Publishing consultant Emma House interviews members of the PublisHer community.
Arpita Das is the Founder of Yoda Press, an independent academic publisher in India. She recently featured in an article about the women who have shaped publishing in India, a recognition which she and the other women featured truly deserve.
EH: You are a woman with many roles in publishing, alongside running Yoda Press. Could you tell us about them all?
AD: Everything springs from my experience at Yoda Press. I teach a Publishing Seminar at Ashoka University every Spring Semester. I am Course Leader at the SAGE School of Publishing, which is powered by SAGE Publishing, and enables me and my team to travel to universities across the country conducting workshops on academic publishing. I also write considerably on publishing and book culture for various platforms, periodicals and journals. Finally, we run writing workshops for aspiring writers and editorial workshops for publishing editors at Yoda Press, attended by authors associated with and editors working at many different publishing houses in India.
EH: How was Yoda Press established and what kind of publishing does it do?
AD: I worked as Commissioning Editor for History, Philosophy and Religion at OUP India back in 2002 and feeling miserable with how boring it all was. I had thought working at OUP India would be the best experience of my working life, but soon found that its halcyon days were long gone, and by then it was all about formulaic, safe, glorified-textbook-like academic publishing. Outside of my job, I was getting to know young writers and scholars working in cutting-edge areas like sexuality and urban studies and popular culture and experimenting with exciting new genres like oral narratives and autoethnography. I could never take these manuscripts back to my publishing managers at OUP because they were just not interested. So, I decided over a boozy weekend with my partner in a beautiful hill station called Ranikhet, in north India, that I would start working towards setting up an indie publishing house which would focus on these alt lists and genres. I thought of the name Yoda Press on that trip and came back to Delhi with a little drawing of how I saw the press. I still have that piece of paper. I gave myself two years to get my act together. I started Yoda Press in 2004.
The sort of publishing I wanted to do at Yoda Press? Lists that other, bigger, more mainstream publishers, and even other indies were not interested in at that point (to begin with, the ones I have mentioned above), which brought to the fore exciting, new voices, and to really push the narrative non-fiction genre.
EH: How did you get into publishing and why?
AD: The house was full of books. My mum worked with a government organization that trained high school teachers and prepared school textbooks. I loved reading; the thought that I could earn my living from reading was heady, to say the least. And my father worked in the publishing industry all his life; he was one of the very few people in the industry who started the ball rolling on the massive book exports we enjoy today, not just to traditional markets like the UK and USA, but to the anglophone global south. Having a chat with him every day meant learning something new daily. I never worked with my father though. I want to emphasize this because there are so many family businesses in Indian publishing, where daughters have followed in their fathers’ footsteps, or their fathers’ connections have actively helped them. That’s not my story. My father was a publishing professional in a publishing job all his life. And at some point, I joined the publishing industry as well. And then, some years later, I decided to start my own house.
EH: What are you most proud of in your career?
AD: That five books from our Sexualities list were cited in the historic Supreme Court of India judgement in 2018 which decriminalized homosexuality. And another three from the same list had been cited in another landmark judgement by the Supreme Court in 2014 recognizing the rights of transgender people in the country. That because of these two moments, Yoda Press titles will always be an inextricable part of gender and sexualities rights history in India and the world.
EH: Who do you admire in the publishing industry? Who and what inspires you?
AD: The indies who came before me have inspired me for decades: the publishing visionary Ravi Dayal whom I considered a mentor, and who died much too early in 2006 but left us a legacy which we can learn from for the rest of our lives; Urvashi Butalia and Ritu Menon, who started Kali for Women, the first feminist publishing house in South Asia; Radhika Menon, who runs a fabulous children’s imprint called Tulika Books. Then there are my contemporaries: Leonard and Queenie Fernandes who, with very little support and resources, keep alive the most important publishing event in the country, Publishing Next, in Goa; Meethil Momaya and Ahalya Naidu, who, in these days of online buying leaving offline sales behind, run one of the most intelligently curated and thriving corner bookstores in the country, Trilogy, in Bandra, Mumbai; Mridula Koshy and Michael Creighton who run the Community Library Project in Delhi; and Sudhanva Deshpande, publisher of the radical Left Word books and one of those rare specimens of humanity – a genuinely feminist man. I equally admire the indie publishers who have joined the industry in more recent times, like Ruby Hembrom, who runs Adivaani, and Yogesh Maitreya, who runs Panther’s Paw. For me, being in the publishing industry is having the opportunity to rock the boat in the best possible way.
“For me, being in the publishing industry is having the opportunity to rock the boat in the best possible way.” Arpita Das
EH: How do independent presses survive in India? What are the biggest challenges you have faced in your career?
AD: Independent presses survive in India in exactly the same way in which they survive across the global south – against all odds, by dint of hard work, a unique intellectual ability to spot voices and trends way before others, and a commitment to the word and to book culture before all else. Running an indie press is the challenge – to keep yourself going every single day, waking up every day and getting excited about the new book you have signed up, or the manuscript you are going to begin editing that day, or how well a cover has turned out for the book on your list you are most excited about right now, or a great Bookstagram review of one of your titles that morning, all of this, without the promise of a consistently-sized cheque to take care of all your expenses in either your or your company’s account at the end of the month. That is super hard and I have lived this challenge for the last 16 years.
EH: What is the environment for women in publishing in India? Has this changed over the years? Do you see it changing in the near future?
AD: As with many other countries, there have always been many women in publishing in India, and there are even more women in the industry today than 22 years ago. There are many more women publishing directors now, across small and big houses; compared to two decades ago, and there are a couple of women Vice-Presidents and CEOs. There were always more women heading the visionary indie publishing houses, and that has remained constant. What’s nice to see also is traditional male-bastion positions such as marketing and production and even sales are beginning to be peopled by women.
In the future, there need to be many more women CEOs and finance heads because that’s where the decision-making happens, and also because it will strengthen the industry’s capacity to be seen and treated as an industry at a policy-making level, with women generally do better at carrying the entire community with them. And yes, in the very near future, we need many, many trans people in this industry.
“There need to be many more women CEOs and finance heads because that’s where the decision-making happens.” Arpita Das
EH: Similar to the UK and USA, most of the multinational publishers in India are run by men. Why do you think this is?
AD: Because that is how the cookie has crumbled historically for women, even in the knowledge industry. Because multinational publishing houses are usually owned by media conglomerates which are run by men. Like in any other traditional industry, it’s the boys’ club that still runs the show.
EH: Are there any initiatives to support women in publishing in India? If so, at what level, entry level? Leadership?
AD: Not that I can think of. In an industry such as this, systematic mentoring is the single-most important way of supporting women or any section that has not yet reached positions of leadership, and there is very little systematic mentoring in my industry. There are individual cases, fabulous ones, but that is all.
After the second wave of #MeToo in India in the fall of 2018, I started a Women in Indian Publishing WhatsApp group – there are more than 80 women on it now from across the country, and we talk a lot to each other; we discuss the trade as much as this unique political moment we find ourselves in where women are in the foreground in the country. Being a part of this group has made me feel much more connected to my industry; being an indie publisher can get very isolating at times.
EH: What is your view of PublisHer as a global network for women in publishing?
AD: I said this on the PublisHer panel at Frankfurt Book Fair in October 2019 and I can say it again – networks among women peers across the world are one of the most empowering things for women in publishing. Some of my closest friends in publishing are women in Nigeria, Bangladesh, Australia, France and Germany. I reach out to them for professional feedback and emotional sustenance all the time. When I am travelling in their country, they make sure they have my back. These networks make me feel like I am part of a global publishing community, not a mansplained part, but a beloved one. PublisHer, with its fantastic vision and programme of action is making this happen for so many younger women in my industry. These younger women are the ones I am most concerned about in my own country, who, in the absence of systematic and committed mentoring and support systems, will leave the industry more quickly than my peers did, because there are so many more options today. I am hoping that PublisHer will make its presence felt among the young women in the Indian publishing industry as well.