Sridhar Balan is an Indian publishing industry veteran who joined the sector when it was considered a cottage industry despite “big” firms like Oxford University Press, Longman, Macmillan and Tata McGraw Hill having Indian offices. Balan continues to be an active publishing professional who is currently associated with Ratna Sagar. He is always full of interesting anecdotes when you meet him. It is not just the anecdote but the pleasure of watching him narrate the stories with a twinkle in his eye and is forever smiling. He is always so generous in sharing his experiences in publishing. So I am truly delighted that Balan was finally persuaded by Ravi Singh of Speaking Tiger Books to put together a few essays of his time spent in Indian publishing.
The essays span a lifetime in publishing where Balan recounts joining it as a salesperson. He is also a voracious reader with a phenomenal memory and a magnificent ability to tell stories. Mix it all together and voila! — a rich colection of essays that recount significant personalities associated with Indian publishing such as Dean Mahomed (1759 – 1851), a barber’s son from Patna who wrote his first book in 1794 and ultimately settled in Brighton. The essays on other publishers such as Roy Hawkins who is known for settling in India happily wedded to his job as general manager at OUP for more than thirty years. More significantly, Hawkins is credited for having “discovered” many writers such as Verrier Elwin, Salim Ali, Minoo Masani and K.P.S. Menon. Hawkins also published Jim Corbett’s unsolicited manuscript “Man-Eaters of the Kumaon”, first published in 1944. ( It is in print even today with all of Corbett’s other books!) The account of the international publicity organised for this book is a fascinating story. A dream run. A tale worth repeating over and over again including the tiny detail of having two tiger cubs join the book launch party in Manhattan on 4 April 1946. The cubs were encouraged to dip their tiny paws and leave their footprints on the books as a special memento for the guests. A copy was specially inked in this manner for the author too. Corbett had been unable to travel to NYC under military quota as his status was that of a civilian. So he missed his own book launch. Nevertheless the book sold close to 490,000 copies in that year alone. A staggering number by even today’s standards of bookselling! As for the cub footprints on the cover page of the book proved to be such a magnificent book promotion detail that it was then replicated in subsequent editions of the book.
Off The Shelf is full of such wonderful gems of publishing history. For instance, the scholar and academic trained in classics, E.V. Rieu ( 1887 -1972) was selected to head the Indian operations of OUP. He was absorbed in his work but Rieu found time to write verse for children too. Balan recounts a poem that Rieu wrote called ‘Hall and Knight”. It was written by Rieu to record his sympathy for the generations of schoolchildren who had to endure Hall and Knight’s ‘Algebra’, which was the standard textbook in mathematics.
Many of the essays revolve around the time Balan spent at OUP but there are others such as about Dhanesh Jain ( 1939 – 2019) who established Ratna Sagar or legendary bookseller of Lucknow, Ram Advani. ( Whom I too had the pleasure of meeting and who upon hearing I had joined publishing, sent me such a lovely email welcoming me to the industry.)
Balan’s enthusiasm for the book trade shines through Off the Shelf but it is his passion for inculcating the love of reading that needs to be talked about more. He shares one example of his efforts in “Reading in Tirunelveli”. It is an essay worth sharing amongst educators, librarians, book clubs etc for the gentle kindness Balan demonstrates in encouraging children to read. He suggests constructive steps in building libraries and engaging in reading sessions. It is an essay seeped in wisdom.
This is such a lovely book that I could go on and on about it but I shan’t. Just buy it. Read it for yourselves. I could not put it down and read it in one fell swoop.
The COVID-19 crisis is an unprecedented time, suspending large parts of human normalcy and disrupting global economies, including India’s. The Indian publishing industry has experienced difficult times with the advent of the pandemic and subsequent complete lockdown. With the ease in the lockdown situation, the publishing industry is focused on book sales and preparing for post-lockdown by seeking answers which can strategically fortify their business needs. As a result, Nielsen Book India has undertaken an initiative to provide meaningful consumer insights to the publishing industry. The research aims to understand book reader’s behaviour and engagement during and after lockdown.
“At Nielsen Book we are committed to supporting the publishing industry around the world during these unprecedented times. In India we have initiated a consumer research study to understand the reading and purchasing habits of book consumers during the pandemic. The study provides a vital understanding of how long people are reading for, their favourite genres and what their preferred formats are (print, e-books and audiobooks) as well as how they are discovering and buying books and how much they are willing to spend. The findings are extremely valuable to anyone with an interest in the publishing sector, providing insights into the behaviour of the Indian book consumer and helping inform future plans.” Vikrant Mathur, Director, Nielsen Book Research, India.
Nielsen Book conducted an online survey of 1,084 Indian adults (with a ratio of 60:40 female/male) to examine the impact of reading and buying behaviour on leisure books (excluding academic books) in India. The survey was conducted from 14 May to 7 June 2020. It was disseminated to publishers, media companies, etc. and across social media where followers used the snowballing technique to reach other respondents. It should therefore be assumed that the majority of respondents are likely to be keen book readers and buyers as per the methodology used to conduct the survey. The responses from employees working in publishing, book retailing and market research companies are excluded from the study.
CHANGE IN TIME SPENT READING AND OTHER ACTIVITIES
The report shows that two thirds of book readers say they are consuming more books since lockdown began. Before lockdown, Indian book readers read books or listened to audiobooks for an average of nine hours per week. Since lockdown this has increased by seven more hours a week. Two out of five respondents spend more time reading print books, similarly one in two spend more time reading e-books and one in five listening to audiobooks.
FORMATS USED FOR READING/LISTENING
On average, print books accounted for two thirds of book reading before lockdown and respondents predicted that print books would remain nearly as important even after lockdown. A marginal improvement was also noticed in the consumption of other formats.
Before lockdown, men tended to spend comparatively more time than women reading print books and listening to audiobooks while women are shifting slightly towards digital books after lockdown. Across all ages, readers are reading majorly print books while it was noticed that the ≥35 years age group (older readers), are marginally consuming more e-books after lockdown.
POPULAR GENRES DURING PANDEMIC
Women are more likely than men not to have changed their fiction reading interests since the outbreak of COVID-19, with both sexes more interested in Crime/Thrillers and Literary/Classic Fiction, alongside Historical Fiction (men) and Romance (women). Historical/Political Biographies followed by Self-Help/Personal Development and Self-Study (learning new languages, etc.) are the most popular amongst non-fiction readers. Respondents with children aged 0-8 are especially likely to have changed their genre interests when buying for children since the outbreak of COVID-19, with increased interest in Picture Books, Activity Books and Animal Stories. Those with children aged 9-17 are more interested in buying Spy/Detective/Mystery Stories, Fantasy and Classic stories.
AUTHOR AND LANGUAGE PREFERENCES
English is the most preferred language for reading followed by Hindi. One in three male readers prefers to read in Hindi. Younger consumers (≤34) are reading more titles from international authors compared to older readers (≥35). Two thirds of respondents prefer both international as well as Indian authors while one in 11 respondents prefers only Indian authors.
METHODS FOR DISCOVERING AND CHOOSING BOOKS
Recommendations from friends/relatives followed by media articles/reviews and general browsing on bookseller websites were the most influential factors on discovering books pre and post lockdown. Female readers are more likely than men to seek out recommendations from friends/relatives and read media articles/reviews. Meanwhile, male readers like to discover books by browsing on bookseller websites and looking at bestseller sections.
CHANGE IN SOURCES USED FOR BUYING BOOKS
Purchasing online followed by physical bookstores and then home delivery were the most preferred options for buying books post lockdown. Six out of 10 respondents expect to buy books through physical stores and seven out of 10 through an online bookshop after the lockdown is lifted, with the proportion higher than before lockdown in each case, but more so for online than in-store. Respondents also think they will make more use of home delivery after lockdown than before.
PURCHASING BEHAVIOUR FOR PAPERBACK BOOKS
Fifty percent of fiction readers and forty percent of non-fiction readers prefer the price point of INR200-INR400 when purchasing paperback fiction and non-fiction titles.
Nielsen Book provides a range of services to the book industry internationally, aiding the discovery and purchase, distribution and sales measurement of books. We are proud to run the ISBN and SAN Agencies for UK & Ireland as well as providing search and discovery services for booksellers and libraries. Our electronic trading solutions, including Nielsen PubEasy, help everyone involved in the book supply chain trade more easily and our Research services provide retail sales analysis for both print and e-books alongside research from our Books and Consumers Survey. If you would like to know more visit: www.nielsenbook.co.uk
Nielsen Holdings plc (NYSE: NLSN) is a global measurement and data analytics company that provides the most complete and trusted view available of consumers and markets worldwide. Nielsen is divided into two business units. Nielsen Global Media, the arbiter of truth for media markets, provides media and advertising industries with unbiased and reliable metrics that create a shared understanding of the industry required for markets to function. Nielsen Global Connect provides consumer packaged goods manufacturers and retailers with accurate, actionable information and insights and a complete picture of the complex and changing marketplace that companies need to innovate and grow. Our approach marries proprietary Nielsen data with other data sources to help clients around the world understand what’s happening now, what’s happening next, and how to best act on this knowledge.
An S&P 500 company, Nielsen has operations in over 100 countries, covering more than 90% of the world’s population. For more information, visit: www.nielsen.com
Tim Park’s essays are always a pleasure to read. Short and always packed with information. Some of it familliar, some of it unexpected. Pen in Hand is a collection of essays that mostly appeared in the New York Review of Books Daily between 2014 to 2017. There are many to choose from but one particular one entitled “Too Many Books?” has a fascinating section on patronage for the independent writer, the history of mass printing and accessing mass audiences and with it the evoluion of the concept of copyright.
Here is an excerpt:
…in the early 1300s, with the establishment of the first partially mechanized paper mills in Italy, a more generous supply of paper began to circulate and the number of people able to write rapidly increased. All the same, the only way to have more than one copy of what you’d written was to write it out again on another piece of paper, or pay someone else to do that for you. These limitations naturally encouraged people to keep things short and to invest the act of writing with a certain solemnity.
For centuries, if what you had written was going to be shown to others, it would have to be placed in a library, usually a church library. And since the one of the only ways anyone would know that a new piece of literature had been written was if the writer personally put the word around, there would usually be some kind of social connection between writer and readers. At best, then, you could appeal to a literary elite, sharing the same written language — Latin — that was inaccessible to the masses. Perhaps the offspring of these elite would also read you. In fact it was easier to imagine a reputation in centuries to come than widespread diffusion in one’s own time. The perception was that the essential quality of writing was its separation of mental material from mortal grey matter. Word and idea were disembodied and stabilized in order to travel through time, not to be infinitely multiplied in the present.
In general, then, the conditions for supporting the independent professional writer who makes a living from his work just weren’t there. At most, one could hope to come under the patronage of a king, or a city state, or the Church. You could be commissioned to write a treatise or a history. These were not the circumstances where it would be easy to write things your patrons didn’t agree with. Or you might attach yourself to a theater company, where actors would repeat things you had written, though not necessarily word for word. Now your writing might travel a little if the theater company traveled. But most likely it wouldn’t. Traveling companies would not be performing elaborately scripted plays until the sixteenth century.
With the arrival of print in the late fifteenth century, it was suddenly possible to start thinking of a mass audience; 20 million books had been printed in Europe by 1500. Yet it was the printing shops—often more than one if a book was popular—rather than the authors, who made the money. You might write out of a passion to get your ideas around, or out of megalomania—never a condition to be underestimated where writers are concerned—but there was still no steady money to be had producing writing of whatever kind. In economic terms, it was hardly worth insisting you were the author of a text, hence the anonymous book was rather more common than it is today.
Meantime, with this new possibility of printing so many books it made sense to start thinking of all those people who didn’t know Latin. The switch to writing in the vernacular had begun; this meant that, though more copies were being sold, most books were now trapped inside their language community. There were scholars capable of translating of course, and a book that made a big impression in one country would eventually be translated into another. But it took time, and it wouldn’t happen if a book didn’t impress in its original language. Nor for the most part were these translators under contract with publishers. Initially, they were simply scholars who translated what they were interested in and what they believed was worth disseminating. Think of that.
In 1710, Britain’s Queen Anne introduced the first of a series of laws recognizing an author’s right to control the copying of his work. Suddenly, it made economic sense to address yourself to everybody who could afford to pay for a book, rather than to your peer group; much better to write one book that sold in huge quantities than many books that were of interest only to a chosen few. And if the work could be sold in another country it was now worth paying a translator to translate, even if he or she, but usually at this point he, was not especially interested in the work, or perhaps actively disliked it. Writing, translating, and publishing were all becoming jobs.
If there is only one book you can read in 2020 then make it this superb translation from Swedish by art and culture journalist, Patrik Svensson called The Gospel of the Eels. It is part-memoir of Svensson and part-history of eels. It is at one level an exquisitely meditative reflection upon the mysteries of life, why we do certain things in the manner we do — whether it is man or the very mysterious eel. Like man, who has distinct stages on his life, the eel too has been documented of having four very distinct stages of development. It’s transformation from the glass eel to brown to the sexually mature grey/black eel is a stunning form of evolution that no scientist has ever been able to document in detail. It is as mystifying as the vast amounts of water the eels traverse. From the salty water of open seas to going upstream in search of fresh water of inland rivers. These patterns of movement happen at distinct moments in an eel’s life but why they happen no man knows. It is as puzzling as how do these creatures remember their places of birth in Sargasso Sea and return to it for spawning. Svensson’s fascination for the creatures began when his father would take seven-year-old Patrik eel hunting in the local stream. The author himself was never fond of eating the creatures but he developed a lifelong fascination for the mysteries surrounding eels. While seemingly recalling his warmly affectionate relationship with his father and sharing his family history, Patrik Svensson is able to dwell upon how eels have a history in literature dating as far back as Aristotle, who thought eels bred in mud. Pliny the Elder had an equally fascinating theory which stated that eels were born by rubbing two stones together. Archaeologists in Egypt have discovered scarophagi containing eels. Freud’s first academic paper was on the sexuality of eels after he spent a month living in a tiny fishing town dissecting over four hundred eels. Decades later the eel’s sexuality is still not fully understood. It is a fish whose life cycle has not been documented as yet. This despite efforts to tag fish returning to Sargasso Sea or observing them in tanks but nothing has worked. This fish cannot be artificially reproduced. Now it is in danger of becoming extinct for various reasons, many of them can be attributed to man.
The Gospel of the Eels is a book not to be missed. It raises many questions about life, mortality, man’s excessive need to know, what are the limits man should set for himself as an individual and a race and in his interaction with nature, how much knowledge is necessary and how much pursuit of gaining that knowledge is essential. Like his father who was content with living his life and not particularly keen to investigate into his past or that of his beloved mother, similarly, it may not be a bad idea if we let God’s creatures live in peace and if man learned to live in harmony with them and each other. None of this is really spelled out so explicitly by the avowed atheist Patrik Svensson but it is implied and graciously acknowledged. In fact these are some of the questions that are pertinent more so now during the pandemic. If theories are to be believed, the Covid19 is a health crisis created by crossing or rather violating these very same sacrosanct boundaries between Man and Nature. Of course this book was written much before the pandemic happened but its publication is very timely.
It is a stunning book that has been beautifully translated by Agnes Broome. Well worth buying a copy or even gifting generously.
Malamander by author and illustrator, Thomas Taylor is a fantastical book about two (approx.) 12yo — Violet Parma and Herbert Lemon. The unlikeliest team who set off to find the truth about the mysterious disappearance of Violet’s parents from the Grand Nautilus Hotel. An event that occurred 12 years ago when Violet was found abandoned in a cot in the hotel room. Herbert Lemon is the Lost-and-Founder at the hotel. He is in charge of collecting abandoned articles and returning them to their rightful owner except that at times decades, even a century, passes by and no one comes forth to claim the lost articles. Then Violet (literally) tumbles into Herbie’s life through an open window in his cramped space. She believes that Herbie is the only person in the world who can help her —- “Because I’m lost…And I’d like to be found.” Brilliant opening line for a fabulous plot for middle grade fiction. And off the two of them go on an adventure plotted marvelously well in Eerie on Sea that seems forever to be encased in thick sea mist or snowfall. It involves wheelchair bound owner of the hotel, Lady Kraken and her cameraluna which operates well on a full moon night to give her a bird’s-eye view of the town in 3D; the charmingly eccentric beachcomber Mrs Fossil, the local celebrity, an author, Sebastian Eels who freaks everyone with his creepy presence, a mysterious character who has a boat hook for a hand and a few more equally fascinating characters. Local life is enriched by local legends that some may believe and some may not. One particular story is about the mythical amphibious creature, Malamander, who lives in the sea but when it emerges on land can walk upright like man. It’s egg is known to possess magical powers of being able to grant any wish.
“Malamander” is the first of a trilogy by Thomas Taylor, who is perhaps better known for his book cover illustrations of the UK edition Harry Potter novels by a then relatively unknown author called J K Rowling. This particular novel of his has a wonderful book trailer and the good folks at Walker Books have been kind enough to create a standalone website recreating the map and landscape of Eerie on Sea . Unsurprisingly, the film rights to this book have already been sold to Sony whilst the author is still working on his second novel in the series.
I cannot praise this book enough for its crisp storytelling, wonderful use of visual imagery without it becoming too overpowering and the fabulous descriptions that are sufficiently sketched to tickle the imagination without being too stifling for the reader. It conjures up a magical space that is seemingly in present day but could for all practical purposes of storytelling be set in any time dimension. It is vague enough in its location details to be not too hyper-local.
Read Malamander and you shall not be disappointed. ( with @Walker Books)
Ever since the phenomenal success of Rebel Girls some years ago there has been a proliferation of books tom-tomming about the achievement of girls/ women, many of whom whose contribution to their respective sectors has been silenced for an extremely long time —an unforgivable act. Yet with the popularisation of movements like #MeToo and the visibility of such girl-centric literature in popular culture has made a remarkable case for many more such books to appear. The danger lies falling into the trap of emulating a successful formula and creating a damp squib or creating a triumphant collection such former journalist Neha J. Hiranandani’s feisty Girl Power!
It is a challenging task to visually and succinctly represent a core idea, more so an idea that seemingly goes against the “norm”. And this is why Girl Power! is so magnificent. It stands out from much else that in this space for it puts together beautifully a profile that has charmed the author. It is as if the woman whom Neha Hiranandani is writing about has really moved her in some way. Otherwise the absence of living legends such as activists Aruna Roy & Medha Patkar, writer Arundhati Roy, historian Romila Thapar, wrestler Vinesh Phogat etc remains inexplicable. For there seems to be no other explanation, save Neha’s subjectivity, for this very disparate collection of women profiled in Girl Power!
Neha Hiranandani’s fascination for her project manifests itself in the funky descriptor she offers after every name. It is super cool, so in keeping with the loud, assertive and sparkly book cover as if to say, “We women are proud of our achievement and are here to stay!” It effectively communicates her passion with younger readers.
Hiranandani is a writer whose columns have appeared in The Indian Express, Huffington
Post, NDTV, and Vogue among others. She holds degrees in
Literature and Education from Wellesley College and Harvard University.
Here are lightly edited excerpts of an interview conducted via email:
1.How did the idea of doing Girl Power! come to you?
My 7-year-old daughter, Zoya absolutely loved Rebel Girls. As a mother, I was so happy to see her being inspired by incredible women from around the world. But then one day she came to me clutching her beloved copy of Rebel Girls and asked sadly “Does India only have two rebels?” pointing to Mary Kom and Rani Laxmibai. Of course I immediately wanted to tell her all about the phenomenal women that India has had – our rule breakers, our mavericks, our smashers of ceilings. We spent the next few months discovering these women together. It was magnificent! I quickly realized that these were stories that all our girls – and even our boys – should hear.
2. There is a deluge of women-centric profiles in the market. Why is Girl Power! special?
I was very lucky to work with an incredible artist – Niloufer Wadia – whose illustrations have brought these stories to life. Unlike other books which follow a standard ‘one-page text + one-page illustration’ format, Niloufer and I wanted the text and the illustrations to work together. And so, every page of Girl Power! has the story and the artwork talking to one another which makes for an incredible reading experience. That, and I think the selection of women is very special!
3. How did you identify the women profiled in the book? Whom did you have to drop from your original list and why?
This was easily my favourite part of the project! I was clear that this wasn’t going to be just a list of accomplished Indian women – the women in this book had to be mavericks, ceiling smashers! And so I set about finding the stories and really, what stories they are! Every story made me feel me proud to be Indian all over again. You will meet a spy princess who parachuted into France, a warrior queen who defended India from the Portugese six times! There’s Subhasini Mistry who worked as a maid before winning a Padma Bhushan for healthcare, and Chandro Tomar, the octogenarian sharpshooter, popularly known as Revolver Dadi. Of course, there are some household names as well including PV Sindhu and Priyanka Chopra. But personally, I am very proud of the untold stories. They were so exciting to discover!
I have tried to be as inclusive as possible. Girl
Power! includes stories from across the country, across industries and across
time periods. I also tried to pick stories that had an identifiable ‘Kodak
moment’ that could be written coherently in 300 words or less. This is easier
said than done, especially given that all of these women have led very layered
and nuanced lives!
With that said, I am the first to admit that this is not an exhaustive list – that would run into volumes and is well beyond the scope of this project.
4. The descriptor used as a subtitle in every chapter encapsulates the spirit of the woman profiled vividly. For example, “Raga Rockstar” for M S Subbulakshmi, “Accidental Entrepreneur” for Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw, “Rule Breaker” for Dakshayani Velayudhan, “Inspirational Archer” for Deepika Kumari, or “Daredevil Doctor” for Anandibai Joshee. How did you come up with these fascinating descriptions?
These women have led such interesting lives, it would be a failing on my part to not give them interesting descriptors!
5. Girl Power! comes across as a broad sweep of profiling women across socio-economic classes giving the impression as if popular stories were incorporated. What kind of research methodology did you employ particularly what were the oral histories that you accessed?
This book will always be special to me for so many reasons. And perhaps, the most important one is that it connected me to many incredible people – men and women – who I’m grateful to have met. Apart from the internet research and the scouting in libraries, I knew that many of the stories were going to come from conversations. And so they did! Over cups of tea in the most unlikely of places – from railway stations to parks – I have spoken to people about the women who have moved them, inspired them. Some of the stories didn’t work out because I couldn’t confirm their factual accuracy but others did. For many parts of the book, I wanted to move beyond the well-known women and tell stories of ordinary women who have done extraordinary things. It was in that quest – of finding the ordinary-extraordinary woman – that our unmatched recounting of oral histories became important. Sometimes, it’s just about having the conversation!
6. Every chapter consists of a sprinkling of quotes by the women profiled. Such as ‘As long as I moved around with Mankeshaw [her husband], people did not take me seriously,” said Homai Vyarawalla, the photographer or “No field of work belongs to any gender”, says Harshini, the firefighter or actress Priyanka Chopra attributes her success to following the three Fs – “by being fierce, by being fearless and by being flawed”. Where are these quotes from as there are no bibliographical details provided?
Along with the team at Scholastic India, I was meticulous in making sure that every fact was double-checked. Many times this meant watching several documentaries for a 5 word-quote or finding obscure books and articles in dusty libraries. While there is no bibliography in the book, we have maintained an exhaustive back-of-house bibliography! So for instance, the quote by Homai Vyarwalla is from an article in the Hindu, the one from Harshini Kanhekar is from an interview with Jovita Aranha, and the one by Priyanka Chopra is from a lecture she gave on ‘Breaking the Glass Ceiling: Chasing a Dream’ at a Penguin event back in 2017.
7. Some profiles make passing references such as to Amrita Shergill’s “South Indian trilogy” or Dipa Karmakar’s “new book” or to a “rifle club” in Chandro Tomar’s neighbourhood which her granddaughter was attending – all very intriguing and remains unexplained? Was it a deliberate intent on your part to leave these as is to encourage inquisitive readers to delve into some research of their own?
Absolutely! This book gives a quick insight into the lives of these incredible women. It provides the ‘hook’ of an interesting time in that woman’s life to lure the reader in. The ultimate idea is that a child finds that ‘Kodak moment’ interesting and says “Hey, that’s cool I didn’t know that but now I want to find out more.”
8. How important is the picture book format to communicate with young readers particularly when it is a critical idea such as challenging rules, mostly patriarchal, to pursue your dreams?
I think it’s critical! Visuals go a long way in keeping a young reader interested and this is especially so in a format like Girl Power!’s where the text and illustration talk to each other on every page.
9. With this book are you addressing both boys and girls? What impact do you hope to create?
One might assume that this book is only addressed to young girls. That would be a terrible mistake. In fact, if anything, I think this book is critical for our young boys. For far too long, our boys have seen us in certain roles – as a mother, as a wife etc. It’s time for them to see Indian women succeeding in places that were traditionally demarcated as ‘men only zones’ – as wrestlers, as scientists, as entrepreneurs! If nothing else, it will help them understand what’s coming down the pike in the future!
10. Were these stories tested on younger readers before publication? If so what was their reaction? Did you incorporate any of their suggestions in the manuscript?
My daughter and her friends were invaluable as I wrote Girl Power! Those kids were my first editors! During play dates, I would read out entire stories and meticulously comb through their suggestions. Many profiles – such as Rani Abbakka – were rewritten on the basis of these editorial inputs! Several times, the kids wanted more details on an event or character that they found interesting. So for instance, in the Rani Abbakka profile, they wanted to know exactly how she defeated the Portuguese armada. That’s when I knew I had to include the part about how Abbakka secretly gathered her best soldiers in the middle of the night. The kids were fascinated when I told them that Abbakka instructed her soldiers to attack with hundreds of coconut torches and agnivaan– flaming arrows dipped in oil – all at the same time. The arrows lit up the night sky setting the Portuguese ships ablaze. These inputs brought so much colour and detail to the profiles and I’m so grateful to the kids! I think it was those inputs that have sharpened the profiles and created the final product.
11. Did you work closely with the illustrator? Did you help the illustrator select an image upon which to build the illustration?
Niloufer Wadia is a wonderful, prolific illustrator who can handle many different artistic styles with ease. I did make suggestions for some profiles; for example, Bula Chowdhury is an ace swimmer who once said “I should have been born a fish.” And so for Bula, I asked Niloufer if we could create something dream-like with Bula in the waves, half-woman and half-fish, almost a mermaid. That is easily one of my favourite illustrations in the book. For other profiles, Niloufer created something breathtaking on her own; Priyanka Chopra’s illustration is half from an iconic Hindi movie in traditional Indian attire and half FBI agent, a character from her show Quantico. That was all Niloufer!
12. Would you describe yourself as a feminist or as someone who feels strongly about women’s issues?
Susan Van Metre is the Executive Editorial Director of Walker Books US, a new division of Candlewick Press and the Walker Group. Previously she was at Abrams, where she founded the Amulet imprint and edited El Deafo by Cece Bell, the Origami Yoda series by Tom Angleberger, the Internet Girls series by Lauren Myracle, They Say Blue by Jillian Tamaki, and the Questioneers series by Andrea Beaty and David Roberts. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband, Pete Fornatale, and their daughter and Lab mix.
Susan and I met when we were a part of the Visiting International
Publishers delegation organised by the Australia Council and Sydney Writers
Festival. It was an incredibly enriching time we spent with other publishing
professionals from around the world. Meeting Susan was fabulous as Walker Books
is synonymous with very high standards of production in children’s literature.
Over the decades the firm has established a formidable reputation. Susan very
kindly agreed to do an interview via email. Here are lightly edited excerpts.
1. How did you get into
publishing children’s literature? Why join children’s publishing at a time when
it was not very much in the public eye?
I never stopped reading children’s
books, even as a teen and young adult. I have always been in love with
story. I was a quiet, lonely young person and storytelling pulled me out
of my small world and set me down in wonderful places in the company of people
I admired. I couldn’t easily find the same richness of plot and character
in the adult books of the era so stuck with Joan Aiken and CS Lewis and E Nesbit
and Ellen Raskin. And I loved the books themselves, as objects, and, in
college, had the idea of helping to make them. I applied to the Radcliffe
Publishing Course, now at Columbia, met some editors from Dutton Children’s
Books/Penguin there, and was invited to interview. Though I couldn’t type
at all (a requirement at the time), I think I won the job with my passionate
conviction that the best children’s books are great
literature, and arguably more crucial to our culture in that they create
2. How do you commission
books? Is it always through literary agents?
Most of the books I publish come
from agents but occasionally I’ll reach out to a writer who has written an
article that impressed me and ask if they have thought of writing a book. Recently,
I bought a book based on hearing the makings of the plot in a podcast episode.
3. How have the books you
read as a child formed you as an editor/publisher? If you worry about the world
being shaped by men, does this imply you have a soft corner for fiction by
women? ( Your essay, “Rewriting the Stories that Shape Us”)
What a good question. I definitely
look for books with protagonists that don’t typically take centre stage,
whether it’s a girl or a character of colour or a character with a disability.
I have always been attracted to heroes who are underdogs or outsiders, ones
that prevail not because they have special powers or abilities but because they
have determination and heart. I am in love with a book on our Fall ’19 list, a
fantasy whose hero is a teen girl with Down syndrome. It’s The Good
Hawk by Joseph Elliott. I have never met a character like Agatha
before—she’s all momentum and loyalty. Readers will love her.
4. Who are the writers/artists that have influenced your publishing
I am very influenced by brainy,
hardworking creators like Ellen Raskin and Cece Bell and Mac Barnett and Sophie
Blackall and Jillian Tamaki. I admire a great work ethic, outside-the-box
thinking, an instinct for how words and images can work together to create a
richly-realized story, and respect for kids as fully intelligent and emotional
beings with more at stake than many adults.
5. As an employee- and author-owned company, Candlewick is used
to working collaboratively in-house and with the other firms in the Walker
groups. How does this inform your publishing programme? Does it nudge the
boundaries of creativity?
There is so much pride at Walker and
Candlewick. Owning the company makes us feel that much more invested in
what we are making because it is truly a reflection of us and our values and
tastes. Plus, we only make children’s books and thus put our complete resources
behind them. There are no pesky, costly adult books and authors to distract us.
And I think the strong lines of communication amongst the offices in Boston,
New York, London, and Sydney mean that we have a good global perspective on
children’s literature and endeavour to make books with universal appeal. I
think all these factors contribute to innovation and quality.
6. You have spent many years in publishing, garnering
experience in three prominent firms —Penguin USA, Abrams and Candlewick
Press. In your opinion have the rules of the game for children’s publishing
changed from when you joined to present day?
Oh, definitely. When I started,
children’s publishing was a quiet corner of the business, mostly dependent on
library sales. There was no Harry Potter or Hunger Games or Wimpy Kid; no
great juggernauts driving millions of copies and dollars. And not really
much YA. YA might be one spinner rack at the library, not the vast
sections you see now, full of adult readers. Now children’s and YA is big business
and mostly bright spots in the market. The deals are bigger and the risk is
bigger and the speed of business is so much faster!
7. Do you discern a change in reading patterns? Do these
vary across formats like picture books, novels, graphic novels? Are there
noticeable differences in the consumption patterns between fiction and
nonfiction? Do gender preferences play a significant role in deciding the
I think we are in a great time for
illustrated books, whether they are picture books, nonfiction, chapter books,
or graphic novels. And now children can move from reading picture books
to chapter books to graphic novels without giving up full colour illustrations
as they age. And why should they? Visual literacy is so important to our
internet age—an important way to communicate online.
8. One of the iconic books of modern times that you have worked
upon are the Diary of a Wimpy Kid series. Tell me more about
the back story, how it came to be etc. Also what is your opinion on the
increasing popularity of graphic novels and how has it impacted children’s
I am not the editor of the Wimpy Kid
books—that’s Charles Kochman—but I was lucky enough to help sign them up and
bring them to publication as the then head of the imprint they are published
under, Amulet Books. Charlie comes out of comics so when he saw the
proposal for Wimpy Kid, which had been turned down elsewhere, he understood the
skill and appeal of it. I have NEVER published anything that took off so
immediately. I think we printed 25,000 copies, initially, and we sold out
of them in two weeks. It showed how hungry readers were for that strong
play of words and images, and how they longed for a protagonist who was flawed
but who didn’t have to learn a lesson. Adult readers have many such
protagonists to enjoy but they are rarer in kids’ books.
9. Walker Books are inevitably heavily illustrated, where each
page has had to be carefully designed. Have any of your books been translated?
If so what are the pros and cons of such an exercise?
Our lead Fall title, Malamander, is illustrated and has been
sold in a dozen languages. I think illustration can be a big plus in
conveying story in a universally accessible way.
10. The Walker Group is known for its outstanding production quality
of printed books. Has the advancement of digital technology affected the world
of children’s publishing? If so, how?
I think they incredible efficiency
of modern four-colour printing has allowed us to spend money on other aspects
of the book, like cloth covers or deckled edges. That sort of
thing. Children’s books are incredible physical objects these days.
11. Walker Books’ reputation is built on its ability to be creatively
innovative and constantly adapt to a changing environment. How has the group
managed to retain its influence in this multimedia culture?
First, thank you for saying
so! I think the rest of media still looks to book publishing for great
stories and as a house that has always invested in talent, we are lucky enough
to have stories that work across many forms of media.
12. Have any of books you have worked upon in your career been
banned? If so, why? What has been the reaction?
Yes. In fact, I am working with Lauren Myracle on a young adult novel, publishing in Spring ’21, called This Boy. Lauren is the author of the ttyl series, which was on the ALA’s Banned Book list for many years. It was challenged for its depictions of teenage sexuality. I was raised to be modest and rule following so my personal reaction was horror—especially when parents started phoning me directly to complain—but I feel so strongly that kids and teens deserve to read about life as it really is—not just as we wish it would be. So I came to be proud of the designation. Nothing is scarier than the truth.
Krishna in Rhymeis a fabulous retelling of the story of Krishna by Kairavi Bharat Ram and Ananya Mittal, published by Scholastic India. It is in couplets. Ishan Trivedi’s sumptuous illustrations fit so beautifully with the text, making the reading experience magical. Gift it now. Gift it in Diwali hampers. It is a book for children and adults to read, whether already familiar with the stories or not, is immaterial.
He is always remembered for the fun he had, For being a playful god, beyond the good and the bad.
He represents the child in us, who enjoys life and is free, He’s the balance between fun and responsibility.
He taught us that to your fate you are bound, This idea’s called karma, what goes ’round comes around.
The Gita is perhaps his most famous speech, In this all about duty and dharma he does teach.
When you do what you must, things will always be okay, Following your heart will never lead you astray.
We hope this epic story you all have understood, Remember this forever: evil never beats good.
Ashok Kumar Banker began writing stories at the age of nine. He is the author of over seventy books, including the internationally acclaimed Ramayana Series and the recent Burnt Empire Series which is published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in USA and in the sub-continent by Simon and Schuster India. Ashok Banker’s works have all been bestsellers in India, and have been published around the world. He lives in Los Angeles and Mumbai. He has returned to the genre with which he first made his publishing debut – children’s fiction – with his first chapter book series released by Scholastic India. It is called the Secret School Mysteries. The first story called The Invisible Spy was released in July 2019. The second story in the series arc is called Aliens Ate My Homework! It is slated for release in early 2020.
The Invisible Spyis a far cry from your mythological stories that you are better known for. So why venture into children’s publishing? Also why did you choose to tell a school story and not retellings of mythology?
actually the other way around. I started my career as a children’s book author
and only ventured into mythology much later. As the headnote above says, I
began writing at the age of 9. Now, that may seem like childish scribbles, but
that’s when I became serious about writing as a vocation. I started my first
novel at that age. It would be considered a children’s book today and was
several times the length of The Invisible
Spy. I never completed it because it was too ambitious and I had bitten off
more than I could chew. It was titled Childworld
and was about a plane full of children that crash on an island and learn that
all the adults in the world have mysteriously died of an unknown virus, and
only the children are left alive. I was reading my way through the classics at
the time and William Golding’s Lord of
the Flies was a powerful influence. Today, looking back across the distance
of five decades I would describe it as Lord
of the Flies meets Lost meets The Stand.
finished Childworld but I continued
writing stories (and poems and essays and novels) at feverish speed, filling
dozens of ledger books with small cramped handwriting. (Ledger books were the
biggest blank notebooks I could find, and I wrote small to make maximum use of
the space.) I was recently contacted by an old neighbour from that time,
Bianca, who now lives in Canada, and she told me that she remembered me sitting
at the dining table in my grandmother’s house filling page after page,
completely intent on the task. That was when I was ten. Almost five decades
later, I’m still writing.
I wrote at
least one book-length work every single year from the age of nine, several
books – and stories, poems, songs, essays, scripts – and the vast majority of
them were what would be classified as children’s books. I didn’t work up the
confidence to actually start sending them out to publishers till I was 15, at
which point, I would carry the manuscript of my science fiction YA trilogy (The Man Machine, The Ultimatum, The Last of
the Robots) to publisher’s offices in Mumbai, in the hope of getting
someone to read my work.
I was a
published poet by that time – I published a lot of poetry in my teen years, in
journals ranging from Jayanta Mahapatra’s Chandrabhaga
in Bhubhaneswarto Menke Katz’s Bitterroot in New York, was interviewed on AIR and other
outlets. When I was around 19, Doordarshan Mumbai even did a half hour
interview-based feature showcasing my work as one of the youngest emerging
poets in the country. I was published at the age of 14 and was a regular
contributor to the children’s section of almost every newspaper and magazine
that would take my work, from Illustrated Weekly to Evening News, The
Afternoon, Free Press Journal, JS, and I don’t even remember all the other
names now. I also self-published my first book of poems Ashes in the Dust of Time and it was selected to represent Young India at the World Book Fair in
Paris, France, that year. There’s probably copies of it in the National
Archive, Asiatic Society, and elsewhere. I had some wonderfully encouraging
rejection letters from TLS, The Atlantic Review, and New Yorker. (I also never
stopped writing poetry, by the way, and am planning to start sending out some
of my more recent works to literary journals here in the US soon.)
coming back to my children’s books. I found the addresses of Indian publishers
and wrote to them. The first and only one to reply was Zamir Ansari of Penguin
Books India. It was basically just a distribution office back then and I think
he was the only employee. He was kind enough to meet me on a trip to Mumbai and
was the first, and one of the kindest, people I ever met in Indian publishing.
You can imagine a teenager in school uniform (I would take off my school tie
and my Headboy badges in the hope that I would look older than my age, which I
did – I looked mature enough to be allowed into The Exorcist when I was 13), sitting in the coffee shop of The
Oberoi with this elderly gentleman, discussing publishing. I had done my
homework, spending hours in the USIS and British Council Library, reading every
book on publishing, every copy of Bookseller
and he must have been impressed by me. He didn’t read my manuscript but he
gave me some insights into Indian publishing.
persevered, still writing at least one children’s book and one novel every
year, and eventually in my 20s, I finally got accepted by a small imprint
called Better Yourself Books. It was the children’s imprint of the Daughters of
St. Paul, also known as the Pauline Sisters, and my editor was a wonderful nun
named Sister Nivedita. She offered me a small advance and they published what
was my first fiction book, Amazing
Adventure at Chotta Sheher. It sold over 10,000 copies, which in the 1990s
was a huge number, and went in for reprints. I received royalties from it which
was more than I ever expected.
adapted it to a feature film and it won a prize for the Best Children’s Film
Script from the CFSI (Children’s Film Society of India). I was invited to a meeting
with the jury, headed by chairperson Shabana Azmi, and I earned even more money
for the adaptation rights. (I was already working in advertising as a
copywriter, quite successfully, and writing scripts for some of the earliest TV
shows such as Saanp Seedi and
docudramas, winning a number of awards in both advertising and scriptwriting
and making a decent living.) The film never did get made but it was such a
zany, fun book that I wish I had a copy to see if it holds up even today.
(One of my
quirks is that I never keep copies of my own books, I give them all away. I
always believe that I can write much better and keeping my work around seems
like an exercise in vanity. I also give away the books I buy to read, since I
believe books should be passed on, not hoarded.)
time, Penguin had started local publishing headed by David Davidar, and he
published another children’s book by me under the Puffin India imprint. It was
titled The Missing Parents Mystery and
while it was just as much fun as my earlier book, they simply couldn’t sell any
of their titles in the market. I began my career as a children’s book author,
and the mythological books, while great fun to write, comprise only about a
small part of my total output as a writer. So, in a sense, I never really
stopped writing children’s books.
Then I met
my editor at Pan Macmillan India, Sushmita Chatterjee. Later Sushmita joined
Scholastic who then commissioned a chapter book series — the Secret School Mysteries. The first three
titles are The Invisible Spy, Aliens Ate
My Homework, and The Haunted Centre.
some unknown reason, the dam seems to have broken.
picture books coming out from Lantana Publishing (I Am Brown, illustrated by the amazing Sandhya Prabhat) coming in
March 2020, Tiny Tiger to be
illustrated by Sandhya’s sister Chhaya Prabhat coming in late 2020, a baby book
series called Superzeroes illustrated
by Abhijeet Kini coming in late 2020/early 2021, graphic novel adaptations of
my Ramayana Series from Campfire Graphic Novels starting with Prince of Ayodhya coming in September
2019, a graphic novel YA series on Shiva starting with The Legend of Rudra coming in October 2019, a YA graphic novel on
the Gita in early 2020, an adventure series featuring an SC/ST protagonist
called Bhumia Adventures from Tulika,
a YA version of the Ramayana from Speaking Tiger, an original middle grade
fantasy adventure series starting with Pax
Gandhi, Sorceror Supreme, also from Speaking Tiger, and much much more. And
those are only my children’s books, of course.
And I’m only
getting started. As you can see, I have a lot of lost years to make up for!
Besides, I LOVE writing and few books
give me as much pleasure as a zany, fun children’s story. So expect many more.
2. What is your writing routine? How many words can you get done in a day?
Oh, I don’t
write every day. In fact, I don’t write most days. I never have a word target. You
see, I have a problem of too much focus. I’m the kind of person who could write
in a war zone. (I speak from experience, having written an entire book while
reporting from Kargil in 1999 for Sunday Mid-Day and Rediff.com.) I have to be
careful not to let myself get sucked into writing otherwise you would find me
someday, with a miles long beard, filling my 100th Terabyte sized
hard disk! I spend most of my reading, day dreaming, exercising, with my
family. My wife and I take care of our grand-daughter Leia most days of the
week, and she loves to read too. I take a very long time to live with a book
and story before setting fingers to keypad, so when I do sit to write, it comes
out fully formed. When you read a book or story by me, you are reading the
result of several decades of gestation and several hours of actual writing.
I’ll talk more about this when answering your other questions below.
3. You are a phenomenally well-read and an eclectic reader. So do you have a reading routine? What format do you prefer reading — print or digital (eBooks/audio)? In fact, any tips on what makes an individual a reader?
It’s kind of
you to say so. I read for pleasure, and am lucky (as well as unlucky) that I
have such variegated reading interests. I think I actually read about 50 books
a month, but that doesn’t include old favourites I dip into now and then, books
I reference for my work, and books I start but don’t care to finish. It
includes children’s books, which I love because they’re pure story vehicles. I
prefer to read in print, hardcover ideally. (Thanks to the incredible library
system here in the US, I’m able to indulge my love for reading like never
before, ordering as many new hardcovers as I wish, all free. It’s a miracle!)
But I also love to listen to audiobooks – also available here free through the
library apps. I listen to audiobooks in the morning, while checking my email,
cooking my breakfast, eating, and before I sit down to work. Later in the day,
I’ll read a print book. And that doesn’t include the picture books I read with
Speaking for myself, I think growing up in a house full of books (my mother, grandmother, and grandfather were all avid readers) makes a huge difference. Books and reading are like blood and oxygen. You can’t get one without the other. Even as a parent, I was the first one in the house to get hooked on Harry Potter, Twilight, The Hunger Games, you name it. I would buy those books, read them and leave them for my children to discover. They would ignore them or pass them off as “Dad’s latest obsession” until suddenly one day, years later, all their friends were talking about the book and they would come to me and say “Dad, where’s that Harry Potter book?” I was one of the first people in India to register for an internet account and I spent almost all my time (and still do) browsing for books! I think it’s something in your blood.
Leia, as you can see, is fascinated by all my bookshelves and by seeing me reading all the time. But she loves looking at books and being read to, and I have no doubt that she will grow up with books as part of her eco-system. It also helps that almost all my children’s books are dedicated to her!
4. This year is a first for you in many ways — many new book releases, spanning age groups and spanning continents. If the publications originate on different continents, does it inform your writing style, bearing in mind that you may be writing for slightly different sets of readers who perhaps different expectations?
Oh yes, it
changes completely. American editors have a completely different attitude. In
India, editors still consider a book to be the author’s work. Children’s book
authors here, by and large with a few famous exceptions, are essentially
delivering what’s acceptable to their editors.
instance, we have a wonderful boom in Indian’s children publishing right now,
with such amazing books such as the h0le series from Duckbill, books like A Firefly in the Dark by Shazaf Fatima
Haider, Calling Muskaan by Himanjali Sarkar,
Jwala Kumar and the Gift of Fire by
Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar, Amra and the
Witch by Arefa Tehsin, The Hidden
Children by Reshma Barshikar, to name just a few.
all incredible, amazing books. In the US. I’m incredibly lucky to have found a
great editor in John Joseph Adams, and publisher in Bruce Nichols. Having said
that, as I said, I’ve had a little luck and somehow managed to slip one through
the cracks. The critical and reader response is wonderful and universally
laudatory. The book is doing well and I’m very happy with my editor and
5. How do you work upon a series arc? Does the plot take shape as you write it or do you create an outline beforehand?
daydream about it. Over time, it all coalesces in my head. It just comes
together somehow. I accumulate details, characters, writing styles, structure,
all in my mind, and one day, I feel the urge to sit down and “write a little”,
and it all comes out in a torrent, pretty much fully formed. It’s a gift from
an unknown place and I don’t question or analyse it. I simply accept it with
grace and piety.
6. Writing three different kinds of series arcs — chapter books, retelling of the Mahabharata and a yalit trilogy based on Indian mythology — must require a fair amount of mental agility. How do you keep track of all the story plots? Do you make extensive notes?
I read. At
some point, a story comes along. It’s all somewhere in my head. I generally
have several dozen going at the same time, and I have no idea how I keep track
of them all. I just do. No notebooks, no computer files full of notes, no
assistants, secretaries, nothing. Just me and my laptop. Sometimes I write.
Mostly, I read. Always, I dream.
7. Has dividing your time living in Mumbai and Los Angeles changed your perspective on writing or is context immaterial to your writing?
America makes it easier to see India in a different perspective. I’m finally
approaching the completion of a literary novel set in Mumbai which I first
started almost 40 years ago. It’s called The
Pasha of Pedder Road and is one of those mammoth realistic literary novels
that I aspired to write as a young author, but never had the life-experience to
attempt. Ironically, or perhaps fittingly, I had to leave Mumbai (where I was
born, grew up and lived for 51 years) before I could write about Mumbai again.
On the other hand, I no longer feel the slightest bit interested in writing
about the US.
8. How/ where do you find ideas for your stories?
Oh, I could
never find them. They always find me. I believe there’s a Human Directory
that’s secretly handed around by the Story community. My name must feature
right at the top, since my first and last names are A and B. So they constantly
come calling, at all hours of the day. I often have to pretend I’m not home,
otherwise I’d never get any sleep or rest!
9. How did you come up with these five delightful characters — Google baba Peter, gamer Sania, identical twins Usha & Asha, and aspiring scientist Arun? When creating characters, do you work on their backstory or is it sufficient to see them develop as the story moves ahead? (I am always curious whether the character comes first or the plot or is it a bit of both and then it evolves.)
question. I wish I had the answer. As I said, I simply write the whole thing.
All fully formed. More or less the way you read it. When I hold a copy of one
of my books in my hand, I read it and it’s all just as new to me as it is to
you. I remember these words passing from my mind to the screen, but have no
clue how they came to be there. As Erica Jong once wrote: “We write as leaves
breathe: to live.” I simply breathe, and the air comes out as perfectly shaped
stories, characters and all.
10. It is early days as yet but do you have any idea what is the response, particularly amongst children, to Invisible Spy?
first book ever to receive five star reviews, and to be loved by everyone who
reads it. The response is overwhelming. I think for the first time in my 72-book
career I have a book that’s universally loved. It is a wonderful feeling!
11. Who are the writers you admire and may have influenced your writing as well?
every few days. I read so much, it’s like pointing to one fish in the ocean and
say, that one. It’s gone almost instantly, and then there’s another, and
another. Hundreds. Thousands even. More than writers, it’s individual books.
Often, I pick up a book at random in a library and if I like the first page, I
keep reading. I may not even look at the title or author name until much later.
I’ve often thought I would prefer that my books be published without my name
mentioned anywhere. After all, all art is ultimately a collective creative
experience. It takes a village to create a story. A writer merely jots it down.
12. Do you have any all-time favourite stories? Does this list change over time?
Too many to
count or name. Ever changing, ever expanding list. A monster with a bottomless
appetite, that’s me as a reader! As a young kid, I used to read my way through
entire circulating libraries. I can devour whole series like guzzling water. Books
are life to me.
Rebecca Servadio, Literary Scout and Managing Partner, London Literary Scouting is an incredible person to meet, crackling with energy, eyes sparkling and speaking rapidly with not an urgency but because there is so much to share about the world of books. No time to waste. She is a powerhouse who is involved with organisations like PEN, World Without Borders, literary festivals, juror for various publishing awards etc. In 2017 she was recognised as one of the Whitefox “Unsung Heroes of Publishing“. Rebecca works for twenty plus publishing houses around the world, for example Riverhead/PRH in the US, Gallimard in France, Einaudi in Italy, Anagrama in Spain, Hanser in Germany, de Bezige Bij in Holland as well as working in film/tv and stage where she also works for BBC Film and the National Theatre amongst others. Rebecca and I met when we were a part of the Visiting International Publishers Delegation, Sydney (29 April – 5 May 2019). The following interview was conducted via email.
How and why did you get into publishing?
The truth is that I love to read, I love literature, I love the thrill of losing myself within a book, the immediate travel. Immediately I am somewhere else, outside of my experience, inside the human experience whether it be emotional, intellectual or a page turner. I was and am still interested in people and in storytelling and in community and collaboration of all types and publishing is all these things. Creative with words. Local, particular, challenging, ever evolving, transformative, international – publishing is all those things and each interests me. I was a lawyer before starting to work in publishing and although I learnt both rigour and determination and other life skills that serve me well with my scouting agency, I found myself weighed down by the monotony and intense focus. Publishing is as varied as there are stories and people and I relish the challenge of connecting these two things with good books.
2. Why did
you choose to be a literary scout and not a literary agent? What are the
differences between a literary scout and a literary agent? Does it help to be
multi-lingual as you are?
I think the real answer to that question is that I am interested in where the dots connect up and how you build bridges and connect people and books in different countries. I love building bridges and networks that surprise and so help books to travel and help the publishers that I work with discover and publish the best writing and author. I also like to communicate and talk in different languages and across different languages and different domestic, national and international realities. I read in English and Italian and French. I work closely with Spanish and have readers that read in the Scandinavian languages, German, and Portuguese. I think of scouting as curation, as gate opening, as intelligence, as the signal within the noise and the world is very noisy.
There are many differences between scouting and agenting
but the primary one is that an agent represents his or her clients – writers
generally speaking and is paid through a commission on the sale deal for the
book of the author. An agent is always incentivised and interested to recommend
an author (and a particular book) because that is the very nature of their job
– their bread and butter consists in selling that authors works and so talking
about them in a way that strengthen the hand and the value of the book. A scout
on the other hand works for a publisher and helps the publisher navigate the
publishing world and marketplace. The scout should be opinionated and recommend
the best books for a particular publisher and again enable the publisher and
their best interests and so advising against a book is as much part of the job
as advising to buy a book more economically or again read/buy something
different all together. A scout should never have a commercial incentive or
interest to recommend a book to their publisher and their loyalty should always
lie with the publisher and not the writer or the agent. A scout should not have
a client – publisher house – in their home country and again work exclusively
in each country unlike agents. Again agents generally work in one territory and
not across territories although this is not true of co-agents or foreign rights
agents in house or in agencies.
As Literary Scouts we are interested in and engaged
with storytelling in all its forms. We look for the best fiction and nonfiction
to be published, or published in English, as well as in other major languages,
on behalf of our international Publishing Clients as well as for Film, TV and
Theatre. Rather than thinking in ‘global’ terms, as London-based scouts we can
and do individuate those ‘worldwide voices’ which speak across languages.
London is the most international of cities and we read widely and omnivorously.
Yes, they might be set in other countries, worlds and cultures, but the
challenge is to recognise those singular and particular voices that can cross
latitudes and longitudes. Without being defined or pre-occupied by ‘the new’ we
help find the authors that will build the bridges to readers today, tomorrow
and in the future.
London Literary Scouting was born from a partnership
between Koukla MacLehose, Rebecca Servadio and Yolanda Pupo Thompson. Koukla
MacLehose founded her eponymous scouting agency in 1987, as the agency grew and
flourished in 2012 Koukla founded Koukla MacLehose Associates which then became
MacLehose, Servadio and Pupo-Thompson in 2014. We are now known as London
Literary Scouting and the agency is led by Rebecca Servadio
We read voraciously and widely. We don’t read academic
books nor do we read picture books. We read and have readers who read with us
in most of the major languages. We try and find readers on a case by case basis
in the other languages.
4. What are
the notable successes or even failures of your firm? (There is a learning to be
gleaned from every experience!)
I think our successes are all in the breadth of our
client list – wonderful publishing houses, the BBC, the National Theatre and
production companies and well as the calibre and intelligence and hard work of
our team. In terms of books there are many by SAPIENS is one of which I am
important are book fairs, rights tables, and international literature festivals
to a literary scout?
Essential. Meeting publishers, agents – new friends
and old friends, writers and book lovers – new friends and old friends, is
right at the heart of the business. Publishing remains a people business so the
opportunities to meet and exchange are these ones. Reading, listening to and
meeting writers is equally important and interesting. Part of scouting well is
understanding what you have in your hand and who needs to know about it when.
Part of scouting well is understanding your clients – the publishing houses and
their domestic realities and needs and so travelling regularly to their home
offices and country and meeting them at fairs is essential.
6. You are
an active participant with organisations that believe firmly in the power of
literature/words like PEN and Words without Borders. Around the world there is
a clamp down on writers. Literary scouts work internationally with their
clients. With state censorship and self-censorship by writers/publishers
increasing, how does a literary scout navigate these choppy waters?
Carefully. I think network and intelligence and
understanding writing and the value of fact and information has never been more
7. As a
signatory and an advisor to the PEN International Women’s Manifesto you are
very aware of the importance of free speech. What are the ways in which you
think the vast publishing networks can support women writers to write freely?
Do you think the emergence of digital platforms has facilitated the rise of
This is a hard question to answer properly. I think
the primary way that vast networks can support women writers to write freely is
to ensure that they are as widely read as possible in as many parts of the
world as possible both so that their writing – their freedom of expression is
more protected in what is a public and international space and again that it
reaches the widest number of people so that change and progress is enacted and
again shepherded and enabled forward. Change and collaboration are radical and
transformative, community in numbers affords some protection for free speech
and again value and visibility. I would agree that the emergence of digital
platforms has played an important and facilitatory role.
porousness of geographical boundaries is obvious on the Internet where
conversations about translations/ world literature, visibility of international
literature across book markets, evidence of voracious appetites of readers,
increase in demand for conversion of books to films to be made available on TV
& videos streaming services, increase in fan fiction, proliferation of
storytelling platforms like Wattpad, growth in audiobooks etc. Since you are also associated with trade
book fairs like the Salone Internazionale del Libro, Turin, do you think these shifts in consumption
patterns of books have affected what publishers seek while acquiring or
commissioning a book?
I think that most publishers acquire and publish the
books that they have fallen in love with and are interested by and that to some
extent reflect or help us answer or perhaps simply understand questions about
how to live and to be that are essential to the human condition and that the
changes in the world are necessarily reflected in these choices as the
readership too evolves. I think the flip-side of this is true to so for example
the fragmentation of society and the proliferation of niche interests and
communities on the internet has also translated into a strengthened special
interest publishing houses be they neo Nazi publishing houses or Christian
evangelical publishing houses.
9. A mantra
that is oft quoted is “Content is oil of the 21st Century”. Has the
explosion of digital platforms from where “content” can be accessed
in multiple ways changed some of the rules of engagement in the world of
literary scouts? Is there a shift in queries from publishers for more books
that can be adapted to screen rather than straightforward translations into
other book markets?
I think that the explosion of digital platforms and
perhaps even more importantly the speed and ease with which the digital world
is able to share information and again upload/disseminate and/or publish has
transformed the mores and publishing reality entirely. Navigating the mass of
content, its breadth, depth and scope is very challenging but equally the fact
that it is now possible to submit a manuscript quite literally to publishing
house around the globe at the same time has transformed the rules of engagement
as has the corporatisation of publishing and the establishment of huge global
publishing houses such as Penguin Random House or HarperCollins. That said I
think the wealth and breadth of content means too that real considered opinion
and curation is more important than ever and so intelligent scouting is ever
more important and interesting. Of course no one can run faster than email nor
should they want too. . . .Re the book to screen market book to screen (and
particularly TV) is booming which is surely a good thing for authors who are
struggling evermore to make a living from writing and a less good thing for
publishing as many interesting and talented writers prefer to write within this
more lucrative medium that write simple books. As someone who remains of the
opinion that what is sort after is excellence in all ways put particularly
storytelling – so in other words the opposite of indistinguishable content – I
continue to feel optimistic about wonderful books and writers finding
interesting and transformative ways to also tell their stories in other medium
and that books will continue to be read and treasured and shared.
10. In your
experience what are the “literary trends” that have been consistent
and those that have been promising but fizzled out? What do you think are the
trends to look out for in the coming years?
I think intelligent narrative nonfiction and popular nonfiction is going and has gone from strength to strength and will continue to do so. People after ever more in need of ways to understand and answer the questions that trouble or times and contemporary societies. A trends that has (fortunately fizzled out) is soft erotica a la 50 Shades of Grey. With regards trends for the future, I look to the environment and the ecological/climate crisis in both fiction – eco thrillers & whistle blowers as well as serious nonfiction.
11. How many hours a day do you devote to reading? And how do the manuscripts/books find their way to you?
How many hours a day…. that is really impossible to answer. I love to read and equally I am interested in people and curious so I meet people which is also how manuscripts make their way to me. How books come to me is that that is the heart of the game. Books can come from anywhere so I work with, talk too and interact with a wide variety of people from agents, foreign rights agents, editors and publishers but also writers and journalists. I read voraciously, online too, longform, short stories, old and new. I love recommendations. Friends. I work closely with both like minded and non like minded people because I don’t see the point of only having a network of people who share your taste. Many agents and foreign rights people send me books because working for a larger family of publishers means it is a way for them to reach a wider audience.