No matter what we do or what career we pursue, all our knowledge and information comes from one prominent source, books, the ones we have read at school and at home ! Inspite of all the digital technologies that bombard us today, books will always hold a special place because they have ignited several careers!
Megha Aggarwal, our next pathbreaker, Book Rights Manager at Tulika Publishers, ensures that books get their due audience by expanding the presence of a book through collaborations with different partners across languages and formats.
Megha talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about beginning her career in journalism and then switching to publishing, driven by the choice to remain in world of words and expression.
For students interested in languages and communication, publishing formats might change but words and expressions will never !
Meghaa, tell us about your background?
My father is a chartered accountant and my mother used to be a HR professional before she became a full-time homemaker. Both of them are readers, so I grew up in a house that had a print-rich environment, with many books. My parents also made it a point to take my brother and I to a library every other weekend, when we were children. That’s how I grew up with an interest in books, reading, writing and drawing. However, it took me a long time to transition from picture books to chapter books and a lot of credit goes to JK Rowling and her Harry Potter series. They made me a bona fide reader in Class 8 and since then there has been no turning back. I’ve read everything that’s come my way and grown one book at a time!
I was born in Delhi, but I’ve also lived in Mumbai and Singapore because of my father’s transferable job! I always enjoyed languages and did very well in these subjects in school. In Class 9, our school conducted an aptitude test for all students and even the guidance counsellor recommended that I study either the humanities or pursue a language. So, by the time I was in Class 12, I was thinking about studying English literature in college.
What did you do for graduation/postgraduation?
Even though I wanted to study English literature, my father was posted to Singapore after I completed my schooling. Universities in Singapore, at least at the time, needed students to have taken maths and science up till Class 12. Unfortunately, I had opted for the arts as soon as I completed Class 10 and dropped the two subjects that interested me the least! Luckily, Ngee Ann Polytechnic that offers the oldest and best course in Mass Communication in Singapore, didn’t have any such requirement. Their entrance exam and interview tested aptitude and I cleared them well. That’s how I got a three-year professional diploma in Mass Communication from there.
What made you choose such an offbeat, unconventional and interesting career?
I think the course in Mass Communication was an eye-opener. They were the hardest three years of my student life. All our projects were experiential and really pushed us to apply ourselves. There was a huge diversity of subjects we studied. From the use of media in marketing and PR to actually sniffing out interesting stories and presenting them in different media formats – it was a rigorous series of semesters. I did well and was among the top students of my batch. The last semester was a field internship. I applied for and got an internship with Singapore Press Holding (SPH) and that convinced me that this was my calling – to stay in the company of words and the power of expression. The internship went exceedingly well. I was even awarded an Excellence in Journalism award by the organisation for a story I did on foreign tourists bullying an old trishaw rider in Singapore. It was most exciting, I was one of the few interns in the paper’s history to have won an award – most prize-winners were seasoned journalists! At SPH I found some wonderful bosses and seniors – Melvin Singh, Santokh Singh and Jocelyn Wong, Tze Yong, Solomon Lim and Zubaidah Nazeer – who encouraged and helped me along the way.
Tell us about your career path
A year later, my father was posted back to Mumbai. Initially, I got a break with Navneet Newshouse – a newspaper for school children that summarised important news and other interesting stories for kids. I worked there for a few months, writing articles and editing pages, before I joined Education Times, the education supplement of The Times of India (TOI). At TOI, I wrote stories on courses and careers and edited the pages. I was still quite new and finding my way around things. But I realised that I enjoyed writing for a young audience.
A big turning point in career came when my family was posted back to Delhi in 2009. There was a recession in the economy and many media houses had temporarily frozen recruitment – at least that’s what I heard everywhere I went. I was still quite young and had no help. No one in my family was even remotely connected to this field. So, there were no uncles and aunts I could reach out to for references etc!
That’s how, I decided to diversify and look for other jobs that might interest me. Soon, I landed a break with Dorling Kindersley (DK) – it was part of the same publishing company that owns Penguin books – a brand any book lover would know! I would miss the hustle and bustle of the newsroom, but I decided to dive in, hoping for the best. Luckily, I would still get to remain in world of words and expression.
DK publishes visually-rich books for different age-groups. I enjoyed the challenge of researching and breaking down complex ideas into simple text and pictures. It really jogged my imagination. All the projects involved a tight knit team of editors, designers and technical assistants who worked together to bring out the books. I enjoyed the brainstorming sessions very much. Even though I can’t really design on-screen, I realised that I do I enjoy visualising quite a bit! Within a year of joining DK, I was promoted from Asst Editor to Editor – it was my first promotion and I was thrilled!
Today, I’ve spent over 10 years in the field of children’s publishing. In 2013, I got married and moved to Chennai. Since then I’ve been working with Tulika – possibly the only independent children’s publisher anywhere in the world that publishes books simultaneously in eight languages apart from English.
Within publishing I’ve been greatly motivated by my publishers and seniors – Rohan Sinha (at DK), Radhika Menon, Deeya Nayar and Thilak (at Tulika).
I continued to write freelance stories for different newspapers and magazines alongside my jobs in publishing. In 2016, TERI published my compilation on Courses and Careers in Environment for students in India – my background in covering education had come in handy! In 2018, Tulika published my first picture book, A Home of Our Own that was selected for the Best of Indian Contemporary Writing Awards 2019. I have another book in the pipeline. This too is non-fiction on the environment for a young audience, and is scheduled to be published later this year by Penguin India.
In a way, a lot of my career has been driven by incidents in my personal life – my father’s transfers and my marriage. However, it’s been shaped by my desire to strive for the best I could do in a given situation.
How did you plan the steps to get into the career you wanted? Or how did you make a transition to a new career?
To decide on a career, the first thing you need to ask yourself is what do you really like. I find that a lot of students are very confused about this. So, the next best thing is to strike out what you most definitely don’t like. When I was in Class 10 and had to choose a stream for Class 11 and 12, I dropped Maths and Science because I didn’t enjoy these subjects and struggled with them. However, I enjoyed the languages and did quite well in them. So, it was an easy choice.
It became easier still when I pursued the course in Mass Communication. It was a professional programme unlike a regular undergraduate degree. However, I think even if I had pursued English Literature, I would have eventually decided to pursue a field that involved words and expression.
A lot of children end up in fields that their parents or siblings work in. But a lot of us also decide to strike out on our own. It’s not easy when there is no personal guidance. That’s why I turned to my teachers in college. Many of them came with years of field experience and their advice was useful. Most of all, it helped me narrow down a list of careers I might enjoy – journalism and publishing – and organisations I could apply to. One of them even gave me names of particular people I could write to.
The internet is a great place to research on careers one is interested in. After I decided on a list of careers and organisations, I spent a long time researching them online. I read about the work they do and well-known people working for them. I read interviews by those people to understand a bit more about the way these organisations function and the work involved in these careers. Initially, I applied for jobs in journalism because that happened to be one of my main subjects at the Polytechnic.
Singapore is a meritocracy – so they only look at your academic records and performance and test you through an entrance exam and an interview, to select you for an internship. That’s why, it wasn’t very hard to get my first break. However, things are much harder in India. Many media organisations and publishers don’t advertise vacancies, so you have to contact them to find out if there are any jobs to apply for. Many times, the response is negative. So, you have to keep your eyes and ears open for opportunities.
For example, I got my break with Education Times when I applied to write for a special supplement they were going to bring out. They had advertised it in the paper and I promptly wrote to them. That’s how I got a foot in and wrote my first story for them. They liked my work. So, when I asked them about a job, they got me to work on a contract with them. It wasn’t the usual employment, but I went to office, did my work and came to know more people.
My first break in publishing was much easier than journalism. By that time, I had a few years of writing experience. So, I simply applied to Pearson with my CV and they promptly got back about the vacancy at DK. Journalism and publishing are related in many ways. Many journalists are authors or have switched over to jobs in publishing that have less stressful deadlines.
When I moved to Chennai, things were slightly harder, but I already had a few years of work experience at DK and met an author who asked me to write to Tulika using her reference. Tulika is a much-smaller organisation with far fewer vacancies. Luckily, they had a slot open and I got the job.
These days vacancies are often advertised in various social media handles of organisations in this field as well as professional groups on Linkedin. There are also various book fairs and similar events where one can understand the work being done and seek out contacts of people from this field. Networking is very important because people respond best if you have connected with them in person.
What were the challenges? How did you address them?
Challenge 1: Getting a job after returning from Singapore
When you study abroad, you may lose touch with things back home. So, it’s hard to start afresh. The first thing I did was visit a roadside vendor and carefully go through all the newspapers and magazines on display. I wrote down phone numbers and email ids of all those I liked and next day I wrote to all of them. A week later I called the numbers. The response was lukewarm, but I got names and email ids of specific people I could write to. I also started reading a lot and scouring for vacancies online. That’s how I spotted the advertisement in Education Times and applied.
Challenge 2: Switching from journalism to publishing
It was the year 2009 and the economy was going through a major slow down. There were hardly any jobs and nothing seemed to be working out for me. I had dreamt of becoming a well-known journalist, but I felt like my dream was crashing. It was a stressful time and I needed a job. So, instead of feeling defeated, I decided to look at other interesting jobs on offer. I’ve been an avid reader since Class 8 and knew the names of many publishers. So, I decided to apply on the email ids mentioned on their websites. Luckily, they responded.
I enjoyed writing the most, but in publishing you have to read, research and edit people’s work. I had edited during my days in journalism, but it was a lot more when I switched over to publishing. So, I took some time to adjust. Nevertheless, I enjoyed all the different books I got to read. I also kept looking for opportunities to write, so I could keep my interest in writing alive. Slowly, things fell in place. I had a full-time job in publishing and was a part-time writer.
Where do you work now?
Publishing has many roles. Even though I initially worked in editorial – reading, researching and editing books, at Tulika I was also asked to step into the role of a Book Rights Manager.
After a book gets published, it acquires a life of its own. It finds readers and begins to make a place for itself. In marketing the book, publishers try to expand the number of readers in every which way. One of these is through the sale of rights.
A book is usually first published physically, in a particular language. A book rights manager tries to expand the presence of a book by collaborating with different partners. For example, digital platforms that carry e-versions of the book for readers who prefer to read online. E-versions can be e-books as well as audio and animated versions of the book. Since these are different from the printed book, they involve a sale of rights to interested collaborators. My work involves whetting the collaborator, negotiating terms of the contract after discussing them with the publisher and informing authors and illustrators to get their consent.
Book rights also involves translations of our books by other Indian and foreign publishers, movies based on stories from our books, merchandise like T-shirts and mugs that carries pictures from our books, giving permission to use our text in other books etc.
This role is different from a regular marketing role because I don’t reach out directly to readers. Instead, I try and reach out to other stakeholders who might be interested in doing more with our books – adapting them in different formats or translating them in new languages – so they find new markets.
To do this job, I have to build a network of collaborators and keep in touch with them. I need to read all our books carefully, know our books on my fingertips, identify rights possibilities and prepare pitches. I also attend various book fairs in India and overseas to identify the new developments in publishing, network with people who would be interested in our books and identify opportunities to expand the scope of our books.
In 2017, I moved back to Delhi from Chennai and continued handling book rights for Tulika from home. A lot of my job is done online. I read various publishing newsletters, write and respond to emails involving rights inquiries, read our books and prepare pitches, negotiate and finalise contracts, inform copyright holders (authors and illustrators) if there is an opportunity to sell the rights of their books, liaise with other people in the office for additional help, such as sending book files and pdfs, and scour for new opportunities. I also go for meetings with collaborators or talk to them over the phone and attend various publishing events.
My days are not usually very hectic, but I need to be organised, so I don’t miss out on anything. That’s why I work with a daily to-do list. I also need to identify the potential of a book to pitch it to collaborators. Gradually, I’ve developed a good understanding of collaborators and a sense of what might work. It’s not very easy, but it’s interesting work and luckily, I have a very supportive publisher who is always encouraging my work and pushing me to try harder.
What I enjoy the most is the ability to look at a book as more than words and pictures. For want of better words, I’ve learnt to judge the potential of a book as more than just a printed edition. This has given me a rich insight to what it means to publish a book and take it places. Every time I find a good collaborator for a book, I’m overjoyed.
Apart from handling rights work for Tulika, I’ve also been writing features for various media organisations and authoring books. Balancing my regular job with writing has intensified the need for time management. Many people think it’s easy to work from home. But the truth is, it’s harder. There’s no fixed timing and the work is the same, so I have to be very disciplined to get my work done within a deadline.
How does your work benefit the society?
Producing good books for children and getting them to read has become more important than ever in today’s world, laden with multiple distractions. Reading is like meditation, it helps children quieten their minds and focus. It helps to build imagination, vocabulary and expression. Research has repeatedly highlighted the many benefits of reading for children. My work helps with this pursuit.
Tell us an example of a specific work you did that is very close to you!
Even though I work in publishing, writing continues to be my first love and I can’t forget the matchless joy I felt when I saw copies of my first picture book, A Home of Our Own. Every time I hear of someone who has loved the book, my writer’s soul is elated.
Your advice to students based on your experience?
There was a time when most people would have mocked my career choice – balancing two jobs, writing and publishing, and that too from home! Even today, it’s hard for people to pin down my career. But is it necessary to pin it down? After all, there are so many people who write even though they work in other professions. Being a full-time writer is tough. Even if you pursue journalism, you’ll find that it involves more than just writing. I know many people who became full-time writers after retirement! This is mostly because writing needs intensive work, time and discipline and often doesn’t come with a regular pay. But the good thing is, if you enjoy writing, you can always pursue it on the side, at leisure.
Publishing is a great career for those who love to read and have an eye for good books and writing. But it also needs a lot of patience. You cannot afford to get bored quickly because you’ll often be looking at the same book over and over again before and after it gets published. However, I think publishing and writing are a match made in heaven. Pursuing them together has given me an overarching view of my field.
I hope to continue writing more books and build a reputation as a writer, even as I continue finding new collaborators for Tulika’s wonderful list of children’s books.