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I found my calling as an editor—but it was a long and arduous journey

To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

—Lord Tennyson

The thing about perseverance is that it is never futile. The last five years, in which I have transitioned from being a confused journalism graduate to a book editor-in-the-making, have reiterated my belief in this idea.

In 2017, I was a 23-year-old girl who found herself at a strange juncture in her professional life. I had been working for a reputed magazine publishing house in Gurugram, but even though it was a good job and offered me a decent learning experience, there were days when I felt disillusioned—sometimes because I felt there was a lack of structured work flow, and occasionally because of parallels drawn with my contemporaries (read then friends). I was always second guessing my choices, and often feeling discontented. So, I decided to quit my job to reconsider what it was that I truly aspired to do, professionally. I had started to consider everything—from pursuing a PhD to taking up a teaching job in a city college. I often felt confused and overwhelmed.

It was particularly daunting for someone like me—a university gold medalist in Mass Communication and Journalism who had chosen to live away from my hometown to make it big in a metro city like Delhi. How do you throw your hands up in the air one day and say, “I don’t know the way ahead from here on,” when you have been the one to make all your choices by yourself? Well, that was me in 2017.

So, I did what I thought was the most logical thing to do—I started exploring all my options, thinking that crossing things off my list of maybes might help me discover my one definitive choice.

A bumpy start

One of the first steps I took was to appear for a teaching job in a reputed college in my hometown. The interview was a disaster; it took me days to recover from my near-freezing experience in that boardroom. I remember waiting in the passageway for a reply, although the “No, not this candidate” might as well have been engraved on my interviewer’s face.

Next up, I got called for an interview with the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting for a journalistic job at the Electronic Media Monitoring Centre in New Delhi. Here’s how much I enjoyed it—I wrote my resignation three days post my joining. There was nothing wrong with the job. It was just that I wasn’t cut out for a journalistic position, especially one that involved consuming hard news every day. Imagine my horror at realizing that I wasn’t keen to pursue a career in news after working so hard to secure a gold medal in a MassComm course.

By now, I was starting to get restless. Days went by and I’d just sit by the window wondering where I had gone wrong. What’s worse, I was completely broke; all my savings had run out and I neither had a job nor clarity on what I was doing with my life. Meanwhile, my UGC NET (University Grants Commission National Eligibility Test) results were announced, and to my disappointment, I didn’t make the mark.

Two months passed, but my lot hadn’t changed. In fact, things had started to look worse. I would wake up, eat, cry, sleep, wake up, eat, cry, and sleep again. To add to my misery, I’d log on to social media, only to witness how my friends and other colleagues were flourishing. I was constantly embroiled in the maddening race against every young person I knew, and feeling like an absolute failure. I remember waking up at 3 am and logging on to LinkedIn to find jobs. That was my life for 60 days.

It’s easy to encourage others when they face failure and urge them to fight, but when it happens to you the first response is often fear and flight. How very turbid and mortifying it can be when you’re the one failing.

An a-ha moment

Months passed by, and I now found myself reading books—an addition to my “eat-sleep-cry” ritual. It is then that I started to seriously think about becoming a book editor. The idea had interested me previously too, but back then, I had a job and was perhaps unwilling to take a risk. That’s not a good place to start if you’re looking to follow your heart.

But now that I was jobless, I wanted to act on the thought of becoming a book editor. Obviously, I was too scared to start as a newbie again. All the many months of hard work and struggle during my internships and my magazine days came back to me, as if to taunt me: “Why did you spend so much time on this then?”

One day, I was sitting by myself, watching a motivational video, the kind that leaves you so empowered, you feel you can conquer the world in the blink of an eye. So I thought to myself—you’re bright, smart, hardworking, and more experienced than a fresher for sure. Why don’t you apply to a book publishing house? You have nothing to lose, you’ve already hit rock bottom. What worse could happen? Go for it! I was really pumped up.

So I revamped my CV and sat tirelessly for hours before my laptop at a designated spot, researching about the best book publishers in New Delhi. I made flowcharts, collated long lists, catalogued every piece of information that I could acquire off the Internet so I wouldn’t be thrown when my big interview happened. Now here’s the thing: there was no “big interview.”

The stats of my labor are self-explanatory—I wrote to about 60 small and big publishers, with copies of my CV, recommendations from former colleagues and employers, samples of my work—basically, all the paraphernalia I thought I needed to secure a big interview. I heard back from only two of them. The first one acknowledged my email, stating that there were no vacancies, but that they were quite impressed with my CV and would consider me in the future. I sat with tears in my eyes because someone had at least cared to tell me that I was worthy of being considered. On doomsday, one prefers some hope over none, to be able to carry on.

The second email came from what seemed like an exploitative operator who wanted to burden me with a sales role in addition to an editorial position for the remuneration that I was expecting. I refused to join them. Looking back, it makes me smile how even through my worst, I refused to be exploited. It also leaves me aghast how at that stage, I was never even aiming for a job—all I needed was for someone to give me one chance with an interview! I wanted to make a mark, to prove my worth, and not just to be employed! This is also the time when I discovered the Indian Copyeditors Forum. It introduced me to the world of editors, especially book editors. To be honest, it felt like a secret society—a world that comprised a privileged few, and I loved the idea of an exclusive membership in it!

Two months into my search, I was still jobless. So, the “read-eat-sleep-cry-wake up at 3 am-and-hunt for jobs” ritual went on until it was time for the World Book Fair in New Delhi. It was January 2018 by now. My birth month, I thought, would be lucky. I decided that it made sense to step out of my comfort zone (aka my hometown) and throw myself into the line of fire. Those of you who have experienced the maddening crowds at the World Book Fair will get the analogy. The book fair was meant to conclude on January 13—my birthday—and I decided to be away from friends and family, neck deep in books. I remember taking several rounds at the fair, my notepad tucked close to me as I set out to collate on-the-ground information on what made the Indian book publishing world tick. I penned down the names of several publishers that matched my areas of interest, and tried to speak to a couple of them in the hope that human interface might actually help me schedule my big interview. That too was a challenge for my shy, introverted self.

Meanwhile, I heard back from a self-publishing platform in Gurugram who were keen to schedule an interview with me. It went fine, but the salary offered was too low to sustain myself in overpriced Gurugram. I felt really low, but after a lot of inner debate I came close to deciding that I would accept the offer.

The tides begin to change

Around the same time, a new development took place. I found in the newspaper that the National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT) was conducting tests for various contractual editorial positions. I fit the bill for the lowest stack in the editorial food chain, if I may call it that—a proofreader. I was not particularly excited—one, I knew that I didn’t like to work with government organizations, and two, the designation sounded like a scaling down of sorts for me. Yet, for some inexplicable reason, I took the test despite being certain that I wouldn’t join the place even in the unlikely chance that I made the cut.

Meanwhile, the back and forth with the self-publishing platform was still on. I had grown so tired that I decided to seal the deal by personally visiting their office. I headed out in an autorickshaw and was literally five minutes away when I got a call from NCERT asking me to join as proofreader—I had cleared the test! I was stumped. Did I want to work in a government office again, and that too with an academic publisher? I reached the self-publisher’s building, sat outside, and made mental notes about the pros and cons of these two not-so-lucrative offers.

I know it may seem stupid to even consider joining anything but the country’s largest publisher and curriculum development body. But at that time, I was a 24-year-old girl waiting for a Penguin-esque offer. So NCERT didn’t matter to me at all. However, after thinking long and hard about it, I decided to accept NCERT’s offer, surprising even myself.

A path is set

A few months after joining NCERT, I remember sitting for an editorial assistant’s test and missing the position by a whisker. But I think God was on my side—He wanted me to keep learning; the candidate didn’t join and I got the position since I was number 1 on the waiting list.

Every day at NCERT was an opportunity to learn—my interaction with senior editors was so enlightening that I knew I was in safe hands, and that one of these days, this editorial fetus was hopefully going to develop full-grown limbs. I remember how I would end conversations with senior editors: “See you soon with another question!” And they would gladly help. I was beginning to conquer my social awkwardness and I got smarter at getting work streamlined. I was collaborating with designers and getting work-related conflicts resolved. A few months into the new role, I managed to take up a course in Book Publishing organized by the National Book Trust. Here too, I picked up little pieces of essential information about editing, printing, production, and marketing—all of it hugely rewarding. Along the way, I kept applying to other organizations too.

Going beyond

While I felt enriched by my experience at NCERT, I wanted to conquer my next challenge—trade publishing. Initially, my friends and family dissuaded me from quitting a job in the public sector and moving to the vicious uncertainties of the corporate world. But I went with my instincts yet again because I like to think of commercial publishing as the test of a well-rounded editor—sure, you have to maintain editorial standards that have a very high aspirational value, but you have also got to make books that will sell.

When I felt like it was the right time, moving to trade publishing for children was my next halt—I had already worked on children’s books and had thoroughly enjoyed it. However, unlike academic books, which are often mandated in curricula, commercial books bank on the personal choices of readers. That to me is challenging—to make a book that weaves a powerful narrative, keeps the reader’s faith in good storytelling intact, and lights up a child’s eyes so much that they drag and whine and whimper to get their parents to buy them a copy! To be able to achieve all of that and still be commercially viable—now that’s where both the challenge and the kick lie, for me.

Come to think of it, even though it has been a while now, leaving NCERT still feels like heartbreak. If I could cling to the place and the people I met, I’d stay there all my life. But, in the quest for progress and greater learning, you have got to push yourself beyond your comfort zone. Sure, the journey is never easy and there is still so much to learn every step along the way. But I am glad to have made it this far. My mentors and seniors who have seen me start from scratch have often reached out to me, appreciated my work, and helped me realize that I am on the right path. Therefore, I say it with a lot of pride and gratitude—NCERT honed me a great deal.

Today, when I look back, I’m still surprised by the progress I’ve made. Could I have done it alone? Never. Was it easy? Certainly not. Did I enjoy it? Most definitely. Do I want to stay at it? Hell, yeah! What is my next stop? I don’t know—I will cross that bridge when I get to it. Oh, but will I? My doubt always snaps back at me. It is then that I remind myself of this outstanding quote by American author and artist Mary Anne Radmacher: “Courage doesn’t always roar. Sometimes courage is the quiet voice at the end of the day saying ‘I will try again tomorrow.’ ”

Garima works as Lead Editor for a popular children’s book publishing house. She also runs The Differently Wired, a microblog on mental health, self-help, love, and more.

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