Star Literary Agent David Godwin On Arundhati Roy, Selling Books And Why Timing Matters

Godwin, who is best known for ‘discovering’ Booker winner ‘The God Of Small Things’, says he doesn’t like running his literary agency like a supermarket.
David Godwin is the agent Indian authors go to when they’re looking to crack the international market.
David Godwin is the agent Indian authors go to when they’re looking to crack the international market.

When I met David Godwin on a cold January evening in Delhi, he was thinking about a session he would be part of later that week at the Jaipur Literature Festival, where he was scheduled to talk about the business of being a literary agent. “There’s a real danger with these things, I don’t want to sound too pompous or self-important. It’s the writers who matter,” he said.

Godwin was also amused at being billed on the programme as running the world’s largest literary agency. “They probably want people to show up but it would be more accurate to say it’s the world’s smallest agency,” he laughed. It’s a charming bit of self-deprecation but Godwin matters, particularly in Indian publishing.

Since he founded David Godwin Associates in 1995, Godwin has represented some of India’s biggest and brightest authors—Vikram Seth, Aravind Adiga, Kiran Desai, Jeet Thayil, Meena Kandasamy—but he remains legendary in publishing for his greatest “discovery”: the manuscript of Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things, for which he sold international rights, securing advances that were unheard of for Indian authors until then.

Godwin is the agent Indian authors go to when they’re looking to crack the international market and cash some big cheques. But it’s not just about the money. The agent has developed a reputation for spotting talent. Apart from literary heavyweights, which include three Booker Prize winners, he has represented a slew of young authors writing across genres—he looks above all for a “distinctive voice”, he says—from around the world.

In a conversation with HuffPost India, Godwin spoke about the changes in Indian publishing over the last two decades, why the success of The God of Small Things remains unmatched, and why he doesn’t like running his agency like a “supermarket”. Edited excerpts:

How many authors does David Godwin Associates represent as a literary agency and how many do you handle personally?

Well, it’s complicated, it builds up. A lot of writers take a lot of time to write books. So we probably have about 100 active writers, but you’ve got some writers—I mean, I see Arundhati Roy a lot but it was 20 years between her novels—who do very literary books and they take quite a lot of time.

You have a reputation for representing writers from India, or of Indian origin, and it’s certainly a sizable number but still a relatively small percentage out of your overall list.

Yes, it probably is, but they are a very active lot of writers. And they’re important. There’s Jeet [Thayil], Nilanjana [Roy], William [Dalrymple], Vikram [Seth] of course. So they’re a significant part of what we do. It’s really been Arundhati who started it all. She asked me then [at the time The God of Small Things was being published] if I’m interested in Indian writing and I said, “No, I’m not. I’m interested in particular writers and particular books.” It just happens to be many authors from India. Now I think people come to me because they think I have a magic touch because of God of Small Things. I don’t. Anyone who read that novel would do what I did; I was just lucky enough to be one of the first people to have read it and lots of things followed from that.

On a recent podcast, Karthika V.K., who is the publisher at Westland, spoke about how the success of The God of Small Things changed how English language publishing in India functioned. There was a wave of people who were almost trying to imitate what Roy wrote about and how she wrote it. In your experience, were international publishers also then suddenly looking for a very similar novel out of India?

It’s a very strange industry. There were a number of people who turned down Arundhati Roy’s book. It’s almost inconceivable now that they did it but people have different tastes, and that’s a good thing. But yes, there are ways in which publishers get interested in things.

A writer of mine had written a very funny, jolly book about Pakistan and publishers said they didn’t want this. They wanted a book about poverty, they wanted suffering. It’s just weird to have those kinds of prejudices. So then what actually happens is that you get a slew of similar books, most of which fail. The books that succeed are usually incredibly original, distinctive, interesting, and in a way promotable precisely because of that. Publishers can very strangely be sheep and they start going for the same things and certain books become very fashionable and publishers pay lots of money for them. And some of these fail very badly. Partly because hype can damage books too. There are many books coming out in India that have a lot of hype associated with them and if they’re really good, that’s fine. But when these books get to reviewers in England, let’s say, publishing as a whole starts getting reviewed.

At least in India, publishers at the time were looking for the “next Arundhati Roy”. And despite writers like Aravind Adiga having won the Booker for example, one could argue that no one’s reached that level of success and resonance as Roy internationally. It definitely put the spotlight on fiction coming out of India in a way that wasn’t the case before.

I think that’s true. It was a very unique set of issues. Timing was really important. There had never been a book like it. She was an incredibly interesting writer. A woman. A certain age. There was lots of interest in India from the world at that time. But also it just had so much charm, I mean seriously. Very few books have that.

A really interesting young writer is Meena Kandasamy, who is really very good. The books can be tough but they’re a product of our time. And I hope they will do so eventually, but as of now, they’ve not sold at that level. And it’s interesting to speculate why. I think for a book to really sell, there has to be a very unique conjunction of forces. It really is a whole set of things coming together.

Take Vikram Seth and his first book, and eventually when he finishes the next one [A Suitable Girl]. There’s a huge TV series [based on A Suitable Boy] coming out in the summer. If he were to finish the book this year, it would be incredible. Suddenly, the audience gets remade in a way—A Suitable Boy came out over 20 years ago and a lot of people who read it then are getting older.

But really, all you can do in my job is try and spot books that are good and worth reading, that interest me and I then go do what I do. And if they work in the world, that’s great.

Arundhati Roy’s 'The God of Small Things', Preti Taneja's 'We That Are Young' and Lucy Ellmann's 'Ducks, Newburyport'.
Arundhati Roy’s 'The God of Small Things', Preti Taneja's 'We That Are Young' and Lucy Ellmann's 'Ducks, Newburyport'.

You can’t always try and make or predict that conjunction of factors...

You can’t. And that’s good. It would be very boring if you could. There are so many books I’ve seen that get hyped and then fall by the wayside. And then there are quiet treasures. We did a book by Preti Taneja, We That Are Young, it’s an amazing book, won a big prize and but every single person in British publishing had turned it down [it was published in the UK by independent publisher Galley Beggar Press]. And now these people have no shame. I went to see one of them recently and he said, “Can we see Preti’s new novel?” and I said “What do you mean? You do know that you turned her book down and Galley Beggar Press—they’re a really wonderful outfit—published this book so very well. I would rather cut off my leg, put it in the oven, cook it and eat it than give you Preti Taneja’s new novel.”

It’s outrageous–the presumption of these people, as if somehow it’s all up for grabs. It’s not up for grabs. I remember someone ringing me up from a publisher and asking for a book and when I said no, and she asked why, I said it’s because I’m not running a supermarket, I’m running a literary agency, and I decide, on behalf of the author, who sees a manuscript to publish it. We make sure we get lots of money for our clients, of course, but we have to trust these books with the right people. It’s worth whittling away sometimes and waiting to make sure books go to the right publisher.

I’ve never had a client say to me that they just want me to go out and get them the most money. They might think it but they don’t say it!

You mentioned Vikram Seth’s long-awaited novel. Fiction writers will work at their own pace, of course. What I’m curious about, particularly since you were a publisher and editor for many years before becoming an agent, is that when it comes to nonfiction, what is the extent of your role as an agent? How much are you putting on your editor’s hat and suggesting what are the books that they could be writing next and how timely they could be with them?

Yeah, sure, I do that. But in a way it’s not just about having an idea. It’s also about recognising the right one. There’s no science to it. I suppose I kind of know what people want but I’m nervous about it. It’s about finding the right book for the right writer. What are you best at?

Books are very hard, and if you’re not committed to it and are doing it just because someone wants it or there’s lots of money, it can be a pretty depressing business. In the end, there are lots of terrible books in the world, and you don’t want to add any more than you can possibly help it.

Again looking at non-fiction, while literary fiction in India has many interesting new voices, it’s often felt that wonderfully-told, immersive non-fiction, particularly based on extensive reporting, is still not too common.

I think people are beginning to explore more subjects. For example, there might be some local emperor who hasn’t been written about at all and then suddenly two books will appear on him. I did meet a publisher recently who felt that the fiction scene was actually quite bleak, and there weren’t people anymore like Arundhati Roy or Amitav Ghosh or Salman Rushdie. Who’s taken that space?

But this restless search for the next “ambitious” book is not what it’s about. These things are much more accidental, they’re much more complicated. Lucy Ellmann (author of Ducks, Newburyport), who I represent, is a great example. She’d written a number of books over the years and she thought “I’m damn well going to write the book that I want to write, I don’t care what happens”. It took her seven years, day in and day out, with no thought of success. It was just about what she wanted to say. In the end, my work is about supporting people like Lucy Ellmann. It’s helping those writers be successful and staying loyal to them and not giving up.

You’ve been interacting with Indian publishing for two decades now. What do you make of it today as opposed to when you first began?

What is abundantly clear is that all the publishing people know each other very well. Many of them worked under David Davidar at Penguin, then they went their different ways. So actually you’ve got probably about 30 people who move in and out from one publishing house to another. So, in a way, I don’t know if the imprints are particularly distinctive enough.

Many of the Indian authors that you represent have been published outside of the country. Is that how you see your role when it comes to Indian publishing? Is it about finding an interesting story and then making sure it reaches an international audience? Or is it also a question of being involved in publishing here? Because you sell books to Indian publishers as well.

Yes I do that, but not much. I think my value really is to be in London. My value is to be a kind of postman for books and I enjoy that role. Some books are published here and I get very interested in them. For example, take Gujarat Files by Rana Ayyub. I went and bought it, it’s there in my room and I’m starting to read it. No publisher was willing to publish it but it sold hundreds of thousands of copies. She’s obviously a remarkable woman. And I think, “could this be publishable more widely?” I don’t know enough yet. But I think my value is carrying these books out there. But then again look at Lucy Ellmann’s Ducks, Newburyport—small publisher in the UK, picked up by Picador here. So the journey works both ways, but still my use is not to be here.

“All the publishing people (in India) know each other very well. Many of them worked under David Davidar at Penguin, then they went their different ways. So actually you’ve got probably about 30 people who move in and out from one publishing house to another. So, in a way, I don’t know if the imprints are particularly distinctive enough”

You’re also able to introduce international readers to fresh voices they might not be aware of...

Yes, and it’s a gamble. For example, there’s this very interesting writer and she wrote an excellent book that was shortlisted for the JCB Prize, but it just didn’t work for me. I told the publishers that. But it’s done really well. They sold it in America, they sold it in Britain. And that’s great. A book needs to be in the right hands. I think that’s absolutely crucial. I can’t sell books if I don’t believe in them. So I think having lots of different agents doing different things is very good.

You’ve taken on a bunch of young authors writing about Indian history. Are you finding a lot of interest for that internationally? Your authors include, for example, Manu Pillai, Aanchal Malhotra, Yashaswini Chandra, who is writing about the history of horses in India...

Yes, she’s wonderful. We sold her book about the British Raj to Picador in London. I really thought people would jump at it—it’s a really proper book—but no. It took a bit of time. It was the same with Shashi Tharoor’s book [Era of Darkness]. Everyone said no to it and then Michael Dwyer [at Hurst Publishers] published it and made it a huge success. It’s extraordinary just how many good books take a very long amount of time to find their place. With Shashi’s book too, Penguin turned it down twice and then bought it from Michael Dwyer when it was successful, and sold thousands of copies.

You’ve spoken in the past about how no major publisher in India wanted to publish Jeet Thayil’s Narcopolis when you pitched it to them and then Faber eventually published the novel and it went on to be shortlisted for the Booker. Do you think there’s still an aversion to risk within Indian publishing?

I think Rana Ayyub’s book is quite an interesting example of this. I can’t get to the bottom of it. I assumed it was because of legal issues, but people have all sorts of extraordinary reasons for not publishing it, some of them pretty feeble, and even many bookshops wouldn’t stock it.

Publishers overall can get very frightened. They don’t like legal risk, yet they gamble huge sums of money on books. And with these huge amounts, they don’t say “I’m taking a terrible risk, I hope it’s going to work out”, which is so weird because of course it is a risk.

Authors also think that if you’re paid a lot of money for books, publishers will work harder for you. That’s not true. What actually happens is that if the book comes in and it’s a dud, they walk away. They say ‘let’s not waste waste any more money on it’. I’ve seen books get unbelievable sums of money and barely sell a single copy.

Jeet Thayil’s 'Narcopolis', Shashi Tharoor's 'An Era Of Darkness' and Vikram Seth's 'A Suitable Boy'.   
Jeet Thayil’s 'Narcopolis', Shashi Tharoor's 'An Era Of Darkness' and Vikram Seth's 'A Suitable Boy'.   

In Indian publishing at least, publishers will pay the big advances for the star writers but because margins are often so narrow here, advances for many writers can also be a joke in how low they are. With non-fiction in India, especially when you look at books that require extensive reporting, advances are rarely anywhere close to being sufficient to finance the work required for it...

I think the range for advances, as with all publishing, is absolutely enormous. Why people pay more, why people pay less – it’s also about publishers’ desires among many other complicated things. At the end of the day no one knows how a book is going to do.

But that’s also the part where I come in. With Yashaswini Chandra’s book for example, I sold it to Picador in London, she got a decent sum of money from there and that helps subsidise the work here.

Is that partly why a lot of Indian writers try to, and often need to look beyond Indian publishers—in order for the finances to be sustainable?

It’s tough. A lot of writers don’t make a lot of money. But that’s true of artists and filmmakers. We know the world’s not a just place. People like me try and help make it more just for writers.

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Publishers, if they’re so inclined, often use the revenue from their commercial lists to fund literary fiction or poetry—genres that may not always bring in money in the same way for them. You’ve spoken about needing to believe in a book in order to sell it but do you also have some titles that you pick up because you just know they’re going to sell and it makes business sense?

Yes, I do sometimes. I did a book with Pippa Middleton which I thought would be amazing but it was absolutely disastrous. I don’t regret it at all. We got tonnes of money for her – I tried to persuade her to give some of it to charity – but she was slaughtered by the press. I really like her, she’s really great and of course there was money involved, but it was also fun.

I certainly bump into commercial projects when I’m interested in the idea or person. I’m not going to be standoffish about it. But mostly people are not going to come to me for those projects anyway. There are much better people who are more businesslike and can manipulate people. They’re very good skills but I just don’t have them.

Money is also fun, that’s the other thing. It’s a lot of fun when someone pays a writer a lot more money than you think you’re going to get. But it can also be scary. I have seen agents get really anxious. When authors say “what do you think we’re going to get?”, that’s a difficult one. You’ve got to be truthful. I usually say I’ll get you between A and B but I’ll never say “come with me and I’ll get you a million pounds.”

I suppose that also comes with pressure for the author. Like when Penguin Random House asked Vikram Seth to return his $1.7 million advance for the sequel to A Suitable Boy in 2013 after he failed to meet the deadline. There was all of this attention on the amount of the advance and all of this pressure on the writer as well, not just from the publisher but the entire reading ecosystem.

Yes, the question of “is it really as good as that?”. See, Vikram does what he wants and he’s always going to do what he wants. It’s what makes him such an extraordinary writer and character. But he also feels there’s a proper price for the books and I’m thrilled to be involved with that.