The Publishing Life

In English language publishing in India (at least), women have shattered the glass ceiling

What explains the near dominance of women in this field today?

I have just published a book. A short book on the posthumous battle for the great Tamil poet Subramania Bharati’s copyright. Writing is a tortuous process, at least for me, but when it is finished, penning the acknowledgments page fills me with indescribable happiness. As I thanked everyone responsible for the book – publisher, commissioning editor, line editor, copyeditor, and proof-reader – it struck me that all of them were women. Is it mere coincidence? Recently, the Tamil writer and my friend Perumal Murugan posted a picture of his visit to the Context/Amazon editorial office on Facebook and I was struck by the image of him posed amidst a group of mostly women publishing professionals.

The feminine touch

As I thought over this it struck me how many of my editors have been women. In fact, I have followed my editor R Sivapriya over three publishing houses: Orient Longman (now Orient BlackSwan), Penguin, and now, Juggernaut. My first real book in English, In Those Days There Was No Coffee was published by Arpita Das and Parul Nayyar (Yoda Press). A coffee table book Chennai, Not Madras was commissioned by Annapurna Garimella and edited by Savita Chandiramani for Marg.

There is no writer, it is said, who does not need an editor. Tamil writers are exceptions. Even at the moment of conception they are endowed with impeccable writing skills – hence the Tamil idiom karuvile thiru. For the somewhat less gifted, Saraswati or Vak Devi herself writes on their tongue with her stylus a little later. Not surprisingly, Tamil writers are most touchy when it comes to messing with manuscripts. I am not one of those congenitally talented. I need an editor.

I began my writing career in Tamil in the early 1980s. But as an English writer I’m a millennial. The editor is a largely unknown species in Tamil publishing. But editing is the norm in English. With the first baby steps in the academic world began my encounters with editors. Editing, however, is usually minimal in academic publishing. So my experience, in the mid-1990s, of Krishna Raj (Economic and Political Weekly) and Dharma Kumar (The Indian Economic and Social History Review) wielding the blue pencil, was more of a foretaste than anything substantive.

Editing is an expansive term. It can encompass quite a lot: from planting an idea to commissioning a book, to nurturing it, to making structural changes to the text, to cutting chapters, rearranging sections, purging the manuscript of infelicities, cleaning up the grammar down to even plain proof-reading, and ultimately writing the blurb of the book and getting it blurbed. In these tasks editors, invariably all women, have served my writing well.

My edition of ML Thangappa’s translations of Tamil classical poetry, Love Stands Alone, after being rejected by numerous publishers over two decades, was picked up with alacrity by Sivapriya, and went on to win a Sahitya Akademi award. With my new book, the first chapters seemed somewhat stodgy. With some gentle nudging by Sivapriya I collapsed the first two chapters into one. The economy of a mere six hundred words translated into a smooth narrative. It is hard to communicate to the reader the wonders an editor can do to a text: for by definition she reads only the finished product.

Lest readers think I am just being politically correct in singling out women editors for praise, let me say that one woman editor still gives me nightmares. After making the most unwarranted excisions and corrections she remarked that not only is my English poor – quite possible – but my Tamil is bad as well – most improbable. It took another edition and another publisher to salvage my work, the translation of a modern Tamil classic. On the other hand, the most outstanding editor of mine is male: the redoubtable Rukun Advani.

A more gendered profession?

There is no doubting that the Indian English publishing industry is gendered. Women dominate the empire of blue pencils. Here is a quick list. First, the corporate publishing houses: Penguin Random House (Meru Gokhale and Milee Aishwarya), Juggernaut (Chiki Sarkar), Context/Amazon (VK Karthika), Hachette (Poulomi Chatterjee). Independent publishing houses: Stree-Samya (Mandira Sen), Yoda (Arpita Das), Three Essays (Nalini Taneja), Duckbill (Sayoni Basu and Anushka Ravishankar), and Tulika Books (Indu Chandrasekhar) – not to mention the pioneering feminist publishing house, Kali for Women now partitioned into Zubaan (Urvashi Butalia) and Women Unlimited (Ritu Menon).

In children’s publishing there are Tara Books (Gita Wolf) and Tulika Publishers (Radhika Menon). Publishing Indian writing in translation was pioneered by Subashree Krishnaswamy (Manas, an imprint of EastWest Books. She also edited The Indian Review of Books for many years); Geeta Dharmarajan (Katha) and Mini Krishnan (Macmillan and now Oxford University Press).

Perhaps only academic publishing is a laggard, though the exceptions include Orient BlackSwan, managed by Nandini Rao for many decades now, and Sage, under the stewardship of Omita Goyal for some years after Tejeshwar Singh’s death. The largest sectors of the Indian publishing industry, textbook publishing and scientific-technical-medical publishing – with which I am unfamiliar – are said to be dominated by women. As for freelance editors, it would be safe to employ the feminine pronoun to refer to them.

How? Why?

In an unequal world where women get short shrift in the professional world how did this come to be?

The first explanation fits gender stereotypes. Editing can be the most thankless of jobs. Cooking and housekeeping come to mind immediately as an analogy. A creative process, it can descend into drudgery. An editor’s primary job is to clean up somebody else’s mess. Usually blame attaches to the editor for flaws, but she receives little credit, especially from the author, for a job well done. Editing stubborn and headstrong writers can be tough but managing demanding in-laws, indifferent husbands and pesky children is the daily routine for most Indian women. Editing demands patience and understanding, sometimes even indulgence, and so, it is argued, women make better editors.

This argument develops some cracks when confronted with the question: why then are editors in developed book markets mostly men? (They even have movies made about them: for instance, Maxwell Perkins as Genius.) This has probably more to do with salary structures. In a limited book market as in India, publishing houses cannot be great paymasters. (This may however be changing.) This could explain the overwhelming numbers of women in the first place.

A sociological explanation will take these contours: The boom in Indian English publishing is barely a generation old. Women’s enrolment in higher education spiked in the last few decades, and continues to grow. A good English Literature degree is usually a prerequisite for entry into publishing, and women have always done well in this sphere.

Yet, the big and prominent names in publishing until very recently have all been men: Samuel Israel (memorialized in Siddharth Chowdhury’s The Patna Manual of Style); Ravi Dayal (thanks in large measure to Rukun Advani’s advocacy and Amitav Ghosh’s loyalty); Tejeshwar Singh (for professionalising academic social science publishing; he has a fellowship named after him); David Davidar (for triggering the trade book revolution in India); Rukun Advani (for being the David who felled the OUP goliath and for spotting talent such as the writing machine Ramachandra Guha); Rajan Mehra (of Rupa & Co for being the king of Indian pulp fiction; and S Anand (for making caste and Dalit a staple of the publishing agenda). The sole woman on this list would be Priya Adarkar (the moving spirit behind the Sangam paperbacks from Orient Longman). Githa Hariharan and Anuradha Roy owe their salience to their writing skills.

Will the Indian publishing industry in the coming decade celebrate the achievements of its women professionals?


AR Venkatachalapathy is the author most recently of Who Owns That Song? The Battle for Subramania Bharati’s Copyright

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