Musings of a (paranoid) children’s books editor

Posted by Menaka Raman on March 13, 2018

Sudeshna Shome Ghosh has worked in the Indian publishing industry since 1997. She has worked at Penguin Books and Rupa Publications where she has managed the children’s imprints Puffin and Red Turtle respectively. Currently she is the Publisher of Talking Cub, Speaking Tiger Books’s children’s imprint. She also freelances as an independent publishing consultant. She has Guest Edited and written picture books for Pratham Books. You can read her book 'A Friend for Little Goat' on StoryWeaver.

The very first time I was entrusted with a book, I was only allowed to tally corrections. For those who don’t know the long, laborious stages through which a book is made ready, this is the (mindnumbing) bit where a poor editor sits with a pile of final proof pages and matches the corrections marked on the previous set with the new one. All she/he is allowed to do is mark the ones that may have got missed out, and any glaring typos that the proofreader may not have seen. The book, I clearly remember, was Percival Spear’s A History of India, Volume 2.

Life in a publishing house, however, improved rapidly. I quickly understood the peculiar joy that comes from working on a book at every stage of its development—from the moment the manuscript lands on your desk(top) to that final moment of relief tinged with trepidation (is it full of typos? It is full of typos! I will be fired!) on sending it off to the printing press. There were ups and downs and incredible goof ups. Just one example is the time when the big boss dumped a sheaf of papers on my table and growled, ‘You will be editing this. But first do a cast off.’ I froze. A cast off? What on earth was a cast off? I dared not breathe a squeak at him, and I couldn’t anyway as he had loped off into his cabin and banged shut the door. I trotted up to a more experienced editor (now one of the top publishers in the country) and asked, ‘Umm, what’s a cast off?’  She sighed. All these young things walking in knowing nothing, she must have muttered under her breath. ‘It’s when you make an estimation of the number of words on a page, then the entire manuscript, and then use that to calculate how many pages your final book will be. A standard paperback has x number of words per page. So first you have to add, then multiply…’ Add? Multiply? Did I not come into the Arts just to get away from all that? Nope. Turns out as an editor you need to be pretty sharp with numbers, and not just for cast offs, but to calculate royalties and advances and more.

I will leave the story of the cast off calculation right there, because I do not cover myself in glory in it (according to my first calculation the book would have been 7.33 pages long).  But I mention it only to tell what kind of learning curve every book, every single line I have edited has been for me.

Once children’s publishing started getting the attention it deserved among trade publishers, I moved naturally in that direction. Penguin, where I worked, decided to revive the children’s imprint Puffin in India, and a couple of editors were assigned to commission and copy edit the books, as well as a similarly small design team. As our list grew, we learnt many lessons. How to evaluate a book accurately; how to edit it; how to design them so they looked as exciting as the imported books from the West in the stores. Some lessons I learnt while editing were: the ability to read the book both as an adult and a child, and both as an editor and a reader. We were working only on chapter books and books for middle grade to older readers, and as the editor I had to be sure that words made sense, that the story went a certain way and did not veer away into dead ends, that the complexity of the ideas, and the length of the book (even the chapters) matched the readership it was aimed at. We were particular about the fact that these were Indian books and that we were not going to create pale imitations of Enid Blytons. So how could we take the best aspects of successful Western writing for children and merge it with Indian characters and settings?

After the publication of Harry Potter, children’s publishing in India took off as well. Now, there are many more imprints, more diverse kinds of books, more experimentation, books of various genres, price points and for different age groups. It’s possibly the most exciting time to be in this area of publishing.

And it was at this time that I got the opportunity to do a completely new kind of editing—one that had been a gaping hole in my experience so far. It was the commissioning and editing of picture books. For various reasons (mostly commercial) the publishing houses I had worked at, had stayed away from picture books. My closest connection with them had been as a mother and reader, when I started reading them only after my son was a toddler. So when editors Bijal Vachharajani and Mala Kumar at Pratham Books invited me to be a guest editor for them in 2017, and commission and edit ten picture books for them, I said yes with equal parts nervousness and excitement in my heart. One part was back to being the poor editorial assistant figuring out what is a cast off, but thanks to the complete trust that Pratham Books showed, I got over those nerves.

In early 2018, all ten books are out and published (except one that is still being illustrated). These range from STEM books where I was told to concentrate on Maths concepts (What? Why Maths again? Why me?) to a beautiful book set in the Himalayas, another one in the jungles of India where a group of children who cannot see are taken on a safari, a story about trees and friends, and another about the unaccountable fears of childhood told through the person of a very unprepossessing sweet stall owner. I worked with some fantastic children’s authors on these books, people mostly with whom I had worked with earlier, and some who I met for the first time. What I learnt while commissioning and editing these books have been superbly eye opening. To put some of them down:

Clarity of idea. The editor needs to work with the author in identifying the heart of the story, and keeping that in mind at all time. In a picture book there is no space or luxury to waffle around with other bits and bobs.

Show not tell. When there are pictures that will bring the story alive, how much should the words say? To find that right balance of just the right Q5number of words and polish the quality of those few words.

Everything can be made shorter and crisper. You can tell a beautiful story in 500 words. Yes, it is possible.

Know the reader. This is true of all children’s writing, but more so for writing for younger children. How simple is simple? And does simple mean not talking about complex ideas? How to get abstract ideas into a story that will hold the attention of a new reader?

The importance of design. The writer, illustrator, designer, editor literally have to be on the same page to bring about true magic.

There can’t be any typos. OMG, is there a typo? There is a typo! I know there is one! My career is finished!

And finally, this holds true for editing books of any length, and for any sort of reader, the value of storytelling. Let the story shine through, and everything else falls into place.


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