#DesiLitBiz: Sangeeta Mehta on book editing and diversity and equity in publishing

About Sangeeta Mehta:

Sangeeta Mehta was an acquiring editor of children’s books at Little, Brown and Simon & Schuster before founding her own editorial services company. She has also worked for west coast literary agents Margret McBride and Charlotte Gusay. She currently consults on book projects for individual authors and publishers and serves on the Editorial Freelancers Association’s board of governors. A Phi Beta Kappa graduate of U.C. San Diego, Sangeeta studied briefly at Cambridge University and at the Sorbonne before earning a master’s degree in comparative literature from UCLA. She lives in Manhattan.

About Mehta Book Editing:

With Mehta Book Editing, Sangeeta Mehta provides various services such as full and partial book manuscript critiques, publishing consultations, line editing, structural and developmental editing, and writing coaching and mentoring.

Sangeeta Mehta has worked in book publishing since the late 1990s at various publishing and literary agency firms. In #DesiLitBiz she discusses her work at Mehta Book Editing and her efforts to promote diversity and equity in publishing. @DesiBooks


Desi Books: Tell us, first, a bit about your career trajectory in the publishing industry. How did you get started and how did you get to where you are now? 

Sangeeta Mehta: It began when I was in graduate school in Los Angeles and saw an ad for a reader at a literary agency. My internship turned into a part-time job, and I ultimately left my program and found a job full-time at another agency in La Jolla. As much as I enjoyed the excitement of being there (the auctions, the endless piles of queries), I was curious about the editorial side of the field. With the help of my boss, I was able to set up several interviews with New York publishers and was certain one of them would pan out—but it happened to be the week of September 11! I had four interviews scheduled for that day, but they were of course canceled, and I had no choice but to return home once flights resumed. The following spring, I decided to move to NYC without a job. I knew that if I didn’t move then, I never would. I pounded the pavement until I landed at what was then the AOL Time Warner Book Group, better known today as Hachette. This experience led to my next in-house job at Simon & Schuster.

Desi Books: I first came across your work through Jane Friedman’s website, where you’ve done guest posts and interviews. You have this well-rounded industry view because you’ve worked with big publishing, literary agencies, individual writers, and other freelance editors. You’ve built a portfolio of work across the industry, which is very impressive. Please talk a bit about how these different work experiences and skillsets help you approach your author clients more effectively?

Sangeeta Mehta: Thank you for the compliment! As a developmental editor of trade fiction, I think it’s important to edit my clients’ manuscripts with acquisition potential in mind, as the majority of them are interested in traditional rather than self-publishing. While I pay careful attention to the major elements of craft (plot, characterization, etc.), I also look closely at the premise. Is it unique? If not, is the execution exceptional? Because of my prior work experience, I have a good sense of what motivates agents and acquiring editors to pursue a project and what causes them to pass. I also keep on top of industry news. There’s a great deal of (mis)information out there, but at this point, I know how to read between the lines and what sources to trust.

“While I pay careful attention to the major elements of craft (plot, characterization, etc.), I also look closely at the premise. Is it unique? If not, is the execution exceptional?” ~Sangeeta Mehta on book editing #DesiLitBiz @DesiBooks 

Desi Books: You’re on the board of the Editors Freelance Association. Tell us a bit about this organization and your work within it.

Sangeeta Mehta: Absolutely. The EFA is a nonprofit association consisting of editorial professionals including editors, writers, proofreaders, indexers, translators, and sensitivity (authenticity) readers. I joined the organization in 2014, about three years after I officially launched my editorial services company, and I ran for the board in 2016 with the aim of creating the organization’s first Diversity Initiative. I’m pleased to say that this committee remains strong and that I continue to run it with the assistance of a wonderful group of volunteers. I’m also proud to have overseen the association’s rates survey to determine the median rates our members charge for a variety of editorial disciplines. This information should be useful to anyone who is considering investing in a freelancer.

Desi Books: You’ve also worked with a range of genres and writers. Are there particular kinds of books you’re drawn to the most? What do you look for to take on a book project?

Sangeeta Mehta: Like almost everyone who studied literature in school, I entered the field thinking I wanted to specialize in literary fiction. My first job with Charlotte Gusay focused on exactly this, but the second agent I worked for, Margret McBride, represented a number of bestselling business/management books, which were very lucrative and paid for my salary. When I moved to New York, I was recruited by the children’s department at Little, Brown/Hachette, which I also didn’t plan for, but it turned out to be the right fit. A year after I joined, our then editor-in-chief acquired a series that would soon become a phenomenon in the publishing industry, Twilight by Stephenie Meyer, and it was partly because of this acquisition that I remain drawn to YA fiction with romantic themes. I also tend to take on women’s fiction (which I read for fun), realistic middle grade (my sweet spot), and select literary fiction and nonfiction. In a way, my approach resembles that of an agent: Before I agree to a project, I ask for a sample and make sure the writing resonates with me, sometimes regardless of genre. I also give both parties a sense of what it would be like to work with the other; if our communications styles are different or one party has an expectation the other is unable to meet, it probably isn’t the best match.

Desi Books: Since your time in this industry from the late-1990s on, what are some of the changing or evolving trends you’ve observed for BIPOC professionals in publishing? How about specifically for those of South Asian origin? If there’s one change you’d like to see happen, what is that and why?

Sangeeta Mehta: There were very few BIPOC professionals in publishing at that time, and so few Indian Americans that, when I moved to New York, I believe I met all of them! People assumed I was related to Sonny Mehta (I wish) and that I could handle spicy food (I can’t). I was the only Indian-American editor in my department, so most Indian-themed manuscripts automatically came to me. Sometimes other departments would ask my opinion about a cover concept for a book by an Indian author or solicit my help in brainstorming comparative titles. I found these requests flattering, but I don’t think the same kinds of expectations are placed on BIPOC editors today; in fact, they would probably be deemed offensive. Also, when I first entered the field, most of the BIPOC job seekers I knew were eager to work in editorial. Today I’m pleased to see them at the helm of a range of departments, including marketing and subsidiary rights. It’s also refreshing to see South Asians in particular making a name for themselves in other aspects of the field (agenting, criticism, scouting, bookselling, among others). As for a change I’m hoping to see—it’s that South Asians become an official part of the BIPOC umbrella. Technically, we qualify, but I feel like, when it comes to opportunities for BIPOC professionals, we are rarely considered.

“[I hope] that South Asians become an official part of the BIPOC umbrella. […] I feel like, when it comes to opportunities for BIPOC professionals, we are rarely considered.” ~Sangeeta Mehta #DesiLitBiz @DesiBooks

Desi Books: Taking the earlier question set and applying it to writers: what are some of the changing or evolving trends you’ve observed for BIPOC writers? And specifically for writers of South Asian origin? If there’s one change you’d like to see happen, what is that and why?

Sangeeta Mehta: I’ve continued to see writers of South Asian origin publish literary fiction and win prestigious literary awards. Look at how many have been nominated for or won the Booker Prize, among others! I’m also continuing to see South Asian authors tackle serious topics affecting our world today. But I’m also noticing more book deals for lighthearted rom coms and other genre fiction in both the adult and young adult space. I’m thrilled that there are now prizes designed specifically for South Asians writers, like the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature, and that mentorships such as South Asia Speaks have come into fruition. Let’s keep it up to enable an even wider range of South Asian stories to be told. As for BIPOC writers in general—over the last few years, many new opportunities have opened up for BIPOC authors, among them grants (such as the Walter Grant from We Need Diverse Books), prizes (the Jhalak Prize, for example), mentorships (Periplus), and pitch events (DVPit, LatinxPitch), but we still have a long way to go to create more equity in the field.  

Desi Books: If you could give one piece of advice to a young BIPOC professional looking to break into the publishing industry (or even just advice to the younger you when you were starting out), what might that be?

Sangeeta Mehta: Play the long game and brace yourself for the ups and downs. This is an unpredictable field, and though the sky is the limit, it can take a long time to feel like you’ve made progress, and sometimes you’ll need to take a step back to move forward. Also, try to find pleasure in your everyday work, including the tedious tasks, and celebrate every achievement, however small. This same advice could apply to writers looking to break into the field.

Sangeeta Mehta’s advice to BIPOC professionals starting out in the publishing world: “Play the long game and brace yourself for the ups and downs. […] it can take a long time.” #DesiLitBiz @DesiBooks

Desi Books: What’s next on the professional horizon for you?

Sangeeta Mehta: I always have new projects in the pipeline, and currently, I’m working on compiling a list of small and mid-sized publishers that accept unagented submissions. In the past I’ve come up with lists of diversity-focused publishers/imprints, and now there are so many such publishers that it’s hard to keep up! Most of them don’t accept unsolicited manuscripts, though, and if they do, they have very low acceptance rates. I encourage my clients to try their best to find an agent before exploring other publishing options, but considering how challenging this is for even the most talented writers, sometimes, there’s no other choice.

Desi Books: Thank you for your time. Closing with the usual question: what’s your favorite desi book and why?

Sangeeta Mehta: An almost impossible question! For years it was Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance, which is bleak yet beautiful and has a near-perfect structure. I admit that I’m also a fan of Jhumpa Lahiri’s body of work and her uncanny ability to make aspects of Indian culture accessible to American audiences. I think this is precisely why she’s criticized by some desis, but as someone who was born and raised in the U.S, I understand both the appeal and commercial value. More recently, I was impressed by Megha Majumdar’s ambitious premise and taut prose in A Burning, and I was thoroughly entertained by Diksha Basu’s The Windfall. The novel that first came to mind, though, was Family Life by Akhil Sharma, which I read when it was first published in 2014. This story is heartbreaking but never melodramatic, and somehow, it’s also humorous. Every word is well chosen, every line is expertly crafted, and I’ve found myself thinking about certain passages of late, though I have no idea why. I guess this is what happens when you’re in the hands of an assured and gifted writer. 

Sangeeta Mehta’s fave desi book: “[Family Life by Akhil Sharma] is heartbreaking but never melodramatic, and somehow, it’s also humorous. Every word is well chosen, every line is expertly crafted . . .” #DesiLitBiz @DesiBooks


Learn more about Sangeeta Mehta and Mehta Book Editing.

Sangeeta Mehta has worked in book publishing since the late 1990s at various publishing and literary agency firms. In #DesiLitBiz she discusses her work at Mehta Book Editing and her efforts to promote diversity and equity in publishing. @DesiBooks


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