Poulomi Chatterjee and her passion for books

Poulomi Chatterjee, publisher and rights director, HarperCollins Publishers, and winner, Publishing Person of the Year, shares her journey in the world of publishing

14 May 2024 | By PrintWeek Team

Poulomi Chatterjee of HarperCollins Publishers

Can you comment on the current publishing reality in India?
Publishing for the trade market in India has always been something of a challenge and remains that way, especially since readers are now exposed to various other forms of entertainment and distractions that require less investment of time and effort than reading. We also remain a low-priced market compared to other publishing territories. With growing material and production costs, pricing books to the market is an everyday challenge. However, it’s also an exciting time, because homegrown writers are really coming into their own, becoming more experimental within traditional genres and exploring newer ones,  and there are newer voices to publish and showcase. The readership too is becoming more aware and open-minded about what they’re reading and how they are consuming content, so there’s much more to explore in terms of topics and publishing platforms and mediums too.

What role does a literary editor play in turning a manuscript into a book?
An author’s work is very personal and writing can be an isolated and isolating exercise. It helps writers to have an external perspective they can trust, that can help them view what they have written somewhat objectively and how their early drafts will transform into a finished book, and give honest and critical feedback from the readers’ perspective. Editors also guide authors to clarify their statements or debate ideas and issues, determine whom they want to address and write for. They sometimes even clear blocks and are reaffirmed during moments of doubt. From ideating with an author, to being the critical external eye, during the making of a book, editors are the key allies of writers.

What is your first reaction when you read a manuscript?
Depends on the manuscript! As with finished books, some draw you in immediately and have you excited, some are great as far as ideas go, but their execution may not be along the same lines. My work demands that I read manuscripts critically at all times — but when something really good lands on my desk, I enjoy reading it so much that it makes me forget I have to assess it – that’s what brings real joy.

What is one book that altered your view of literature?
I think many books have done that at various stages of my life. Until a certain age my reading had affirmed that great storytelling elevates the everyday to entertainment, profound commentary and often to art. 

My introduction to science fiction and fantasy — through the Professor Shonku novels, Satyajit Ray in Bengali, Tolkien’s writings, and later with Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke — changed that somewhat. That kind of vision of other and future worlds and almost prescient sense of where we are going as humans requires a particular depth and breadth of knowledge and imagination. 

They gave me a new perspective of what literary masters could achieve, while also keeping readers hooked to their every word. Then there are brilliantly written non-fiction books ranging from Carl Sagan’s Cosmos to Nehru’s Glimpses of World History to Abraham Eraly’s series on the Mughals, the travel writing of Orwell or Kapuscinski or Vikram Seth, or the very haunting Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil by John Berendt. There are really too many to name. Even though bound by facts, many writers create unputdownable books that are literature at its best, and that continues to amaze me.

What are three things you ALWAYS do when you embark on new projects?
When I begin a fresh edit, I clear my head as much as possible. I try to enter the author’s headspace and take on their perspective, and immerse myself in the world, characters, or situations that have been created by the author.

Who is one literary editor — international or national — you admire most, and why?
Internationally, I’ve unfortunately only read about legendary editors such as Diana Athill, Robert Gottlieb and Gordon Lish. In my career, I’ve learnt a lot from working with Ravi Singh and Rukun Advani at different stages. The way they think through manuscripts, not only as fully finished books but through every word and line in them, makes the books they work on truly stand out.

Your first memory of a book?
A book of Bengali rhymes that had the most amusing illustrations and fun, odd poems. I can’t remember the name now.

What is the best translated book you’ve ever read?
That’s a very tough question, because the list is endless. But one book that has always stood out for me is N.S. Madhavan’s Litanies of Dutch Battery (translated by Rajesh Rajmohan). I edited it many years ago and is one of the books I have gone back to many times to re-read – that’s not an unusual occurrence. I have rarely been so taken with a story, the construction and use of language in a novel, and the sheer delight of plunging into culture, history, characters, and events brought together by Madhavan’s genius.

A word about the year that whizzed by?
It’s been busy and challenging in the best way – creatively satisfying and with enough ups to balance out the downs.

How will you celebrate the WTW Award?
To start with, gift myself a book (and try to make the time to read it)!