Anjali Singh isn't a baseball player, but it can be said that she hit a home run in her first big league at bat. In 2003, before she'd settled into her first editorial job at Vintage Books, Singh managed to acquire an unusual autobiography by a young Iranian woman living in France. Even more unusual the book, Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi, was a work of comics and told the story of Satrapi's childhood--a young Iranian girl attracted to Western culture growing up under conservative Islamic strictures during the Iranian revolution. Persepolis has gone on to become a modern classic of memoir--comics or prose--selling more than 200,000 copies in a variety of editions and most recently adapted into an award-winning animated film.
Not bad for your first acquisition. “My first day on the job at Vintage and I'm pitching a book by an Iranian-French cartoonist. But I was obsessed with that book,” Singh says with a big smile during an interview at the New York offices of Houghton, which she joined as senior editor in 2007 looking to do more original hardcover publishing.
These days Singh, who speaks French and specializes in international literary fiction and nonfiction, has become known as an expert on literary comics. But at that time she knew little about comics and was about to take an editor's job at Vintage after several years working as a literary scout. She discovered Satrapi's memoir, which was selling well in France and generating press attention, while staying with a friend in Paris shortly before taking the Vintage job. Marty Asher, her boss at Vintage, suggested she show the book to Pantheon, primarily because Pantheon had published Maus, Art Spiegelman's acclaimed comics memoir, and was experienced in publishing literary comics. “[Pantheon editorial director] Dan Frank got it right away,” says Singh, who recalls the initial printing was about 11,800 copies and “B&N ordered about 600.”
“[Persepolis] was a brilliant book to have just after 9/11,” Singh says. “It was immediate and powerful, and I had this feeling of bringing Marjane's story to a larger audience. I thought it would open people's minds and teach something new in a fun way.”
For Singh, publishing has indeed been the accidental career. After graduating from college, she faced a typical dilemma--she had high, but unemployably vague, literary skills. “I wanted to be a poet, and I wanted to go to grad school to study South Asian languages,” she recalls. She lived in India for a while before returning to live in New York. “I knew I liked to read and write,” Singh says, “but what would I do with that?” An editor friend suggested, among other publishing jobs, scouting, which Singh says turned out “to be a great job.” After five years working for Mary Anne Thompson, Singh got “antsy,” and then she got lucky. She heard through the grapevine about an editor's spot at Random House. She got the job and ended up acquiring titles--both prose and comics--for Vintage, Pantheon and Knopf.
While still at Random House, she followed up Persepolis with a series of acclaimed graphic novels, among them Epileptic by David B. and Jessica Abel's La Perdida as well as prose works by novelist and nonfiction writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and novelist Diana Abu-Jaber. At Houghton Mifflin she's published the 2007 prose novel Maynard and Jennica, a comic love story set in New York City by Rudolph Delson; and this year The Invention of Everything Else by Samantha Hunt, a fictional retelling of the friendship between a chambermaid at the Hotel New York and the eccentric inventor Nikola Tesla set in the 1940s.
In praise of the editor's profession, she says, “It's the relationship you have with both your colleagues and with your authors. Obviously you get to have a hand in a finished book, but you're really an important person in an author's life. You get to really root for your writers--that's what makes an editor special.”