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Combing the Edges


July 15, 2014

The editorial director of Other Press on cultivating politically important literature, seeking new voices, and race and class in publishing.

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I first met Anjali Singh a few years ago at the Asian American Writers’ Workshop in New York City during an informal meeting to discuss the place of Asian-American editors in the publishing industry. It’s perhaps telling that neither Singh nor I could remember exactly what had been concluded at this meeting other than, yes, there needs to be more diversity in publishing, and, no, nobody really knows what do about it. Our outlook has hardly changed. However, it has gained visibility due to social media campaigns such as #WeNeedDiverseBooks, which points to the lack of diversity in children’s publishing.

In an industry that isn’t particularly known for being populated by minorities, Singh is, in her own words, “half Indian and half WASP.” She started out as a book scout at Mary Anne Thompson Associates, but soon became an editor at Vintage, the paperback division of Knopf. By chance she discovered the first book she wanted to acquire even before her first day on the job: the graphic memoir Persepolis, Marjane Satrapi’s story of her rebellious childhood during the Iranian Revolution, already a hit in France. It became one of the most prominent literary graphic novels since Art Spiegelman’s Maus. It also set the stage for Singh’s reputation as an editor of distinctive and award-winning literary fiction, including Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, The Invention of Everything Else by Samantha Hunt, Evening Is the Whole Day by Preeta Samarasan, and The Green Shore by Natalie Bakopoulos.

While Singh counts herself lucky that she’s never had to feel like she’s “selling [her] soul every day” in her job, being a literary fiction editor has forced her to confront the limits of corporate publishing.. Through the ups and downs of the publishing industry—including the merging of Houghton Mifflin and Harcourt in 2008—she came to question her values, and whether the corporate publishing world was indeed where she was meant to be. In January of this year she became editorial director at Other Press, an independent publisher that boasts such international authors as Simon Mawer and Linn Ullmann. It seems an ideal home for Singh, given her penchant for “literature that’s opening up another world, whether it’s another country or some piece of the American experience that hasn’t really been written about.”

At her office at Other, I talked with Singh about her experiences at different houses, work-life balance, and what it means to be an editor of color in book publishing.

—Wendy Lee for Guernica

Guernica: How did your acquisition of Persepolis come about?

Anjali Singh: I was staying in Paris with a very close French friend with whom I’d traveled in India and studied Hindi and Urdu. She happened to have Persepolis on her bookshelf. This was in February of 2002, shortly after 9/11, and I had that moment of being struck by lightning. I could tell from the first page that it had this amazing sense of humor and was so accessible. Of course, it was also a book that was in French that I could read and enjoyed reading! Because I had been a scout, and it was published by a small press and the telephone number was in the book, I just called them and asked if rights had been sold. They said not yet—I think they were planning to distribute this book themselves—so I said I was starting a job at Random House next week. They said to call them and make an offer.

I landed at Vintage holding that book with all the French reviews printed out, saying, “I want to do this.” Marty Asher, who was my boss, must have thought I was completely crazy. I looked up Maus by Art Spiegelman and saw that it was published by Pantheon, our sister imprint. Dan Frank, the editor in chief at Pantheon, read French, and had been overseeing the graphic novels, so I gave the book to him and he did see the possibilities with me and supported its acquisition. The French publisher was initially reluctant to work with a big American corporate house and said no. But I was losing sleep, I wanted to publish this book so badly. I wrote them an impassioned letter about why we should publish it, and it really helped that I could say we had published Maus. Then everything came together.

The book came out in the spring of 2003 just after we had invaded Iraq and were talking about invading Iran. Marjane herself turned out to be an unbelievably charismatic personality, so she was a huge asset and worked tirelessly for us. Then, I had sent the book to Tara Bahrampour [author of the memoir To See and See Again about being half-Iranian] for a blurb. She ended up interviewing Marjane for the front page of the Styles section of the New York Times. I was so green, I didn’t even know we had an academic marketing department. I was getting in touch with Iranian academics and getting blurbs from everyone, like the Iranian artist Shirin Neshat. I had seventeen blurbs.

Guernica: What was it like working at Vintage?

Anjali Singh: All of the post-colonial authors I had read in college were published by Vintage, and to get to work with Sonny Mehta was amazing. Here was this Indian man who was quite cosmopolitan and understood certain things, and I felt like the things that were important to me were also important to him. I think that’s the subtext of why Knopf felt comfortable in many ways.

The job was a perfect segue, because at first paperback editing was a lot like scouting. You were supposed to cover different houses, and I was writing reader’s reports to support the acquisitions of the hardcover editors. I didn’t have the responsibility of building a full list immediately, which would have been hard because I had no idea how to work in a corporate environment. Mary Anne Thompson Associates was just four people.

I wanted to be someplace where I felt my contributions were going to help shape the list. I wanted to have a job where I wasn’t doing things for other people. That was the next step.

Guernica: Persepolis must have been a great boost to your career.

Anjali Singh: Well, positioning myself as an editor in the wake of that was hard, because I would never be able to duplicate that success. It said a lot about the kind of books I like—I like coming-of-age stories, I like books that teach me about the world. I worried about what hat I was going to wear as an editor in this company when there were so many other editors. My default position was to do a lot of the international books, because I was interested in the international world. For the most part, those books didn’t get a lot of attention.

I was feeling antsy because I didn’t see a way forward. As a Vintage editor, you’re doing a lot of supporting work for other people, and I wanted to edit more than a few hardcovers a year. I wanted to be someplace where I felt my contributions were going to help shape the list. I was also conscious that I was thirty-four and wanted to have a family; I had just gotten married. I wanted to have a job where I wasn’t doing things for other people. That was the next step.

Guernica: So you went to Houghton Mifflin?

Anjali Singh: Yes, but like so many things in life, it didn’t work out as expected. A year and a half after I got there, the merger happened, and it was no longer the place it had been. I think I got there at the tail end of a certain kind of publishing.

Guernica: Then you were hired by Jonathan Karp at Simon and Schuster, where they were trying a different kind of publishing altogether.

Anjali Singh: Jonathan had this wonderful idea about creating these mini-imprints, breaking up editorial into small teams where we could act as our own publishers, with a marketing person and publicist, from the moment of acquisition. It really seemed like a dream job. It was corporate publishing done in a different way. But then they dissolved Free Press and there was only room for one fiction editor, which wasn’t me.

Guernica: After working at a large publishing house, then a midsize house, and then a large house again, you’re now at Other Press, a small independent. How does that feel?

Anjali Singh: Other Press makes me appreciate all the wonderful things about a small place. I think one thing that is hard when you’re starting your career is that you don’t have any other experiences you can compare it to. One of the things I liked so much about Knopf was the cosmopolitanism of the place. Because I had never worked at another publishing house, I didn’t quite recognize the specialness of that. This place is nothing like Knopf, yet it has the same cosmopolitan sensibility.

It’s very nice to feel like I have a wealth of experience as a scout, and as someone who’s worked in all these different places, that I can bring to this job and not have to throw my career away because I don’t want to work in the way I feel like other jobs might demand. I feel like I could manage my family life and my career if I had been someplace for a long time. But certainly after Simon and Schuster I felt like I didn’t have it in me to build another list from scratch in this environment given my predilection for literary fiction, which is what I love but is always going to be risky.

I don’t have the traditional immigrant background. That’s comfortable for me because publishing is very elitist.

Guernica: Did you ever feel marginalized as a person of color in the publishing industry?

Anjali Singh: I always felt like I had just enough Indian in me to be considered exotic and represent people of color. At the same time, I don’t have the traditional immigrant background. That’s comfortable for me because publishing is very elitist. Rarely do we talk about diversity in terms of socioeconomic diversity, which I think is equally important. If you’re a person of color from a certain background, then none of the rules apply to you. If you’re a person of color whose parents were immigrants or working class and who struggled to put you through school, they want something more secure for you. Pragmatically, if you have debt, how are you going to do this? You’re going to have to be subsidized in the early years.

Guernica: Did you feel being a minority helped you?

Anjali Singh: I think it did open some doors because it gave me something that set me apart. But I also think some agents don’t always know what to send you if it isn’t “ethnic” and you aren’t necessarily the first person they think of when they’re going out with something that doesn’t have an ethnic component to it. On the other hand, being the person I am, I’m also most drawn to stories that don’t represent the mainstream, that represent the other in some way, that feel politically important—because the author is doing something no one else has done before, or representing a voice or a perspective that we haven’t seen. I do feel drawn to, and most identify with, the outsider.

Guernica: How about given your tastes for literary fiction?

Anjali Singh: I think being perceived as someone who only likes very literary books—sometimes synonymous with books that are considered small—sets me apart as much as being a minority. I was always trying to convince people that my taste wasn’t so rarefied, and it’s a great relief to be in an environment now where that’s not something for which I have to apologize. It’s a balancing act as an editor—you need to define yourself narrowly so agents know what to send you, but not too narrowly or you might miss seeing a book you might love.

As an editor, you always wonder why you didn’t see certain submissions—it happens to everyone—but I’m absolutely loathe to play the race and culture card, because even if it’s operating on some level, it’s on such an unstated and unconscious level for most people. The only time it really felt obvious is when a manuscript by an Indian author landed on my desk—but by the same token, I’d feel incensed if I didn’t get to see those manuscripts.

As someone who’s a person of color, as someone who’s always interested in those stories that we haven’t seen, I still don’t feel like I see those books very often. Is there a dearth of agents for writers of color? Are these books not being written? Is the problem the MFA system?

Guernica: The New Yorker recently ran a piece by Junot Diaz called “MFA vs. POC” in which he talks about the whiteness of his MFA experience with the faculty and workshop participants, and how difficult it was to discuss work about race.

Anjali Singh: That reminds me of the whole current debate about affirmative action. These white male judges are sitting there saying, “We make objective legal decisions and Sonia Sotomayor keeps putting the personal in there.” As though their own personal stories aren’t informing every aspect of how they see the world!

Of course, the thing about being a minority is that you feel so connected to everyone else who is in some way different. Another person could have come along and said, “Nobody’s going to read Persepolis. Who’s going to read that book?” because they wouldn’t have responded to it in the same visceral way. Diversity in publishing is hugely important, and that’s the way we’re going to get more diverse authors published. But I don’t know what will change things. Is self-publishing going to change things?

One of the hardest things about corporate publishing is feeling that the most important thing is how many copies you sell.

Guernica: At least there’s the idea that diversity in publishing matters because books have some cultural value.

Anjali Singh: Right. Except I feel like so often the conversation about publishing is divorced from that role. One of the hardest things about corporate publishing is feeling that the most important thing is how many copies you sell. I feel like that makes everyone very fearful of taking risks. Even in my time in publishing it’s gotten more to that side because of what kind of profit margins publishers are expected to deliver, and how cutthroat it is. Which is why we’re seeing this nice resurgence of small publishers doing interesting work because their books contribute to the cultural conversation.

Of course we all want our books to sell, but you also want people to discover this wonderful book you love, and feel that you’ve chosen something that resonates with other people. There are so many good books that don’t find a readership. I don’t think it’s because there isn’t a readership for them, but because there’s this breakdown between what you’ve done and the machinery that gets a particular book into people’s consciousness. You’re at a company where the marketing budget went to something else and nobody even heard about your book. And the ways that people get their information are shifting under our feet all the time.

Guernica: How would an author find that readership if they can’t entirely depend on their publisher to do it for them?

Anjali Singh: As in everything publishing-related, I think the answer lies in relationships. It’s important to cultivate as many as you can on the road to publication, especially a community of fellow writers, and bloggers, and local booksellers if you can. Part of the trick is to understand that you as the author have to be just as invested as your publisher in helping to spread the word. But it has been very gratifying in my time at Other Press to witness boutique publishing up close, and to see what being on a small and focused list can do for an author’s career. It gives me hope.

G

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