On William Dalrymple
We sold The Last Mughal
in advance... everyone knows what Willie's about and the kind of book he'll write.
On Arundhati Roy
She always has an interesting take on the world and is doing such a variety of things. It's a treat talking to her.
On Pradip Krishen
I know Pradip, gave him some help, but it's not a book for over there. If I can be of use to him here, it'll be nice.
On David Davidar
I wouldn't have come if I didn't like the House of Blue Mangoes. It'd have been a nightmare if I didn't like the book.
On Ruchir Joshi
He is one of my authors. I am meeting him to see how he's getting on with his second book.
On Kiran Desai
I had a difficult time selling her book in the UK. They didn't like it. It's not a predictable book...but very wise.
When David Godwin packs his bags for India, as he did this week, the incestuous bookworld here sits up and starts scanning the horizon for the next literary star to rise. It started ten years ago, when the former publisher-turned-literary agent from London famously caught the next flight to Delhi after reading Arundhati Roy's God of Small Things. The rest is history: how he signed her on, pulled her out of her contract with HarperCollins India, held one of the first auctions to sell publishing rights across the world for undreamt-of advances, and unleashed upon himself such a mountain of manuscripts from hopefuls that for a while he had to hire a sub-agent in India to cope with them.
Since then, much has changed in the publishing world, both here and abroad, but Godwin's Indian gambit seems to be still paying off. Last week, he scored his second—third, if you count Ben Okri from his previous avatar as publisher—Booker Prize hit with recently-acquired author Kiran Desai's Inheritance of Loss. In between, there was David Davidar, Ruchir Joshi, Jaishree Misra and Githa Hariharan. And waiting in the wings for imminent starhood is his latest find, a debut novelist from Chennai whose name, Anuradha Vijayakrishnan, he can't quite get his British tongue around so he calls her Anne-Ooh. Possibly to rhyme with Tash Aw, the Taipei-born Malaysian whose first novel, The Harmony Silk Factory, is yet another instance of the lanky veteran's golden touch.
It's that Midas touch, coupled with his reputation for godparenting young and unknown authors from countries that Western publishing capitals had never heard of, that makes an entry into Godwin's charmed circle of some 60 authors a privilege that aspiring authors would kill for. Just how difficult it is to get in can be guessed by the fact that less than one out of the 600 or more manuscripts a year gets chosen. There are countless manuscripts that land in his e-mail—over 25 a week—and dauntless other hopefuls who invest in an air-ticket to London only for the pleasure of meeting him face-to-face.
Godwin, who is on first-name terms with the world's foremost publishers thanks to over two decades in the business, says he decided to branch out as a literary agent ten years ago because he wanted to play Robin Hood. "When I used to work in Random House, I used to look at the editors' cars in the car park. They were nearly all Mercedes. If the editors were making enough out of publishing to afford Mercs, then why shouldn't authors, who make them the money, ride in Mercs too?"
In the West, the institution of literary agents has come to stay. The division of roles between agents like him and publishers is clear: while a publisher produces books, an agent's job is to handle authors, from reading manuscripts to offering editorial advice to "selling" the book to editors to holding their hand until they make it big, staying with them through thick and thin. "I like being useful to them in any way I can," is how Godwin describes it, whether it is helping organise book events for his writers or just making sure that their books are visible in bookshops.
But perhaps his toughest job is to get publishing editors to believe in the book as much as he does. "I had a difficult time selling Kiran's book in the UK. They didn't like it. They kept saying, "No, no, David, this isn't very good." I thought that was crazy. It's not a predictable book. But very wise. Many thought it was too long. But perhaps, in due course, we can consider publishing the original version. It could be of interest now." Even Arundhati's book, Godwin recalls, faced some resistance from editors at first. "But I told them, 'Trust me, don't give up. Keep reading beyond the first forty pages and it will make sense." '
So is it time to open shop here? "I don't see why not," responds the astute agent who has already spotted a brand new slot for himself in India's booming publishing industry. Publishers in the West are eyeing the Indian market, he says, "but they just don't know how to get a toehold here. Penguin is too dominant here". Now, there's Random House, for example, "which needs to have 4-5 big hits in the next year to make a dent in the market". That's where Godwin can step in, with his merciless art of gently twisting a publisher's arm into sharing their profits with the writers. What if he finds a couple of authors who are just right for the growing Indian market? It's a distinct possibility, admits Godwin, adding that he's already talent-scouting. He's taken a keen interest in Pradip Krishen's Trees of Delhi, for instance, right from the start of the project even if the book had no international appeal. And Godwin hopes to be hands-on in Krishen's next book, Trees of India.
The Indian publishing scene has come a long way since he first came to India soon after Arundhati's publishing coup in the West. "I remember landing in Bombay for her first launch and I had never seen so many people before at a book event," he recalls. "But it was so noisy and chaotic and my first instinct was to step in there and say: "Alright, let's have some order here. Can we line up?" Then I told myself: David, remember you are in India. They do things differently here. Just sit back and relax." Nearly ten years later, Godwin has decided that sitting back and relaxing may not be the best way to ensure his writers get the best deal in India.
"It's not as if books are not selling in huge numbers here now," he points out. Penguin, for instance, has printed over 25,000 copies of William Dalrymple's The Last Mughal, a respectable print order even by UK standards. "Once that happens," says Godwin, "everything goes up. The key test for a publisher is to move the unknown titles, not just the ones by celebrity writers."
Nor does he see what business a publisher has selling rights of an author's book. "That's an agent's job, not a publisher's." And yet, Godwin points out, when he expressed his keenness to take charge of selling to the world an extraordinary memoir that Penguin India had published this year along with Zubaan—the autobiography of a Bengali woman who fled a bad marriage to work as a maidservant in Delhi's suburbs called A Life Less Ordinary by Baby Halder—Penguin insisted on selling it themselves. The book did sell abroad to over a dozen publishers but Godwin can't help but regret an opportunity lost to make an Indian domestic servant into one of the world's rich and famous literary stars. "But there must be others like Halder," he says, determined to unearth them by scouting among regional writing.
Another thing he's itching to advice on is the strange case of HarperCollins India's facelessness. "When I have an interesting book, I need to know who is the editor at a publishing house I can get on the phone to. That's how it works in the publishing world. It's a very small world, and you ring up so-and-so and say, 'Listen, I've got this great book, would you be interested?' Who can I call there?"
"It's rare even here to find a poor publisher. Did you see the fleet of cars that were at the disposal of the international heads of HarperCollins when they came to Delhi last week. Isn't it time for Indian authors to share the ride?"
It's certainly time for our publishing houses to sit up. Robin Hood is coming to town.