It’s almost 2018. Commissioning editors at India’s English language publishing companies are looking for new manuscripts, as always. Could yours be among them? It depends to a great extent on what they are in search of. So, we asked eight commissioning editors just that. What are they looking for? And, perhaps equally importantly, what are they not going to publish if they can help it?
Gurveen Chadha, Penguin Random House
What I’m looking for: I’m actually looking for someone to write good true crime because I don’t think we do enough of those. I love true crime! And as Indian readers, we do have a taste for whatever is grim and macabre. You just have to see how popular shows like Crime Patrol and Savdhan India, and Making a Murderer on Netflix, are. And I think even podcasts like Serial, which I was obsessed with, and even Aarushi, the book.
I just want authors who can churn out a good story based on true crimes. It’s very difficult because it comes with its own challenges. You have to be careful. If, say, the case is sub judice, where do you draw the line between entertainment and hard facts? Even the author is doing their own investigation of the crime, so how far can the reader trust the author, you know?
And if you’re putting together a true crime story, you have to interview everybody who is going to feature in that story. So maybe you have to go to the prison and meet the killer as well, otherwise the story isn’t complete. At Random House (before the merger with Penguin) we did one with Meenal Baghel. She’s at Mumbai Mirror and wrote Death in Mumbai about the Maria Susairaj case. I was obsessed with that book. I loved it to death! And I’ve been wanting her to write another eventually. But yeah, mostly true crime.
What I’m done with: I think diet books have reached a saturation point where people are just like “Enough! We don’t want any more from you.” We have so many diet books in the market and they all promise to make you lose weight faster than the next book on the subject. I am, however, doing a fitness book which I want to based on the Indian Army’s workout model, but obviously suited for civilians. There are stages to this, so you aren’t going to end up like a commando by the end of it, and it’ll be suitable for both men and women.
Rahul Soni, HarperCollins India
What I’m looking for: I dream of being able to find (and commission too, but first find!) an Indian-English novel that pushes at (I dare not yet hope for “expands”) the boundaries of what the form and language can do.
Writers like Desani and Raja Rao were certainly attempting something – it’s been long enough since I’ve read either of them to go into detail – with language and (another generalisation coming up) an “Indian” way of storytelling, I felt. More recently, Allan Sealy and Sharmistha Mohanty have also been exploring different ways of doing the novel (or prose/fiction). I’d like to throw in Vilas Sarang here, although it’s hard to place him as a writer in English or as a novelist (it’s largely been short stories with him). There’s also someone like Naiyer Masud, if you go away from English entirely.
Internationally, there’s more than a few. Some contemporary ones that come to mind immediately are Laszlo Krasznahorkai’s novels, Alejandro Zambra’s novellas, Maggie Nelson’s Bluets, Renee Gladman’s Ravicka books, Valeria Luiselli’s works. Even Knausgard in a way has repurposed the novel form.
And given that in many ways we are becoming less and less adventurous (in publishing of course, but also sadly in writing too, although there’s maybe a couple of people making their lonely attempts) – I don’t see it happening too soon.
But one can hope, I guess.
What I’m done with: I don’t think I’d like to make a rule for that. I think anything can work, if done well enough – even if there are enough of them out there.
Simar Puneet, Aleph Book Company
What I’m looking for: One of the books that I would really like to commission is a biography of the Mauryan Empire. It was the greatest empire on the sub-continent, greater than the Mughal Empire and so a book which is historical and beautifully written. It’s surprising that such a book doesn’t exist. These are what we like to call the “foundational books” and there are not enough of them in India. Americans do this kind of narrative non-fiction exceedingly well, and there many successful and popular and well-written books in the west, but we are still catching up.
For instance, a book that I would have liked to publish is Akshay Mukul’s Gita Press and the Making of Hindu India. I also just finished reading a book called The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson, and I’ve been raving about it to everyone and just wondering why it’s taken me so long to get to Erik Larson.
What I’m done with: There some stories and some narratives that maybe don’t deserve to be books. A book is a different animal. Fine, you do a six-part investigative series or you do a cover story for a magazine, a long feature, but that’s a call that you have to take as an editor: Does this deserve to be a book? Who will read this? How many people will read it?
I might be really interested in it, but there has to be a market and an audience for it as well. It has to have a life beyond a byline. It has to be something that doesn’t get out of date very quickly, you know? So there is a tendency to do books on the hot topic of the month, and that person or issue might be having their moment in the sun, but is this something people will read five years from now? Will it even be in print five years from now? That’s another way to look at it.
Priya Kapoor, Roli Books
What I’m looking for: We are partial to non-fiction, especially with a historical theme. I am looking for untold stories, rigorously researched stories of events, people, places. Many years ago we had published the memoirs of a lesser-known pioneering lady doctor, Dr Hemabati Sen. It’s a book that I am still proud of, and I would love to publish more such timeless stories.
Books which may on the face of it seem to be on a particular topic but are so much more – for example Naresh Fernandes’s Taj Mahal Foxtrot is about jazz in India but when you read the book you are enriched with the details of the social history of a certain time. I would also love to publish a comprehensive food history/atlas of India.
In fiction, I would love to do a strong, pacy crime fiction series in a contemporary setting. I haven’t come across one as yet with a strong character, exciting storyline and fine writing.
What I’m done with: I wouldn’t like to dismiss “kinds” of books or genres as each book should be treated and evaluated on its own merit. We don’t publish much poetry but have published quite a few translations or critical studies on poetry, such as Anthems of Resistance by Ali Mir and Raza Mir. Of course there are genres that fare better in the market and we have to follow those trends when making publishing decisions. However, I wouldn’t pinpoint any kind of book that I’m done with. I like to be surprised!
Arup Bose, Srishti Publishers
What I’m looking for: One book which I am really looking for but have not found is a good urban fantasy meant for YA and Adult readers. We have seen the success of series like Harry Potter, Percy Jackson and Twilight, which are set in the realm of fantasy with YA protagonists but resonate with both YA and Adult readers. However, there has been no substantially great book in this genre from an Indian author.
What I’m done with: We do not have any such hang-ups. If we feel that the voice of the author is new or unique enough we go ahead with publishing them. We usually prefer to take a decision on the merit of the manuscript rather than on the basis of the performance of comparable titles.
Teesta Guha Sarkar, Pan MacMillan India
What I’m looking for: I’d like books written about certain political events in our recent history. Not just in India but countries in the sub-continent. And these are very difficult to commission because when you’re selling within the Indian market, you have to run the ideas past sales and marketing and you have to take their suggestions on board as well. For me the challenge is to convince sales. For them, the Indian market is the most important. So there are books I want written about Sri-Lanka and Maldives, which I think will be riveting, except I can’t commission them because I haven’t been able to convince sales yet.
I think we need a lot more books about the environment, about climate change, because I think India is one of the countries that’s facing the most threat. But again, we also need a readership. It’s often very disheartening. I think in larger places like Penguin or even HarperCollins I’ve noticed that commissioning editors have the luxury to try out something a little different, a little radical, because even if the book is not as successful as you wished it would be, you have other bestsellers backing you up. But it’s a little difficult for us in a small place to take those risks, but we keep trying.
[In fiction] I think we need an Indian Junot Diaz, who can write about the underdog. And the writer who comes closest to his voice would be Jeet Thayil, but again they are not quite the same.
What I’m done with: I’m quite tired of novels capitalising on mythology. It’s not a space in which I work, but I would like to see newer trends in commercial fiction. I think in the Indian market we don’t have – I don’t like the label chick-lit but it’s such a popular one I’ll just use it – I don’t think we have really good intelligent chick-lit. The kind that Sophie Kinsella writes where she actually makes the genre very subversive. I would love to see something like that in India.
Manasi Subramaniam, Penguin Random House
What I’m looking for: A genre I’d love to see more of in India is domestic noir or domestic thrillers. I’m thinking of books like Gone Girl or The Girl on the Train. In India, somehow, the thriller is synonymous with crime, action and pace. But I love the slow build-up and the sinister ambience of literary crime and thrillers. I also love Jo Nesbo, Robert Galbraith and Liane Moriarty, for example. I would love to see a genre mash-up here in India.
What I’m done with: This generation has different attention spans, different interests, it’s reacting to very, very different things. So while I don’t think we can say we’re “done with” anything, I think it’s fair to say that India’s millennials are less likely to be interested in anything that isn’t speaking to them. They’re reading – it isn’t that they aren’t reading. But they’re reading in different spaces and in different ways. And if we’re looking to capture their imagination, then we’re looking at a kind of publishing that embraces diversity, sharpness and unexpectedness in very different ways. This is probably something that can be said about every new generation of readers, though!
Siddhesh Inamdar, HarperCollins India
What I’m looking for: For me such a book would be Nujeen: One Girl’s Incredible Journey from War-torn Syria in a Wheelchair, co-written by Nujeen Mustafa and Christina Lamb. Nujeen as the narrator – a young wheelchair-bound girl who suffers from cerebral palsy but manages to make the perilous journey by road and sea from Syria all the way to Germany – is perfect for telling the story of the Syrian refugee crisis. The reader can relate to her because she tells her story so simply and honestly. The Syrian refugee crisis is the worst humanitarian crisis the world has seen in decades, and what the book did so well was to put a single face on it and humanise it so that readers far removed from Syria could understand it better.
I have commissioned a book that promises to do something similar with the farmer suicide crisis plaguing India for two decades now, and I look forward to publishing it late next year. There’s scope for many such stories to be told and it’s all about finding that voice who tells it so powerfully. Being on the lookout for such voices is what makes my job as a commissioning editor exciting and meaningful.
What I’m done with: I wouldn’t want to commission an ideas book about how to bring about great societal transformations. Someone like APJ Abdul Kalam had the stature, the vision, the experience in public life, and the power to inspire his readers to pull off books like these, but in the hands of a lesser writer, such book proposals run the risk of aiming to be inspirational and visionary but remaining in the realm of ideas, idealism and prescription, where the ideas are clearly not implementable on the ground. Substance over hollow pontification any day, please!