• Sunday, May 19, 2024

Interview with Sohini Mitra, Publisher, Children's Division Penguin Random House India

Discover insights into Indian children's literature with Sohini Mitra, Publisher at Penguin Random House India's Children's Division, on Frontlist.
on May 09, 2024
Interview with Sohini Mitra, Publisher, Children's Division Penguin Random House India | Frontlist

With over 17 years in book publishing, Sohini is the Publisher for the Children and Young Adult list at Penguin Random House India where she oversees the publication of books and content for young readers and young adults. Over the years, she has acquired and published a wide range of award-winning books and diverse voices from the Subcontinent that continue to be reader favourites. She has especially collaborated with some of the finest and best-loved authors writing for children in India---from Ruskin Bond, Sudha Murty, late Dr Kalam, Subhadra Sen Gupta, Devdutt Pattanaik, Namita Gokhale to Anita Nair, Paro Anand, Deepak Dalal, Devika Cariapa,  and many more.

Frontlist: As a publisher, you're responsible for creating and curating a diverse range of titles for young readers. Could you walk us through your process of identifying trends, understanding reader tastes, and shaping the list to ensure both commercial viability and long shelf life?

Sohini: Being also readers & book buyers, we are aware of the publishing landscape, diverse reading tastes, age groups (especially in the case of children’s books) and buying habits. Most of our learnings have been shaped by experience; we are also supported by data from booksellers, distributors and research firms like Neilsen, which further equips us with facts and figures to know what is selling, which genres are trending, which authors are popular and what is the Indian audience really consuming. Occasionally, we also get information from schools and librarians about the themes and topics that students might be looking for.

Backed by data, our TG, and the parents/guardians/school administrators who make the buying decisions on books, we shape our list and publishing program. At PRH India, this spans across 0 to 16 years (that is, early learning to young adults). 

In terms of the process, we ideate as a team and come up with book ideas that have the potential to sell well, we reach out to our pool of authors who can write well for young readers. We also work with new /debut voices if they have the potential—as a team we evaluate new writings and take a call.

Sometimes, authors reach out to us with ideas and proposals. We evaluate them, and if something excites us or we feel there is potential to sell a good number of copies, we explore it further and add it to our publishing program. The entire process is collaborative and multi-layered. It’s a cerebral, creative job that requires one to have one's ears to the ground, be open to reading multiple manuscripts and book pitches, and also have a sense of numbers, as ultimately, the list has to work.

Frontlist: Collaborating with literary giants like Ruskin Bond, Sudha Murty, and the late Dr. Kalam must have been an incredible experience. How do you approach working with such esteemed authors to bring their stories to life?

Sohini: I consider it an absolute privilege and honor to work with such giants and literary legends. What has struck me most is their humility and trust—trusting an editor and publisher with their book babies. 

My ‘bond’ with Mr Bond (no pun intended!) goes back to nearly 18 years. We have exchanged hundreds of letters since he still writes by hand, including letters and manuscripts. We speak over the phone frequently, and ideas are exchanged. It is such a joy when he shares he’s written something new. It’s truly remarkable that he is still writing new books/journal entries, poetry, limericks and much more, even today at ninety years. That discipline and commitment to one’s work is something I deeply admire. His letters are works of literature, too! They are prosaic, heartwarming words that touch you at times. Sometimes, there is satire or commentary on the weather, the pet cat, or opinions on current affairs! There is so much to learn from these icons.

Similarly, I have worked with Mrs Sudha Murty for over 15 years now. She respects young people and their perspectives. She’s open to edits and feedback. She is sharp; she understands her audience. I am amazed at how she juggles her role as a philanthropist, writer and now a Rajya Sabha member. She is committed to her books and writing, is extremely professional with deadlines, and always respects feedback from her editors and readers. She makes it a point to engage with her readers at bookshops or litfests. The questions that kids ask fuel her imagination and spirit to write more. She loves interacting with them. Being a popular writer is no mean task. It takes great effort and time. 

I had the honor of working with Dr. Kalam on his last children’s book, Reignited, coauthored by Srijan Pal Singh. I’ve met Dr Kalam once during the publication of that book. I remember his vast library, his love for books, his innate curiosity and the way he seamlessly connected with young people. He was interested to know more about our work, about how to market children’s books and he had so many anecdotes to share from his lifetime of experiences. Such memories are priceless and precious. 

Frontlist: With your extensive experience in publishing, what advice would you give to your younger self when you were just starting out in the industry? Are there any lessons or insights you've gained along the way that you wish you had known earlier in your career?

Sohini: I believe that just like learning, unlearning and pivoting is important too. Especially in our work where trends change, tastes evolve, we have to be nimble and flexible, open to new ideas and ready to change direction, as required. 

Creativity and numbers go hand in hand, and my role as a Publishing Head has helped me juggle the two. 10 years ago, I would be swayed by the idea alone, but the commercial sensibility only came in on the job, with experience and time. It’s still a work in progress. I do believe that ‘learning’ should be work in progress—that curiosity and desire to upskill, upgrade should never fade. There is no room for being complacent.

Frontlist: Storytelling is a universal language that transcends boundaries. How do you ensure that the voices and stories represented in your list are inclusive and representative of the diverse cultures and identities found within India and beyond?

Sohini: We have done so much work in the area of publishing and bringing diverse stories to the fore, stories that reflect the multicultural, pluralistic landscape of India today, stories of diverse people and cultures, stories that celebrate differences. We’ve published lost folklore from the northeast and literary translations from Marwar, Maharashtra, and Assam, to name a few (check out our Puffin Classics series). We’ve done picture books and stories about gender and identity, disability, mental health, marginalized communities, celebrating animals to languages and cultures.

Frontlist: What approach do you take to ensure that the design and visuals of children's books complement the storytelling, and what qualities or themes do you actively seek out when acquiring new titles to create books that are both visually appealing and timeless for generations of readers?

Sohini: Visuals are such an important component of the reading experience; the text and art have to complement each other, especially in a children’s book. A lot of thought, care and sensitivity goes into the look and feel of a book. From the choice of an artist to the stylistic aspects of the book to the text design and font choices, we plan out everything in advance and see it take shape as work on the book progresses. The entire storyboarding is done together with our brilliant design team. We collectively decide on the cover and art integrations and the choice of special effects like foiling or embossing, and the designer takes it forward with the illustrator. Today, our books compete with imported and international books; therefore, it’s imperative that we package them correctly. At the same time, we do want to be true to the homegrown and ‘local’ nature of our stories and characters. Therefore, we work with the finest illustrators in the country. We have a pool of brilliant artists who have created such wonderful artworks for our books and taken them to another level. We are also always open to trying out new profiles/illustrators as long as their art styles complement the content that we have on the table. We try out varied art styles based on the content, genre and target age group of the reader. Our Design team meticulously works on the layout, design and overall cover compositions to create something of essence. We have won many awards in this area and are always open to collaborating with more local artists.

Frontlist: Collaboration seems to be a key aspect of your work, whether it's with authors, illustrators, or other industry professionals. How do you create a collaborative environment that brings out the best in everyone involved in the creation of a book?

Sohini: It starts with acknowledging that it’s not a one-person job to respect different opinions and ideas. There are stages to the creation of a book, much like everything else, and each stakeholder has a unique and important role to play. So, while it is collaborative, even at an individual level, it is as creative and rewarding. I am blessed to have a wonderful team that is talented and mature in its dealings with people—be it authors or colleagues.

I suppose for most of us in the publishing industry, we are hugely passionate about what we do. And that passion fuels mutual respect and understanding as we are guided by a common love for books and reading. 

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