Do writers who work in the publishing world have an advantage the rest of us don’t? Do their editorial skills help them turn in better manuscripts? Is the publishing process a smoother one because they have the right network to tap into? Three editors-turned-writers (or writers-turned-editors?) – Himanjali Sankar (Mrs C Remembers) Trisha Bora (What Kitty Did) and Kausalya Saptharishi(The TamBrahm Bride) – share the secrets of gracefully juggling with these two worlds in – and whether they would swap one for the other if given a chance.
Are you a writer-turned-editor or an editor-turned-writer?
Himanjali Sankar: I learnt the alphabet before I knew how to edit so I would say writer-turned-editor. I wrote a poem called “Rain Rain” when I was five which my mother read aloud to family and friends which annoyed them but made her happy.
Trisha Bora: I’m a palindrome – writer-turned-editor-turned-writer. I wrote my first short stories in school and boy, were they depressing. Someone was always dying in them. As an adolescent I discovered free verse, and got massively into it, writing some really bad poetry – all of which I’ve wisely deleted, burnt, chucked. I had been bitten by the writing bug a long time ago I suppose. Right out of college, I got my first job as an assistant editor, and what a relief it was on many counts – I had a career I truly enjoyed, I was always surrounded by books and the job just about paid the rent. It was thrilling! I still wrote the odd short story, but writing had taken a backseat. When I got the idea for this book, it was like a homecoming of sorts.
Kausalya Saptharishi: I am a writer-turned-editor who enjoys moonlighting as an author. Yes, it can get muddling at times! Only after my debut novel The TamBrahm Bride was published in 2008 did I contemplate a career in the publishing industry. Fortunately the switch worked out quite seamlessly because of my previous media experience.
Did you take to writing out of your dissatisfaction with the quality of books you were editing and publishing?
HS: I do have a pulse on the industry, although a weak one, since I have been an editor for a very long time. Which made it easier for me as an author than it would have been for someone not connected to publishing. However, I wasn’t disillusioned at all. I love my authors and feel they all write so very well.
TB: I’m sure there are bestseller writers who took to writing because they thought they’d do a better job than others, but at the end of the day, I’m certain they had a story to tell. Bestsellers are what they are because at some level their story connects with people. At the heart of it all, is the story itself; one’s motives for writing them is secondary.
I had my own story to tell or it would be silly to do so, no? Like a disillusioned dentist attempting his own root canal.
KS: I took to writing purely on account of my father encouraging me to write novels and non-fiction books. Without his constant guidance and encouragement I would have never persevered on the path to becoming a published author. I didn’t become a writer with any plan or strategy in mind – I just had these stories waiting to be told.
How much of writing is rewriting? Is being an editor useful or detrimental to one’s writing career?
HS: It is useful. I can plagiarise with ease since I have all these unpublished manuscripts at my disposal.
However, I write fast and furiously like Vin Diesel and don’t rewrite much except if my editor asks me to.
P.S. I was joking about the plagiarisation. And Vin Diesel.
TB: Both. Being a writer and an editor can be tricky, a bit of a multiple-personality problem. As a writer, I’m generous, feral, and exuberant. Whereas as an editor, I tend to be miserly, cerebral, and a bore (with words that is). Mostly, I want to delete everything I write. And that’s no fun.
When I first took a stab at the novel, I was writing a totally different book, a family drama, and god, what a bore it was. As an editor, I knew it just wasn’t working. So when I got the idea for What Kitty Did, I deleted the family drama and set about writing a fun, commercial murder mystery. I had a ball writing it.
So being this two-in-one person can also be a sweet deal. It helps you look at your own work with a cold eye (and heart). Plus, all writers should edit their own work, and not be too sentimental about it.
KS: The best form of editing is when you are able to showcase the author’s voice without being too overbearing in your editorial expectations.
Authors have fragile egos and editors should think twice before killing the text with clinical precision. I think this is where my dual role as an editor-writer comes in handy. I am able to lend enough empathy to the writer’s efforts but not so much that I turn a blind eye to the manuscript’s flaws.
On the flip side there is always the fear of over-editing and over-writing to the point of robbing the story of its raw essence. That’s when you go, “I wish I were not an editor-cum-writer!”
How awkward is it to pitch your own book to your bosses, friends and colleagues in the industry?
HS: I did feel awkward earlier but I am used to it now. Also, I’ve always had close friends as editors but they are professionals and I don’t think friendship came into play during the process of editing and publication. No interesting episodes – I wish to work with them in the future too.
TB: Every writer needs a push! It’s not awkward since I’ve been doing this for so long. And it helps that I don’t think of my book as my book, if that makes any sense. I wrote it yes, but I push it as I would any other book I’ve worked on.
I’m still at the point where I just started pitching the book and telling everyone about Kitty and how hilarious she is, and people have been fantastically kind…till now!
KS: For my debut novel I consciously approached a reputed independent publisher in Chennai as I felt the milieu in which the story is set could be grasped at an intuitive level only by South Indians. Ha. I had such a myopic view of the publishing world back then.
As regards my second novel Mom in the City, I got an offer from the first publisher I pitched it to. I opted not to pitch the book to the publishing house where I was employed as I felt it would result in a clash of interests – not to mention the awkwardness that might creep into our working relationship.
Going by my own experiences, I strongly believe a publishing professional who also writes is advantageously positioned only in the sense of being able to get a foot in the networking door. The contacts you make within the industry might help you in reaching out to the right editorial team. However, beyond that, the acceptance or rejection of your manuscript solely depends on the merit and marketability of your proposal.
In my case, I didn’t feel awkward pitching Mom in the City to other publishers as I barely knew my industry colleagues at that point in time. I approached them like any other writer would, sans the baggage of being a commissioning editor. .
I would also like to add that in the current market scenario, publishers are easily accessible to writers who are just starting out – one need not be a publishing professional to gain an upper hand in the submission process.
Being a literary agent, I faced charges of favouritism and nepotism when my first book got accepted. Do you think there is a general perception that it’s very easy for active publishing professionals to get deals for their own books?
HS: I wouldn’t say very easy but definitely easier than for others. We already have a foothold in the profession and even if no one is doing me a favour by publishing me I am at an advantage because of my familiarity with the industry.
TB: Most probably, no? It would only be natural for people to think so. After all you’re in the business, you’re the inner circle.
KS: As mentioned earlier, the main advantage that an active publishing professional has is easy access to some networking forums that might facilitate in pitching the book and following through on the outcome, without encountering too many hiccups or delays. However, a publisher’s prerogative to publish or reject is mostly driven by other factors such as the quality of writing, the commercials involved and the marketability of the book proposal. Favouritism and nepotism exist in every industry and I am sure the publishing industry is not completely immune to this reality.
Has being a published author made you more empathetic towards the plight of aspiring authors?
HS: Not really. In fact, I was more empathetic when I was new to the industry. I hated rejecting manuscripts because it meant I was making someone unhappy. But I’ve got used to it now. I don’t flinch every time – it comes with the job.
TB: I mostly work with debut writers and have always known what they go through, so in that respect, I haven’t changed as an editor.
The one thing that has changed in all these years is how I look at books. I no longer romanticise the book itself. Working at Juggernaut has helped me understand this. It’s made me think about content differently. Don’t get me wrong, I love books, that’s why I’m an editor. But now I also think about how to make them work. I don’t want the books I work on (or write) to be forgotten or returned. What’s the point of that, right?
KS: I certainly feel an emotional connection with fellow-writers due to my own journey as an author. I have forged enduring friendships with some of them over the course of editing their books.
The process of taking a book from manuscript to market is a creative one. I know deadlines set by publishers can be daunting and sometimes that might take a toll on the artistic process of creating a book. In my professional capacity as an editor, I do try to cut some slack where my authors are concerned, especially with regard to deadlines, but at the end of the day, authors are bound by contractual obligations and editors have to adhere to company policies.
Did you have a happy experience publishing your book? Do you plan to stick with your publisher for your future books?
HS: I think I publish with people, not publishing houses. And yes, I have been happy with my publishers. Won’t change them if I can help it.
KS: Okay, I have to be completely honest here. Though the overall experience of getting published was pretty much smooth sailing on both occasions, I do have a quibble with how Mom in the City has been promoted over the years. It falls under the niche sub-genre of “momlit”, and is probably one of the first of its kind to have been published in the Indian market. I do feel pained when I don’t see it promoted on social media feeds, not even on Mother’s Day, an event that gels brilliantly with the novel’s theme.
It’s a great time to be an author with diverse publishing platforms mushrooming everywhere, catering to a varied readership. I am eager to explore both conventional and new-age avenues for publishing my forthcoming books.
Do you feel the media and book reviewers are influenced by the fact that a book has been written by an active publishing professional?
HS: I have no idea, I am a dud when it comes to media and marketing – as a publisher and as a writer that is my biggest failing.
TB: Perhaps not.
KS: I guess some preconceived notions could exist, depending on the stature of the publishing professional whose book is being reviewed. But in all fairness to the reviewers, I would like to believe they judge a book on its merit, ignoring the other trappings it might carry.
Does being a published author help you draw superior writing talent? Do authors have more respect for editors who are writers themselves?
HS: I am not well-known enough as an author for it to make a difference really. But it’s nice when authors write in saying they like my books. Or anyone for that matter!
TB: My book’s only just come out, so I can’t say about drawing superior writing talent. And you’ll have to ask authors the other question.
KS: Being a published author has no bearing on the quality of acquisitions an editor makes for her company. While some authors feel reassured they are working with skilled editors-cum-writers, most focus on the editing chops an editor brings to the table.
Do publishing professionals give preference to writer-editors while hiring?
HS: No, if anything it makes them wary because in effect the person is going to have a second job.
TB: I would think English Lit/journalism and a passion for books the key criteria. I wasn’t a writer or an editor, in fact I was a complete nobody right out of college, with nothing on my CV to write home about, but I got hired! I’m guessing that’s because I wanted to work with books, understand how publishing works and grow in the profession. And they probably got a whiff of that.
KS: Editors are expected to be competent writers, though not strictly in the professional sense. Nowadays editors are free to explore their writing talents through blogs, social media, etcetera, and not necessarily through producing weighty volumes. However, if editors are also published authors, it does make for a more attractive CV.
What according to you is the single biggest problem plaguing the publishing industry in India?
HS: It’s a small, stubborn world that is happy with itself and doesn’t care to change much with the times. Or perhaps I am just talking about myself.
TB: Finding readers for books.
KS: I have to admit that publishers need to work harder to back their authors once their book hits the shelves. Authors are often left anchorless after the initial brouhaha surrounding their book launch is over.
Publicity teams in publishing houses shouldn’t focus only on their top-line bestselling authors to bring in the dough for the company. They should constantly explore creative avenues to promote books across genres, written by new and established writers. If only publishers were open to investing more time and resources on the smaller literary gems they have acquired, they will do an invaluable service to the growing fraternity of writers.
Would you quit your editing job if you made enough money writing?
HS: Of course I would, but I never will! Make enough from writing that is.
TB: Define “enough”. Jokes aside, I don’t think I’ll ever give up editing. I enjoy the work, it’s a continuous learning experience. I love to meet writers and understand what’s going on with them, and their work. Also, I can edit for hours but can’t do the same with writing.
KS: Yes, I will quit my editing job in a heartbeat if I am able to see more commercial success as a published writer! Which writing professional wouldn’t dream of this possibility?