Man of Letters


What does it take to head up a powerhouse of academic publishing? For Mahinder Kingra ’85, editor-in-chief of Cornell University Press, a deep love of ideas, an embrace of technology, and the ability to read really, really fast.

What was your first job in publishing?

After I graduated from Columbia, I worked for a year in the marketing and publicity department with Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. I had always loved books, but that’s when my love of publishing started. This was 1989. It was an exciting time to be in publishing. I worked with a lot of really interesting authors, including Umberto Eco. I was assigned to go to the bookstore with him for an event that we advertised everywhere. This was after The Name of the Rose [a huge international bestseller]. The book was Foucault’s Pendulum [another bestseller; “the thinking man’s Da Vinci Code”]. Eight people showed up. So Umberto Eco basically went through the signing line in about three minutes and then he and I sat there talking for an hour. It was terrific. We talked about literary theory, we talked about comic books, we talked about immigrants selling newspapers. You can imagine what a conversation was like with him. Now I tell all my authors, “I’m happy to arrange a bookstore event for you, but if Umberto Eco could only pull eight people, set your expectations accordingly.”

You took a break from publishing to earn an M.A.
in history from Duke. When you decided to get back into the business, why did you choose academic over trade?

I really like the intellectual challenge of academic publishing. One of my jokes is that it gives you great cocktail party chatter. We publish so many books about so many topics, some of them big and some of them really esoteric. I always learn really interesting things and get to think creatively. I also strongly believe in the mission. As not-for-profit publishers, we are driven by ideas. We think the ideas are really important to get out there. We tend to work on books that are intellectually satisfying.

How many titles does Cornell bring out in a year?

We publish 150 books in a year. I personally am editing about 25 books this year. I did 28 last year, which was too many. I probably get five to ten proposals a week. Of those I might ask to see 50 and from that I get to 25 titles that I want to acquire.

What do you look for when you read
a manuscript for the first time?

People tend to think of academic books as being really dense. I don’t think that is true, but when I come to a manuscript for the first time, I ask, “What’s the story here? Why should I care about reading this book?” I call it the through-line, the narrative thread. I try to discourage really obscure efforts. When scholars write dissertations, they are writing to please only a handful a people—the people on their dissertation committees. A book obviously has to have broader appeal. The model audience is someone who is interested in ideas, who doesn’t need everything spoon-fed to them, doesn’t need it dumbed down. Imagine you’re writing for the readership of the New Yorker or the New York Review of Books. We’re thinking in terms of quality of scholarship, quality of writing, strong editing. By the way, shout out to Williston: I still apply lessons I learned when I was on
The Willistonian. Punchy writing, writing that is convincing and clear.

How has publishing changed since
you started? 

The attention to quality of argument has not changed at all, but the business model has changed completely. We’ve learned to use technology to lower unit costs, to make books available more quickly. Instead of keeping a warehouse full of books, we can print as needed. Are you still able to read for pleasure? I really have to make time for it. I almost have to force myself, because it would be easy to let weeks go by between all the manuscripts I read for work. What I tend to do is listen to audiobooks. It engages a different part of my brain. What’s your favorite genre? For Cornell I acquire in the fields of Medieval Studies, Literary Studies, and Classics. Every so often I might add the odd book out of personal interest. For example, I am doing a book on the Beatles’ Abbey Road, because the album will be celebrating its 50th anniversary in 2019. I love the Beatles. Outside the office, I’m addicted to Nordic crime fiction. Henning Mankell is a popular example. Gloomy with a chain-smoking detective who drinks a lot of black coffee and doesn’t eat anything. I’m a sucker for those. Those books tend to be a little more socially engaged; they deal with issues of class and race and migration. So I like that there is some real-world edge to them. You mentioned your time as a Willistonian editor. Has anything else in your school experience stayed with you? One of the reasons I went to grad school was ninth-grade Western Civilization with Mr. Snook. I loved that class so much. Dr. Seybolt of the English Department, his Hemingway-esque approach to writing has really shaped how I look at an author’s manuscript. When I see a lot of passive voice, I say, “No! Get rid of that. Just because this is a book about ideas doesn’t mean it can’t be active!” I think that Williston probably was harder than college was for me. Being challenged but then also being respected enough to be challenged is not something that high school students get everywhere. You’re either challenged because you’re not respected or you’re respected and therefore not challenged. I think the combination at Williston was unique. Teachers assumed you were smart, they gave you the work they thought you could do, and they challenged you to do your best. It certainly prepared me for the kind of reading I do every day. Williston was foundational for all of that.