Arpita Das and her commitment to mentor young storytellers

Arpita Das, founder and publisher, Yoda Press, and winner, Mentor of the Year, shares what it takes to run an indie publishing house and train the next generation of writers

15 May 2024 | By PrintWeek Team

Arpita Das, founder and publisher, Yoda Press

How would you describe the feeling of winning the Mentor of the Year Award in Women to Watch Awards 2024?
I felt exhilarated. This category means the world to me.
How are things for a publishing house like Yoda? What are the challenges?
Being indie, and choosing to remain indie is always challenging. Especially when you go through times like the pandemic. It is a small and dedicated team, but everyone has their own set of responsibilities. Salaries have to be paid. Books have to keep coming out. When the cash flow does not keep up, we have to pivot and think of ways to leverage our skills and reputation to keep the office running. That can be hard because it means thinking on your feet all the time.

You have been teaching and organising seminars to mentor young women to write and edit. What do you look for among young mentees when you start?
I look for whether they have a story to tell, and if they want to go the distance. 
Tell us about your mentorship process. Is it about writing or editing, or something else?
With young authors, it involves writing-mentoring and editorial feedback, usually as separate processes, both in-person, online, and on the actual manuscript. With young publishing professionals, though, it is often about fostering among them a positive outlook about being part of an industry which is rapidly changing, and yet continues to cherish some fairly old-fashioned values — this can get confusing for young people.
The representation of women in the print industry is abysmally low, but not so much in the publishing sector. Why do you think more women gravitate towards publishing?
Editorial work is of interest to women and queer folks — I think there must be studies on the reasons for this, which would answer the 'why' better than me. I can only say that both women and queer people bring an invaluable nuance to editorial work. They listen, and they are not eager to drown out the author's voice with their own. 
Is there something you’d like to share with us about your mentoring experience?
I wish more senior people in the industry were keen on mentoring. It is not just rewarding in the sense of fulfilment in thinking that you are making a difference to your industry, but also in terms of reverse mentoring — by which I mean that I too, have learnt a lot from my mentees. 
One of the things that impressed the jury members is the work Yoda and the Yoda team is doing. What sort of recruitment policy do you have?
We are a small team, and have always been one — we have never been more than five people. We always have internships for young people — particularly women and queer folks, who have completed their graduation or are pursuing their post-graduation. 

From time to time, we look for editorial and publishing assistants, and usually, it is an intern who is already with us who grows into this position. We have had publishing professionals stay with us in the team for five to eight years at a time, so I like to think we are doing something right.

How do you make newcomers feel welcome and make the experience fun? More importantly, are you creating a culture where young people are not afraid to ask stupid questions?
We have worked remotely since the pandemic — we gave up our office space at that time. We meet once every two weeks in a co-working space, and we have never been more productive! 

We all love being able to work in our own preferred spaces. Most of us in the team are also editors who love to work in the dead of the night. Remote working enables that. We have a super-interactive WhatsApp group which is our daily point-of-contact for updates. It is also a space for shared humour showing support and concern for each other. We also love meeting up to let our hair down — usually once a month, where we don’t talk shop at all. 

I believe the important thing we keep in mind at all times is that ours is a safe and supportive space — once you are in it, we are all in it together, and there is zero disrespect. 

What steps can one take to ensure that the Yoda method percolates to the rest of the publishing industry in India? Any success? Is it do-able?
I wonder! I just keep talking about it, a lot. Maybe someone will feel inspired to emulate our model or create a better, improved version of it.

You are a keen observer of the Indian publishing industry. Describe the current scenario where printed books are back with a huge bang.
I don’t think printed books went away to begin with! Our perception has evolved after the initial shock-and-awe response to eBooks, that's all. The world of print itself has changed so much. It has evolved too. The fact is, watershed moments in industries are always times when different media coexist side by side. Frankly, instead of being scared of it, we should revel in it, experiment, and learn more, create more. 
You are a role model for the next generation of talented women. Do you have a message for them so that they can understand the opportunities that the industry offers?
The younger women in the creative industries have taught me so much — the millennials, and now Gen Z. They have changed the conversation around so many issues, I doff my hat to them. As for what I can say to them — be compassionate, first and foremost. There is nothing more important than kindness in this world, and supporting those who are not in positions of power, whose voice is getting lost in the cacophony of power posturing.

Finally, what next for Yoda?
There are some important structural changes coming this year — it is our 20th year, so this is fitting. The  change I am referring to is a very large part of my life as a feminist mentor, so I am quite proud. Apart from this, it is a difficult time to be a radical, indie publisher in India, so we continue to grit our teeth and soldier on.