Growing up, I remember being absorbed for hours, reading books by Enid Blyton – Famous Five, Secret Seven and Tintin. However, IIT and school exams took over and my book reading habits went for a toss, never to come back.
But our next pathbreaker Shreya Chakraborti, took the easy way out or should I say the tough way out! Easy because Shreya does what she loves doing (reading books) and tough because it is also her career. Shreya is Editorial Manager at Bloomsbury Publishing. She tells us how reading books became her career.
Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal talks to Shreya about her transition from reading books for fun to reading books as a career.
Shreya, tell us about your background?
Books have always had a special place in my life. My father is a doctor and while he stressed on academics, he always made sure that I read for fun, whether it was in English or in Bengali (my mother tongue). This was before internet invaded every aspect of our life and reading was a staple. One fond childhood memory is that of my dad and I traipsing back home with loads of books that he got me from the Calcutta Book Fair. The library class in school was my second favourite class after English. So, when I grew up to love literature, the choice of career was quite easy.
What did you study?
I opted for English Hons. at St Stephen’s College, University of Delhi. On the first day, when our HOD asked us why we chose to study literature, we all had very sophisticated answers for that! But the answer, as he gave it, was simple: We love stories, that’s why chose to study literature. So, publishing is a continuation of my love for stories. I get paid to read!
I finished my bachelor’s and then proceeded to complete my master’s in English at St Stephen’s too. Along with the college faculty, the University of Delhi’s English Department too was phenomenal. In these five years, we covered English literature from medieval English (Chaucer, for example) to postcolonial literature, the classics, linguistics and Indian Literature in English. One of the most exhaustive syllabi in the country, DU provided a sound understanding of English literature and language which helped me in securing an editorial position.
How did you end up in such an offbeat, unconventional and cool career?
The best way to know what career can be interesting to you is to do a couple of internships. My college always encouraged internships, and we used to do this during the summer breaks. So, I interned at The Telegraph, WWF and CRY. While these were valuable experiences, something still wasn’t falling into place. Publishing was a growing business, but there were few international firms offering internships then. However, one day, once I had finished my post-graduation, a friend of mine introduced me to a publishing professional at Springer International where I interned for three months, which is my first exposure to book publishing. Soon after, I got a call for an interview at SAGE, which is where I got my first real break.
Remember, along with the relevant degree and internship experience, networking is crucial in publishing. So, having a robust LinkedIn profile will help you get further.
Internship is very critical. A degree or certificate in book publishing too is of enormous help if it also includes an internship opportunity. Within a few months of the Springer internship, I joined SAGE. This is where I spent the next six years of my life, joining as an editor and eventually graduating as the manager of the India books editorial division.
Tell us about your career path
I joined the Springer internship programme as an editorial assistant. My primary role was to assist the desk editor in book production. So, I would handle minor editorial tasks, check up on schedules, write mails to authors and collaborators to check on status, and assist with the brochure, flyer etc. At SAGE, however, when I joined as an editor, the role was more demanding and intense. I learnt to copyedit a book manuscript and journal articles and eventually after a year graduated to checking other editors’ work for quality. The idea was the buck stop at me; there cannot be any error in quality once I sign off. It was also necessary to master a few international style guides, such as the Chicago Manual of Style. This was also the time when I learnt how to communicate, negotiate and persuade authors, some internationally renowned, and get them to do their part of the book work. Eventually, I rose to manage the team and expand into collaborating with the marketing, commissioning and print divisions. At this stage, apart from the core publishing role, team management, appraisals, inter-divisional communication, expectation management, etc. became a significant part of the job.
When I joined Rupa, the role was similar to what I had in SAGE, but now it was into trade publishing where SAGE is academic. So, trade publishing would mean high-profile public personalities, with demanding schedules and big book launches. The job, while demanding, was extremely interesting as I got to work with P. Chidambaram and Lord Meghnad Desai, to name a few, and had books launched by Sachin Tendulkar, Akshay Kumar, the Hon’ble President of India and so on!
Healthhunt is a health and fitness content platform which approached me some time in 2017, after almost seven years of publishing. It is a very exciting and dynamic start-up and collaborates with doctors, fitness experts, healing gurus, psychologists, sex therapists, etc., to churn out content daily across social media and their website. This was a different learning game as most of the work was internet-driven, and I learnt SEO, content writing, hashtags, keywords, blogging and so on during this phase.
So, you see, with a wide experience of STEM, academic and trade publishing along with the content industry experience, your understanding of the content market only gets stronger. You know what is out there, what is not, what sells and what will fall flat. Accordingly, you get the vibe of the youth and you know what language to speak in so that your product sells. It also helps you navigate across other media platforms and corporate communications.
What were some of the challenges you faced
In 2010, when I graduated and joined the workforce, awareness about publishing was limited. Sadly, there weren’t courses that helped you learn. So, the challenge, of course, was realizing that knowing the language isn’t sufficient skill. Language and grammar are only a tiny portion of book publishing. What constitutes a book, copyright, permissions, typesetting, proofing, printing, commissioning—these were skill sets I eventually learnt on the job over the years. Good bosses and a supportive team helped me sail through. Now, courses offered by NBT, Seagull School of Publishing and Ambedkar University, to name a few, teach these to freshers which give them an edge in publishing over the rest.
What do you do currently?
While I was growing up in the late 1990s and the early 2000s, one major author emerged who revolutionized publishing figures and altered the reading trends. That was no other than JK Rowling. She is a phenomenon who also redefined our childhood. So, it was a dream come true last year when I was offered the position of the Editorial Manager at Bloomsbury, the publisher who brought out the Harry Potter books. My current role is to manage the editorial functions of academic, business, self-help, fiction and non-fiction publishing programme with a team of 30 editors and proofreaders. My team edits, quality checks and proofreads manuscripts of various subject lists—history, religion, philosophy, sociology, politics, literature, law, economics, business and trade books.
Apart from looking into the overall quality of editing and the final book, I also manage the publishing schedule and the book budget. Bringing out the book on time and staying within the cost structure is an important aspect of the business model of publishing.
A typical day at work will mean reading a new manuscript, making notes on what to look out for while editing, a possible development arc if it helps the book, training my editors on any skill they need and, yes, talking to my authors!
One primary and extremely enriching part of my job is the conversation with authors. A typical trade publisher like Bloomsbury will have a collage of very interesting people writing for them. For example, right now I am collaborating with the director Vivek Agnihotri and the journalist Ziya Us Salam for two of their books. While one talks about women’s absence in Indian mosques the other one is a very intriguing read on the mystery of Lal Bahadur Shastri’s death. You get to talk to a diverse set of people—politicians, stars, cricketers, chefs, professors, motivational speakers—and, of course, get to know so much. And oh yes, book launches and lit fests are very glitzy affairs; so that’s again a very interesting part of the job. And did I mention the publisher’s discount at the book fairs?!
How does your work benefit the society?
Publishing is an allied field of academics. It helps disseminate knowledge. STEM publishing brings out research work on science, technology, engineering, mathematics and medicine. Academic publishers, such as Oxford University Press, Routledge and SAGE, publish world-class research books and prestigious journals. Trade publishers like Bloomsbury, for example, have published books which have won Booker Prizes and authors who have been awarded the highest honour in literature, the Noble Prize. So whichever publishing field you join, the contribution to is huge. Knowledge is the only thing that is enduring and endless; so being a part of this world is quite gratifying.
Tell us an example of a specific work you did that is very close to you!
There are tonnes, in fact! For instance, I chose the book title of one of P. Chidambaram’s books where at the launch the title was discussed in length by a panel that comprised Sitaram Yechhury, Nitish Kumar, Kapil Sibal and Barkha Dutt. Then, when you develop a manuscript and help shape it, it is very satisfying. Also, publishing is not only about getting a manuscript published; often, the role of an editor is to stop a book, which can be polarizing or pushing a zealous and erroneous agenda, from being published. As an editor, I have rejected several manuscripts; in the end, you have to be careful and responsible for what books come out into the market.
Your advice to students based on your experience?
Publishing is a very dynamic and knowledge-centred industry. If you are interested in reading, debates and staying abreast of new business, political and literary trends, this is the industry for you. So, if you want to join this field, my suggestion would be to master the English language and preferably get a certificate course which will then enable you to intern. With an internship experience, the path will be smoother.
After ten years in publishing, you get to have a rough idea about the workings of the entire industry. Right now, I am planning to set a few processes which will automatize some stages of the editorial function along with inviting freelancers and train them so that Bloomsbury can work on a greater number of projects with a diverse set of people across the country.