Know your Author

A commissioning editor is the gatekeeper of the publishing industry and the only person to interact with, if you want to publish. Dr Sreepat Jain, co-founder and managing director, Veda Publishing Consultancy, describes the unique and mutually beneficial relationship between an editor and an author.

I was trying to visualize a universal method of interaction between the author and the editor but I must admit that there is none. Any author who wishes to publish needs to get in touch with a commissioning editor (also known as an acquisition editor and hereafter referred to as Editor) and this person becomes the point of contact not just till the manuscript is published but also after that.

Responsibilities of a commissioning editor…

Sreepat JainThe job description of commissioning editors differs from one to the other; from a science to a social science editor. However, they all have a common thread of commissioning new titles and developing academic lists commensurate with the philosophy of the publishing company. But then this is not all what a commissioning editor does. He explores new areas to publish in and constantly keeps himself abreast of current market trends. He goes through numerous speculative proposals in order to seek a concrete one that is not only commercially viable but is also academically sound and that can also populate his academic list. He finds reviewers to read his manuscript, negotiates lengthy contracts, explains them to the author in easy to understand language, sets deadlines, gently pursues the author to meet them, sends reminders, answers innumerable queries and concerns from the author, liaises with other in-house marketing and production departments, attends conferences, book launches and does university campus visits. His job is not yet finished as he also overviews the editing of the manuscript, keeps in touch with the typesetter, and goes through the first and the final poof, answering numerous author queries in between. Add to that all the usual bits of office work that needs to be done, like preparing weekly reports, constantly mailing prospective authors and keeping in touch with the old ones. It is obvious that commissioning editor is a pretty busy person. However, in spite of all this, he still spends a large part of his time in communicating with his authors be it in flesh, through e-mails or by just old fashioned phone calls. Communication is of the essence in commissioning.

Editor-author interaction...

There are broadly three stage of interaction between the editor and the author. The first and the all important is the pre-manuscript stage, followed by the manuscript stage, and the final production and the post production stage. In all stages, even minor queries by the author, who are largely hesitant to ask, may well be significant and noteworthy. Hence, at any point of stage, the authors should never be afraid to contact the editor to address their concerns.

Pre-manuscript stage: The pre-manuscript stage requires the maximum amount of interaction between the editor and the author. This is where the editor’s capability is put to its ultimate test. With his experience, of academia and market alike, he guides the author in writing a good abstract of his impending book. The abstract is but an abridged version of the book or a manuscript in design. In most cases a good abstract is often half the book done, where a viable table of contents is crystallized; an optimum blend of academia (author’s delight) and market (editor’s concern). It is also at this stage that the editor, in consultation with the author, streamlines the text. Often a voluminous work (a production nightmare) is restructured onto a more cohesive but thinner book. Generally, for a good abstracts (and thereby laying the foundation of a good book), it often takes 5-10 e-mails and 4-6 phone calls spread over a period of 10-15 days. Finishing an abstract is tough not only for the editor but also for the author. But then, the abstract sets the course for an excellent book that often stands the test of time. It is here that both the author and editor appreciate each others aptitude and work culture. It is also a time where an editor motivates the author to keep up with the deadline in spite of his insurmountable teaching and bureaucratic obligations.

Manuscript stage: The manuscript stage is primarily the editors’ responsibility. Before he sends it out for review, he goes through the contents, quality of figures, tables and text. He makes sure that the matter is up-to-date with the prevailing scientific trend and the text has ample recent references. At times the editor might only get 2-3 chapters for review. In such a case, the editor constantly keeps a tab on the length of the remaining chapters so that the book does not overshoot its initial page extent. Otherwise, the entire cost of the book (costing) has to be redone, that eventually also affects the pricing of the book. The editor also makes sure that book goes to a good reviewer, someone who has already published in the same area of expertise.

Production and post production stage: The final production and the post production stage is primarily the editor’s endeavor. He is responsible that the author’s labour of pain reaches its befitting conclusion. He makes sure that the final proofs are typeset properly, there are no text and illustration errors and that the page extent of this final draft is the same as originally envisaged.

During all these three stages, one aspect that brings the editor closer to the author is his ability to respond quickly to author queries and simultaneouslyww, it is also the author’s responsibility to quickly respond back. Any delay by the author will scuttle the entire publishing schedule and, the production dates which in turn would severely affect the promotion of the book. Effective and quick communication both ways helps all involved parties.

The author’s responsibility…

The author must make sure that he gives as much information about handy contacts, academic conferences, societies and associations, and mailing groups that the marketing department can use to promote his book. The author must also mention appropriate journals that are subscribed in his department or at the university library where the review of his book can be possible. If unavailable, the author must inform the editor, who in turn would then work with the marketing department to build a good promotional flyer.

Other editors involved…

But commissioning is incomplete if I do not introduce you to those who at some point of time or the others are also responsible for the book to be published. Foremost among them are the desk and copy editors. They do the mark up on the manuscript and ready it for typesetting. They are the ones who turn the manuscript into an actual book.

The lasting relationship between editor and author…

Thus, throughout the prepublication life of the book, the editor is equally, if not more, concerned and makes sure that book sees the market soon. Both have invested heavily on the book; editor’s patience and author’s perspiration. However, this is not where the story ends, but actually begins. For an editor, each book is a prelude to the next, and to a new edition. It is editor’s pride to build a successful list of well-established authors that may even last his life time and return with new manuscripts. It’s always ecstatic to announce to the author that his first edition is sold out and is up for a larger print run in the second. But if the commissioning editor could say this face-to-face in his office with the author holding another manuscript for him, well, then it’s awesome. Happy commissioning!

When we talk about Indian cookbooks, what name comes to your mind instantly? Probably, it is Nita Mehta, the famous cookbook author who has sold over 3.5 million cookbooks over a span of few years. What inspires the famous author to write, how she thinks of her recipes, what makes her cookbooks sell…let’s find out more. Nita Mehta is a home science graduate from Lady Irwin College, University of Delhi and a Gold Medalist in M.Sc. (Food & Nutrition). She has authored more than 350 books on various topics including more than 250 best selling cookery books. Her book Flavours of Indian Cooking won the Best Asian Cookbook Award at the Versailles (Paris) World Cookbook Fair. Three of her other books have also won international awards like Zero Oil Cookbook, awarded as Best Health and Nutrition Cookbook; Chocolate Cookbook, awarded as Best Chocolate Cookbook and Cooking for Growing Children, awarded as Best Cookbook for Children & Family. The publisher of her books is SNAB Publishers. The secret of success is her thorough and meticulous approach towards her books, as she shares in an interview with Varsha Verma. Excerpts.

AABP: When and how did you become interested in cooking?

Nita Mehta: Cooking started at a very young age. As far as I remember, I started cooking when I was 12-13 years old. That time, I used to bake cakes and cookies with my mom, aunts and neighbours. When my parents saw my interest in cooking, they let me do my graduation in home science from Lady Irwin College and then I did my postgraduation in food and nutrition. I enjoyed studying throughout my college life.

AABP: What made you decide to write cookbooks?

Nita Mehta: After my college, I got married and became busy with children. After 10 years of my marriage, when my children grew up, I started taking classes for ice-cream making, which were very well-received by the girls. It was the time when there were not too many flavours available for ice-creams and I created and developed some new ones. After 2-3 years, the same girls and their friends and relatives, asked me to give classes for cuisine like Italian, Chinese and Mughlai. I continued taking classes for another 10 years and it was at this time that I realized that I need to pen down my recipes in the form of a book.

My first book was released in the year 1993 titled Vegetarian Wonders which was a large sized book with coloured pictures. The book was beautifully photographed and was well received. Readers had said that the recipes were written very carefully and there was no margin for error. Infact, some of them even remarked that they felt that their mother is standing beside them and guiding them when they cook a dish. I have authored 350 cookbooks as of now.

AABP: How do you write a recipe?

Nita Mehta: Whenever I write a recipe (even if it is an old recipe), I try to give it a twist to a different flavour. A little change goes a long way in creating a mouth-watering delicious dish.

AABP: How do you organize your recipes in your own kitchen and then in the form of a book?

Nita Mehta: I always try to create an unusual recipe. I first cook in my mind and then put it onto paper. My operator sets it in the page format. Then, once it is done, I think how much quantity of each ingredient should go. Then, either my staff or I cook the recipe. We exact the recipes when we work along. We correct the recipe for any changes in ingredients or process. Infact, each recipe is tried 2-3 times before it is put in a book. We also try to add visuals of each recipe so that people know how an end product looks like.

AABP: What are your favourite cooking gadgets and foods?

Nita Mehta: I do not believe in commercial cooking gadgets. I try to use the minimal gadgets which are ordinarily available in our Indian households. I particularly like a good pair of knives and a chopping board, besides a food processor. Since my books are aimed at general people, I like to use the gadgets which everyone has so that they can actually start instantly with my cookbooks. Infact, I feel proud when readers say that they learnt cooking with my cookbooks.

Though I like all kinds of foods but I like Thai, Chinese and Italian, besides Mughlai. I particularly enjoy Thai food as it is very close to Indian cooking and even the spices used are more or less the same.

AABP: What is your best cooking tip for beginners?

Nita Mehta: When you are reading a cookbook, have faith in it. Read the recipe carefully, collect the ingredients and then start cooking. Better still, work it out in your mind first and then do the actual cooking. Also, always cook with a good mood and with love as food is the expression of love. That’s why mother’s food is different than the staff’s food.

AABP: Do you have an amusing kitchen incident to share?

Nita Mehta: I still remember a kitchen disaster I landed in. Soon after my marriage, I had organized a dinner party. It was a hot day and since I was not very quick at cooking, I started it early. I was so naïve that I forgot to put the dishes made with curd and tomatoes in the refrigerator. By evening, most of the food was spoiled and I had to order food from outside.

Today, when I take my cooking classes, I tell the girls to organize their work and the things which need to be served last should be cooked last. With my hit and trial method, I have amazing tips to share with them as to what can be cooked before and what needs to be cooked last.

AABP: Tell us something about yourself?

Nita Mehta: I am a family person and always like to maintain a work-life balance. I want to work but not at the cost of my family. Whenever I am out the whole day, I make it a point to be home before my grandson’s sleep time so that I can spend some quality time with him.

AABP: What inspires you to go on and on?

Nita Mehta: My family has been very supportive all through my life. Besides, I have travelled a lot in India as well as abroad which has given me an insight into different cuisines around the world. I am very passionate about cooking and when I cook a recipe in my mind, I can actually feel the aroma and taste the flavour of the food I am cooking. Then, I see how to create a twist to a normal dish to make it an exotic one.

AABP: What can the readers expect next?

Nita Mehta: I am coming up with a book on Indian sweets and a Festival Cookbook. The latter will contain information on what to do and what to cook on festivals like Lohri, Dussehra, Ganesh Chaturthi, Diwali, Id, and many more South Indian festivals, etc. I really enjoyed working on this book.

Then, there is a book on Rajasthani Cuisine, including both vegetarian and non-vegetarian dishes. Coffee table cookbooks are also on the cards.