Clare Millar interviews Radhiah Chowdhury, a Commissioning Editor and Senior Audio Producer at Penguin Random House Australia and New Zealand.
What did you study?
I did a Bachelor of Arts at The University of Sydney, with Honours in English Literature and a double-major in History. The (bloody stupid) plan was initially to be an academic, so I was very happy to lean into all the pure research subjects I could.
What is the most useful skill you learned in your undergraduate degree? And what was the most enjoyable part of your studies?
Probably a combination of critical thinking and the ability to confidently bullshit about a subject. As an editor, it’s super valuable to be able to consider a book as a whole as well as on the micro-level, and to hold both things in your head as you work on it. It’s a bit like looking at a complex piece of machinery and being able to say ‘this isn’t working right’ and being able to see which of the many moving pieces are causing the problem. I’d say that was something the Honours degree particularly developed over 3 years (USyd used to have a three-year Honours track).
The most enjoyable part of the studies was the community I belonged to. Because Honours was a dedicated stream of study, we ended up with the same cohort for the whole time, not dissimilar to a high school class. The ways in which we debated and supported each other were so radically different to the way uni can often be simultaneously isolated and crowded, and I’m sure a great deal of my affection for those years and the success of my studies comes down to how much I actively loved engaging with my student group.
Tell us about your PhD!
Well, at the time I enrolled in the PhD, it was meant to be a ‘useful’ degree, in that you can’t be an English lit academic without one. But I had chosen to focus on children’s literature, which is very much the poor relation of the academy, so I think I was probably subconsciously aware that the degree was not going to result in the glittering career as a children’s lit professor that I imagined. I’d initially proposed a dissertation about messianic children’s literature, and was well on track with that in 2007, when the last Harry Potter book came out. And there was enough in that book and the series as a whole to completely derail my initial project, so I found myself 18 months into my PhD suddenly changing tack altogether to focus on fairy tales and children’s literature instead. What. A. Time.
An English PhD is a really isolating experience. It’s a lot of reading and writing by yourself, with sporadic check-ins with your supervisor. My mental health didn’t do great over the first couple of years, because there’s not a lot to moor you to anybody, especially if you’re an introvert like me and don’t need much of an excuse to stop interacting with people altogether. I was really lucky that three of my Honours cohort were also doing PhDs alongside me. We were a massive support network for each other emotionally and academically throughout the four years, and two of those friendships continue to be some of the strongest I have today.
I’m glad I did the PhD. It taught me to be a good writer, how to be self-sustaining for long projects, and be self-critical of my own creative output. It really cemented my love of children’s literature and my conviction that it literally changes the trajectory of people’s lives. That belief is what guided me to children’s publishing. My dad’s also an academic, and one of my uncles was a playwright, writer and critic, and the combination of the two influences always assured me that gaining knowledge for its own sake was the most rewarding use of one’s time if you were going to bother with university at all, and, of course, had the immense privilege to pursue learning for the sake of learning. I left the academy when I did because I knew that if I stuck around any longer, trying to make the whole tenured-academic thing work, I would end up regretting the time I spent getting that PhD, and I didn’t want to be in that position.
At USyd the system used to be (don’t know what it is now) that from the second year of your PhD, you would be employed to teach undergrad subjects alongside your research. It would be a few contact hours a week, with massive amounts of class preparation behind the scenes because it was basically impossible (especially for me, as USyd had no children’s lit subjects on offer) to be teaching in your own specialty. So you’d be keeping on top of readings and preparing tutes for hours and hours every week, while also keeping your research load up. But I found I actually loved teaching, and I was really, really good at it. Obviously with a class size of 100 students there are going to be a majority of students dozing or cruising through the tutes and lectures, but every semester, without fail, there would be a handful of incredibly gifted and engaged undergrads who made the work worthwhile. I don’t miss anything else about the academic life except the teaching.
What does a typical day look like for you? What skills make you successful in your role?
There are a few different plates spinning at the moment, so a typical day is balancing all of them. On the commissioning editor side, I spend a lot of time reading indie publications and generally trawling arts and culture hubs looking for people who might have stories bubbling away inside but haven’t thought about traditional publishing, meeting those writers and gently urging them towards developing their work for submission. There are meetings upon meetings to attend as well, of course. I’m also still involved in the audio production side of things, so there will be conversations with my colleagues in the audio team about our upcoming projects, casting, logistics and the like. And then there’s also the work I’m doing for/with the Australian Publishers Association, which I can get into a bit later. That work usually springs up a few times a month and requires a switch in mindset yet again, as it’s not linked to my day job, but it’s very much linked to who I am as a person and an editor and the things I believe are the most important, so the output there has the greatest weight to bear on my day-to-day.
In terms of skills, obviously an editorial eye is fundamental to being an editor. That’s that ability to assess a text as a whole and as its component parts, and then, if necessary, help an author pull it apart and put it back together again in a better form. There’s a big creative element to working in the publishing world as well, whether that’s being able to speak to things like packaging, illustration and cover design (in past jobs), or whether it’s having a creative vision for the adaptation of a written work into the audio format. I’ve never bought into the idea that different people in the publishing ecosystem should stick to a narrow lane—editors only know about editing, designers only know about design, publicists only know about publicity etc. If we’re going to work together as a team to help a book be the best that it can be, we need to speak each other’s language and understand the value we all bring to a project.
The biggest skill, to be perfectly honest, was hard-earned at my first publishing job at Scholastic, when I worked in the licensed publishing team. While I was in that team, the company started working with Marvel, Disney, Lucasfilm, Warner Brothers, LEGO and Nickelodeon, and the pace of work was intense. There were some months where we were publishing 30+ books and stationery products a month, and there were only two of us working on the editorial side. That high-output environment was stressful as hell, of course, but it really taught me the value of multitasking, and that skill has stood me in good stead ever since. I’ve rarely been in the position where there’s just one thing to pay attention to—publishing is a business of multiple moving parts, each moving at completely different speeds and breaking down at the most inopportune times. Being able to keep all the plates spinning without dropping anything (though I admit I’ve chipped a few of those plates!) is the most fundamental skill that has made me successful in any position I’ve held since.
You’ve previously spent a lot of time working on children’s books at Scholastic and Allen & Unwin. What’s different about working on children’s books vs adults and audiobooks?
I don’t think there is a significant difference between working on children’s books versus adult ones as much as there’s a difference between fiction and nonfiction. I’m very much a fiction editor. The only nonfiction I feel comfortable editing is narrative nonfiction, and I think that’s because there’s still such a strong storytelling thread in that genre. But I’ve found my skills to be very transferrable from kids to adult. I don’t know how different I would have found it if I’d moved from adult to kids, though. You need to think about content quite carefully with kids books, but I think other than that, a good editor will always hold the ideal audience for any project at the forefront of their mind when they work. Kids or adult, we need to always think about audience.
In audio, the work is a little different but you’re still thinking about audience. You’re getting a book at the end of its life in the publishing ecosystem, and you’re not in a position to change anything in the text, even if you want to. What you need to think about instead is what the heart of the book itself is, and what kind of voice and performance will convey that heart to people when they’re not interacting visually with the words themselves. Sometimes it’s pretty straightforward, a personal finance book or a memoir narrated by the author. Fiction and narrative nonfiction again are where I love to work in audio, because that’s where the challenge lies. You’re casting a voice or voices who will keep the listener engaged with the narrative for hours at a time, who will deliver a performance that brings the text to life. It’s an adaptation, not a new edition—we’re not changing the words, but we’re constantly making creative decisions about how the words are read, and that often defines meaning.
I noticed in your current role you focus on commissioning BIPOC and working-class writers. How do you go about the commissioning process?
Like I mentioned before, I spend a great deal of time trawling Australian arts and culture publications and sites looking for great writers. A lot of the actors and agents I work with in audio are a great resource as well, either writers themselves or connected to a whole untapped community of creatives who haven’t thought about traditional publishing as a path.
The biggest challenge of this role isn’t finding people to publish, although Australian publishing has loved using the excuse that it’s just too hard to find writers from non-white, non-middle-class backgrounds, or that people from those backgrounds don’t write. The biggest challenge has been asking these writers to entrust their work and themselves to me. The conversations that are happening every week centre around whether a mainstream publishing house is going to do right by emerging or underrepresented writers, whether they will be marketed and publicised on the authors’ self-identified terms (as opposed to being pigeonholed as ‘diverse authors’), whether authors can write in any genre they please, rather than being expected to somehow package their ethnicity, Otherness or trauma. And I don’t honestly have an answer for them, except that I will do my best to ensure they are taken care of, and that their experience will be seen by me, never flattened or erased. So the role is not only that of a commissioning editor; it’s the role of mentor, confidante, agent and therapist as well.
Of course, to a large extent, publishers and editors fulfil these roles for many if not all of their authors—we often have to be cheerleaders or strict schoolmarms to squeeze out a workable story within our publishing deadlines. But it’s not quite the same thing in this role, where the issue is not so much whether an author is feeling unfocussed or insecure about their creative work, as much as it is that an author feels unsafe and unwelcome—and rightly so, given what our industry has historically done (and often continues to do) to authors from non-traditional backgrounds.
It’s a lot to process day to day, especially because fundamentally, my job is to bring proposals to the company for publication. Getting those proposals is so contingent on earning the trust of writers, so the timeline is incredibly dilated and it’s hard to quantify results.
Tell us about your Beatrice Davis fellowship—I’m guessing the travel component is a bit on hold!
The travel component isn’t going to happen, basically. It’s anyone’s guess when it’s going to be safe to travel, but I was really unwilling to let the research wait until that uncertain future when it’s already so well past time that Australian publishing engaged with issues of exclusion and systemic racism both amongst the books that we publish and within the companies that publish them.
The aim of the research always was and continues to be prompting that conversation within this industry, beyond the hand-wringing and non-consultative gestures made towards representative publishing. That’s not a very popular thing to say—there’s inevitably backlash from the middle-class white people who run mainstream publishing houses, and they like to point to those gestures and initiatives as evidence that I’m ill-educated or inexperienced about what’s happening in the industry at large. But from the industry level that I’m at, and where my peers and friends are at, we don’t have a rosy view of any of these initiatives and gestures. At best, they are empty and ineffectual. At worst, they’re virtue-signalling and exploitative. They’re used as a smokescreen for the fact that it’s still a largely white, middle class industry, people of colour generally occupy non-publishing roles and have very little to no input in acquisitions and corporate decision-making, and we persist in publishing white stories by white authors for white audiences, making it all the easier for us to keep thinking of our national identity as a white country. It’s white supremacy. It may not be KKK hoods and AK47s (although often we’re not far off), but we’re still perpetuating the idea that this is a white country first and foremost, and that anyone who falls outside that definition is somehow less than, the concession, uninteresting, unmarketable, unimportant. We’re a culture industry and we’re complicit in white supremacy, and I have long believed that this is something we need to acknowledge, discuss, and remedy.
The fellowship was supposed to be a chance for me to speak to BAME publishing professionals and creatives in the UK to see how their experiences lined up with ours here, and what, if anything, could be done about it. I didn’t get to travel, which sucks, but I still got to have a lot of those conversations, and it was life-affirming to be connected to people who were living the same reality as me. Life-affirming, energising and also somehow depressing at the same time! The report that’s come out of those conversations and interviews is due out on Tuesday 10 November from the APA website. I hope it’s enough evidence of just how deep the roots of the problem are, and how truly painful and difficult the experience of being a person of colour in this overwhelmingly white industry really is. I don’t have a great deal of faith that it will change anything, largely because I’ve seen too much evidence of how little the industry is usually willing to do before it pats itself on the back for a job well done. But it’s my testament, nevertheless. It was incredibly meaningful and harrowing to research and write, and it’s uncomfortable reading by design. I hope it makes people uncomfortable enough to actually try to do something about it.
You’re also the author of Jumble and The Katha Chest (forthcoming). How do you balance your own creative work with your publishing work?
My creative work is very much a side hustle—I write when I feel like it, never any other time, and am incredibly privileged to be able to say that. Jumble was a long time in the making—it took five years from signing the contract to publication, for reasons outside both mine and the illustrator’s control. It wasn’t ideal, and there are many bitter notes to what ended up happening with that book, but it was primarily written for my best friend’s daughter, Audrey, and she and all the other children in my life (I have a massive extended family of nieces and nephews) love it. I couldn’t really ask for more than that.
The Katha Chest is an extremely personal book. It was initially an adult short story I wrote after my aunt passed away, the first of my parents’ many siblings to pass, and it was a way to try and capture the myriad, complex interior lives of the women in my family beyond the usual stereotypes of South Asian—and more broadly, non-white—women. I have aunts who are painters and freedom fighters and teachers and pioneers, and those stories and family heritage are so intrinsic to my sense of self. I wanted to capture that especially for my nieces, to see a girl who looks like them interacting with the powerful women in her life. I’m most pleased to be working with a South Asian illustrator, Lavanya Naidu, who has done the most exquisite work of shaping a simple story into extraordinarily complex artwork, and weaved her own family history into that art as well.
The flip side of The Katha Chest is that it might put in the position of the writers I’m courting in my commissioning role. I’ve gained access to being published through the privilege of working within the industry, but moving forward, perhaps only if I write and perform my cultural background for a white gaze.
What are you most proud of in your career so far?
I’m proud to say that so many of the creatives I’ve worked with have had a hospitable, collaborative experience, whether they be authors, illustrators, designers or actors. I really pride myself on that, on people wrapping up a publishing experience with me with positivity and a sense of well-being and joy. It doesn’t mean that things can’t get hairy when you’re in the thick of it—I’m not afraid to be hard on the projects I work with, and some creatives really do demand so much of you—but it all needs to be for a common purpose, to create something beautiful and meaningful at the end of it all.
I think it’s supposed to be poor etiquette to have favourite projects or authors, like having a favourite child, but we all know our parents have a favourite. And my absolute favourite experience is also the one I’m most proud of, working with Jaclyn Moriarty to launch her Kingdoms and Empires series back in 2017. It’s the project I actually had to do the least amount of work on editorially, because Jaclyn is such a gift of an author and storyteller. It was a truly expansive experience.
And what are you hopeful for or excited about?
With my fellowship report due out soon, I’m keen to see what movement it might prompt in the industry. I’m most especially keen to see my peers in the inclusive publishing space being widely platformed to speak their truths about the myriad issues facing our industry. There are so many people doing important work and this is hopefully going to be a moment to let that work be seen and heard on an unprecedented scale by the mainstream publishing industry.
We’re also in the early stages of putting together a peer support network for First Nations and people of colour within publishing that I’m hopeful will be an invaluable resource for everyone involved. I’m really excited to get that community up and running with the other organisers and connecting all the people of colour who have been feeling isolated or alone in this industry for so long. It’s one of the best things to have come out of the fellowship—the incredible connections I’ve been so lucky to subsequently make with people of colour working both here and in the UK.
And of course I’m most excited to champion a flood of underrepresented writers and watch them change our national culture for the better. It’s truly humbling to see how many intensely gifted artists we are so privileged to have in this country and read and hear the wonderful stories they have to tell. I can’t think of anything I would be prouder to be a part of.