Career Review: Book Publishing
Kanishka Gupta, 27 Dec 2016
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The Indian publishing industry has been growing at a phenomenal rate. According to the NielsenBook Scan, the market has grown about 17 per cent from the first quarter of 2015 to the same period in 2016. In the last decade or so, as many as three multinational publishing houses and several independent publishers have set up shop in the country. These include Hachette India, Fingerprint Publishing, Aleph Book Company, Bloomsbury India, Speaking Tiger Books, Duckbill Books and most recently, Simon and Schuster India. The growing number of internationally-acclaimed award-winning writers like Arundhati Roy, Kiran Desai and Aravind Adiga, on the one hand, and local superstars like Chetan Bhagat, Ravinder Singh and Durjoy Datta on the other, has ensured that the industry remains in the news all the time. Things have never looked better for an aspiring editor or publishing professional.


Qualifications required

Conventional wisdom would suggest that an undergraduate or postgraduate degree in English Literature is the best route to getting a publishing job. A literature degree always helps since it inculcates a habit of critical reading. However, many top publishing professionals are of the opinion that more than degrees or qualifications, what one needs is an abundant and undying love for books. “I’ve always loved books, reading and working with words. I started working as a copywriter/web content writer, but realized that to really enjoy what I do I should be working with books,” says Pujitha Krishnan of Aleph Book Company.


Juggernaut’s Digital Editor Amish Raj Mulmi, who started out as a journalist, reminisces: “When I started, all I knew was I wanted to work with books. Five years later, it still is all about books -- but the way one looks at them is different.” International publishing consultant Jaya Bhattacharjee Rose concurs: “Any stream will do as long as you are passionate about your job.” In fact, Mulmi holds the view that these conventional degrees are not required at all and that, “Publishing needs people from more varied streams: bring in economic graduates, science graduates etc. Only then can better books in the more specialized popular non-fiction genres emerge.” According to Krishnan, “Someone with a degree in Philosophy or the Sciences who can also engage with the language would be perfect to commission and edit academic books. But other aspects of publishing don’t really need these degrees.” Penguin Random House’s Vaishali Mathur feels that ‘Today the main ingredients are the love for books and passion for bringing out subjects you believe in. Of course a high level of language skills is the prime requirement.’


This world view is reflected in the hiring of many professionals from non-humanities, and, at times, even hard-core corporate backgrounds for editorial positions. Those who have studied journalism/mass communication or have worked as journalists are a favourite of publishers. Such hires make even more sense for editorial roles for non-fiction publishing, where a journalist’s knowledge of a particular field by virtue of having extensively reported on it comes in handy. Such candidates are usually the top choice for commissioning roles rather than copy-editing ones because of the contacts they have developed during their journalism days.


Training and professional courses

Although several publishing professionals claim to have learned the tricks of the trade on the job, there are also those who have undergone training and done professional courses. The latter makes complete sense because of the need for specialised knowledge and understanding of various publishing processes. A favourite choice of publishing professionals seems to be the Publishing/International Publishing MA course offered by City University (now called City, University of London). Krishan of Aleph, an alumna, recalls her experience. “The course gave me a 360-degree view of the industry. It has modules in nearly all aspects of publishing: business, marketing, sales, acquisitions, law, digital publishing, etc. Apart from talks from visiting lecturers, there are also case studies, presentations, workshops and practical experience with internships and projects. It doesn’t teach you to edit (which was my area of interest), but it gives you a very good idea of how the business works, allows you to talk to so many people from the industry, undertake internships and observe it all closely. Of course, you learn about and observe the UK publishing industry.” “What worked well for me is the year I joined, they added a new module - International Publishing - and that is the degree I graduated with. This allowed me to get in touch with people in the Indian publishing industry and observe how the industry works here. It also allowed me to work on India-specific projects,” she added.


Diversity in South Asia

Despite degrees such as this, Indian publishing professionals usually struggle to get jobs in the UK and US publishing industries because of visa issues and a lack of understanding of the local context/realities. After several successful job interviews, Krishnan’s prospects inevitably hit a roadblock because of expensive, long-drawn out and strict visa rules. According to Mulmi, “As a South Asian publishing professional, I would argue it makes little sense to work for a publishing house in the West, unless it’s only for a short period to build your résumé. As publishers, we are shaped by the writing we encounter around us, and the books we publish are a reflection of that. Western publishing often overlooks the nuances and cultures of South Asia - as they do with most regions - and there’s a tendency to bunch all writing under one umbrella. The diversity we see in our writing in South Asia is only possible because our publishing is owned and run by folks from here.”



A cursory Google search would throw up the pitiful options and courses available to an aspiring publishing professional in India. In such a scenario, the Seagull School of Publishing, begun by the legendary publisher Naveen Kishore, comes as a godsend. Supported by the Royal Norwegian Embassy, the school offers a three-month intensive course twice a year: from January to March and June to August. Anyone who is a graduate, fluent in spoken and written English, and with a basic knowledge of Microsoft Office can apply.


The course teaches you different aspects of every kind of publishing, from print to digital. It has a faculty from every corner of the publishing world. “Typically, someone from a French or German or Italian publishing house will come and take classes in e-publishing or global rights and translation issues, or marketing, and someone from Yale or Chicago University Press will teach editing of non-fiction, with publishers from Delhi and elsewhere discussing setting up from scratch,’ says Kishore.


The course fee, Rs 50,000 for Indian nationals and 3,000 dollars for non-Indians, seems reasonable considering the success rate of the candidates. “So far it is a 90 to 95 percent success ratio for jobs. Everyone gets a job. The Seagull stamp of approval is seen as something of value. And a few of them also became publishers and set up their own companies,’ says Kishore. He adds that the course prepares candidates to be global publishing professionals and not just for India or a specific country, “In a globalized world, any course worth its salt will not teach you to be an Indian or German or UK or USA-based publisher. It will teach you to be a publisher, editor or designer across cultures, across practices. It is not a course that teaches you restricted ghettoized publishing. The course is able to place individuals anywhere in the world. More importantly, we get students from UK, USA, Kenya, Zurich, Japan, Nigeria, Berlin.”



Many publishing institutes in India have websites that have not been updated in ages and negligible social media presence. So, it was heartening to see the engaged Facebook page and blog run by Seagull School of Publishing. In one of their posts, a student recalls a master-class with Speaking Tiger’s Ravi Singh: ‘Having Ravi Singh over to interact with us was initially a bit intimidating for us. We had already come to know of his experience as a publisher who had worked at Penguin, Aleph and was now with Speaking Tiger. What we didn’t know, was how calm and serene he was as a person. On the first of two days, poised before a bunch of aspiring editors, he took his time to talk with each of us, trying to know us and the ideas we have, finally zeroing in on an assignment for the following day.’



All editors have heaps of advice for aspiring publishing professionals. Mulmi says, “The first advice would be to have an unyielding passion for books. The second is to read everything and anything you can get your hands on. The third -- and this is if you wish to be a commissioning editor -- is to specialize in a genre. Don’t come into publishing with the notion that you want to bring out the next Booker winner; come into it because you love books, period.”


Krishnan would like people to look beyond the editorial role. She adds, “There are roles in other departments that allow you to engage with your love for books and writing. But if you don’t read books, don’t love words, don’t care for stories and the many ways that they can be told, this might not be the industry for you, no matter which department you join.” According to her, it’s a tough profession. “If you do become an editor, expect a lot of hard work. There is no way to automate editing—you have some tools that help, but you are it. Page by page, word by word, comma by comma, it is painstaking work. Be prepared for that. Expect to feel like you’re doing a thankless job on some days. But the rest of the time, it’s worth it. Also, you probably won’t become rich doing this.”


According to Kishore, “The stories of most independents anywhere in the world are inspirational. So if you are passionate about books, this could be a lovely and intense literary life to aspire to. What you make of your job will depend on how good you are and how good you are will in turn depend on the strength of your conviction about the books you wish to bring into the world. So go in with an open and excited mind.” Mathur’s advice suggests a need for expertise in people management as much as an understanding of books. “This profession is very demanding and you will be dealing with extremely passionate, sensitive and opinionated people at every stage. These are people who know their business very well. You will need to respect them, keep your patience as well as move ahead with what you think would be the best for the book.”


Kanisha Gupta, the author of this featured piece is a top literary agent.


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