The Yoda Press team (from left): intern Giitanjali, editor Tanya Singh, senior editor and rights manager Ishita Gupta, and founder Arpita Das.
Going to a bookstore is a singular adventure that I can sign up for any day, every day. On one such adventure, a few years ago, I went to the May Day bookstore, with a list of much-fabled queer literary titles in mind. But there I discovered unique queer perspectives lined up as if they were specially curated for me. The most interesting and captivating titles were all from one publication: Yoda Press.
The publication was founded in 2004 by Arpita Das, now an executive board member of PublisHer. In an interview, Arpita and the rest of the Yoda Press team—Ishita Gupta (senior editor and rights manager), Tanya Singh (editor), and Giitanjali (intern)—spoke about their journey, their publishing strategy, and how they reinvented their offerings during the ongoing pandemic. Edited excerpts:
Could you summarize the 17-year journey of Yoda Press?
Arpita: It was an unfamiliar kind of an idea for the industry: someone that young should start something like Yoda Press...
We wanted to build lists, which we eventually did, like sexualities, popular culture, urbanism, etc. So, for the first ten years, we wanted to only focus on narrative non-fiction.
Then we started moving towards other genres like graphic books, poetry and even fiction. Incidentally, our new graphic book Shaheen Bagh: A Graphic Recollection by Ita Mehrotra is out, and many other titles are lined up too.
But to make oneself heard via one’s books was a very hard journey. I credit millennials for this. Once they started paying for our books, things started changing for us.
How do you source manuscripts? What is your publication model?
Arpita: Back in 2004, there were no agents. In any case, since the lists we were trying to develop was our raison d’etre, it was commissioning and not acquiring from agents that excited me.
Now there are so many agents in the ecosystem, some of whom are my close friends, and many depend on them for ‘acquisition’. But I remain excited about ‘commissioning’. And in that sense, the traditional, commerce-driven outlook, doesn’t work for us.
For us, it’s about figuring out authors: whether their books will have a home in Yoda Press like no other. And we constantly brainstorm this: evolving what we want to do.
While going through the manuscripts, what does ‘good’ look like to you?
Arpita: Nonmainstream milieu: freshness and newness that I haven’t read before. Or it can be our mainstream: a mix of popular and distinct storytelling.
Freshness, I would say, would be the primary attention-grabbing element in a story, as we can make it more engaging and better by our editing acumen.
It is this fine marriage between good storytelling and politics that works for me. Keeping that in focus, we have evolved. For example, our LGBTQ+ list went hand-in-hand with the queer rights movement in India. Most of the frontline activists were Yoda Press authors. But post-377, a realization dawned on us: Why is there a need for a distinct queer list? A queer standpoint should be everywhere.
But working with an ideology is challenging: Because I am working in untried and untested waters, I have to handhold people through the process of developing something into an idea of a manuscript.
Ishita: I edit on autopilot mode, pointing out mistakes in menus and correcting things in my head. So, for me, a good story—with an editorial bent of mind—would be something that I forget to edit while reading it.
If I start ignoring typos mentally or pay less attention to things that can be easily fixed; something that catches my attention to such a degree, is exciting for me. Something that we can work on and develop.
When you receive a queer narrative, how do you ensure that the author hasn’t trivialised it?
Tanya: I feel queer narratives should come from the queer community. I always look at the perspective that the person is using. In their telling of the narrative, I ask whether they are espousing ideologies that have become redundant. By which I mean: Are they ‘Gaytriarchs’? Or are they TERFS (trans-exclusionary radical feminist)? That’s the primary lens of judgement I use. Because ‘queerness’ and ‘queer narratives’ are ever-evolving terms. There are no two and sixty genders today, so I look for voices that have evolved with time.
What should the publishing industry start, stop, and continue?
Arpita: There is excitement about diversity in the industry. I see that in the voices that are being published. There’s a market for everything now, but the publishing industry itself doesn’t reflect that diversity (in its employee pool)...
What we need is more people from diverse backgrounds in publishing offices. That’s what we need to start doing. What we must continue doing is expanding the number and kind of voices that we have in the market right now. And the ... boomer behaviour in our industry needs to stop! I don’t know why we don’t listen to young people.
Ishita: I will combine my start and continue. And that’s specifically for the mainstream publishers. It’s new for them: publishing queer voices. They need to do it with thought, and not because it is ‘selling’. They must also examine who is editing those works. At the end of the day, publishing is like curating cultures, which demands thoughtfulness.
Then, for stop, there are many things: We need to stop being afraid of tech. We must stop fetishizing printed books. A book doesn’t lose its value if it’s not in print. Audiobooks are good, e-books are good. Books in any form are good. Stop fetishizing the product! It’s not the holy grail. If we want more people to read, then we need people to find books as easily they find coffee.
What are your views about reviewing culture?
Giitanjali: I completely avoid book reviews. I would rather read a long-form essay when someone is writing about a book and their relationship with that book. Such narratives are more important to me.
How has the pandemic impacted an independent publishing venture like Yoda Press?
Arpita: The ongoing pandemic made things difficult. Our revenue plummeted. That’s when we started Yoda Press Publishing Services: We started reviewing manuscripts. In it, we send feedback to the authors: we tell them whether the quality of writing is publishable, we provide editing support.
For an independent press, right from the start, it’s like thinking on your feet to keep things going. We do jugaad
. But, really, is this fair? How long can one go on like this?