Facebook account is a literary melting pot. He lists new books he’s shaped, and reviewers pick those up from there. A mere mention by him is an endorsement. A hallmark of quality, even if it’s pulp fiction, has an element of class and gravitas.

Kanishka, 36 years old, wears many hats–an industry insider, a literary agent, an author, a consultant, and a publishing commentator. His portfolio of authors is long and includes the likes of Aneesh Pradhan, Vishwanathan Anand, Anees Salim, Shubha Mudgal to name a fewAnd some of the big best sellers are Lady You Are Not AMan by Apurva Purohit; The Heartfulness Way by Kamlesh D Patel; and Joshua Pollock. Ravinder Singh’s I Too Had a Love Story sold over a million copies. Not just these, established writers too are roping him in. He’s handling Shobhaa De’s latest book.

He encourages the debut authors to break into the world of books. These first timers usually have a good story to tell, though might not be sure footed about their writing craft. Kanishka mentors them, even if the first time happens to be a maestro in their chosen field. Take for instanceShubha Mudgal, a classical vocalist of world fame. She took four years to finish her first book, Looking for Miss Sargam: Stories of Music and Misadventure, and it’s already a best seller. Kanishka helped her through those doubtful phases when motivation is a casualty. She admits that she has gotten used to “the stage than to writing.” It’s ironic that as a school boy, Kanishka wasn’t too interested in academics, to put it mildly, let alone books. The most dreaded class, no surprise, was the library where you pupils were expected to sit amongst books for three quarters of an hour, reading or pretending to read. His family “forced” him to pursue a degree. Six years of his life–2002 to 2008–were a sort of phase where he was basically clueless as to what’s in store.  But all this while, he had things to say, express inner cravings, to make sense of life and the growing years, and writing became a mode of self-expression. Yahoo chat was his popular pass time; he’d interact with writers who were trying to make it big, he describes them as “self-proclaimed intellectuals.”

In these years, a sort of ennui had set in, not that he was not doing anything, but not enough. He wrote many books, which he describes as “terribly written.” At least, he doesn’t suffer from delusion and denial as some “self-proclaimed intellectuals” he dealt with online. His father, on his advice, paid a sham agent 500 pounds to get a book published. He describes himself as a “failed author” so far, but maybe not for long. A book authored by him is in the pipeline. And success is not the only measure of literary accomplishment. One thing is for sure, he has a way with words and is also an acute judge of the written word. He’s a storyteller, whether he’s talking about books, people or himself.

He manages things well against all odds. He recounts how in school he’d request, pester, and even fight with teachers to have them give him grace marks to pass in examinations. A skill he developed during the school days is handy now to coax, cajole, pressure authors to finish their books on time, but never at the cost of quality. He brings out the best in writers, many of his authors vouch. Single, he lives in a fairly well-off joint family, which was a pillar of strength in those uncertain years, still is. He has a fancy office courtesy his father.

It all started in 2008, he dashed off a Facebook message to MitaKapur of Siyahi, asking her to consider him for a role in her new literary consultancy. She agreed. It was a freelance position, and Kanishka was open to more assignments. Kapur put him in touch with the proprietor of Platform magazine, Shruti Kapur, and noted novelist Namita Gokhale. The latter is a hard task master, sets high standards. Seven months under Gokhale’s vigilant eyes were a great learning experience for him.“she taught me more than a publishing professional might ever learn in 20 years,” he says, words come out in quick succession.

The publishing world is fairly insular and credential-reputation driven. As an outsider, it was not easy an easy journey. Initially, no publisher would even bother to send an acknowledgment to his mails. He tried relentlessly, “Fake it till you make it,” he says. Anees Salim was the first author he helped get published, this was after his project was repeatedly rejected for 20 years. That was the turning point. Kanishka never looked back. The industry, initially reluctant, “Let me come up. Things happened on their own,” he says, the whole process, in hindsight, looks fairly organic in nature. Now, he’s treated as the spokesperson for the industry.

He believes that technology has a limited appeal in the world of publishing. Not just in India but across the world, the printed word reigns. Mobile books, he says, are“dead on arrival.” He also believes that the movie adaptation of a book doesn’t necessarily lead to a hike in the sales, Sacred Games is, perhaps, the only notable exception.

The one aspect that sets him apart from the others is his insatiable curiosity about people and their stories. He makes books a profitable proposition in the times of Netflix–the way to go.