A conversation with Gita Manaktala, executive editor-at-large of the MIT Press

Gita Manaktala speaks of her career at the MIT Press and looks ahead to her new role as executive editor-at-large

Earlier this fall, we announced that Gita Manaktala, longtime editorial director of the MIT Press, is moving to a newly created executive editor-at-large position in which she will continue to acquire a wide range of trade titles for the Press. We spoke with Gita about her career with the MIT Press and what comes next.

Gita Manaktala.

The MIT Press: You have had an unconventional career trajectory, but let’s start with how you were first hired at the MIT Press?

Gita Manaktala: This wasn’t my first publishing job, but it was close. As an undergraduate, I took time off from college and went to New York, where I had the amazing chance to intern with Barney Rosset, the visionary founder and publisher of Grove Press. Barney had fought the court case for Lady Chatterley’s Lover. He published Samuel Beckett, Marguerite Duras, Frantz Fanon, Jack Kerouac, Harold Pinter, Jean Genet, Amos Tutuola, and the Evergreen Review, to name just a few. This atmosphere of fiercely independent publishing opened my eyes to the possibility of working with books professionally.

After college, I got a temp job in the publicity department at the MIT Press. Eventually, I was hired as a full-time publicity assistant. From there, I became the press’s publicity manager, and eventually sales and marketing director.

The MIT Press: And now you lead the acquisitions team. Was it challenging to make the switch from sales and marketing director to editorial director?

Gita Manaktala: When our director at the time, Ellen Faran, first approached me to be the editorial director, I thought it was a stretch. But she was convinced that it could work. Publicists and marketing people work on a wide range of subject matter, and they develop a sense of audience that editors also cultivate, and that is very helpful in editorial decision making. Pitching media and bookstore buyers can be a humbling experience, but it definitely hones this sense of audience.

Although I had worked in publishing for years, I still had everything to learn about what acquisitions editors do: working with authors to develop their ideas in book form, negotiating contracts, finding qualified peer reviewers, and much more. My colleagues were incredibly kind and patient with me as I learned to appreciate the work they do.

The MIT Press: As editorial director, you’ve seen the team through some incredible challenges and achievements. What are you most proud of?

Gita Manaktala: First and foremost, I value the people I’ve had a chance to work with. We have a very talented group of editors and assistants here at the press, not to mention my colleagues in other departments. I have been lucky to work with the best. 

I’m also proud of the Essential Knowledge series, which will soon publish its 100th title. All of our editors commission books for this series. It was the brainchild of MIT Press senior editor Margy Avery, who understood the potential of short books on trending topics, including technical ones. The accessible format and structure that Margy conceived for these books has proven ideal for introducing even complex topics in an appealing way. 

Looking back, a lot has changed. The biggest thing from my perspective is the expansion of the trade publishing program since 2015. Building out this program has been incredibly exciting. It reshaped the acquisitions program and the entire Press. Every system was touched. The MIT Press has always been known for field-defining scholarship and textbooks. We always had a trade program, which for many years focused primarily on books on the arts, architecture, and design, with a few other topics here and there. We did not want to stray from these reputational strengths. What we ended up creating is a trade program that represents all of our subject areas and makes the scholarly core of the Press accessible to a much wider audience.

This created new opportunities to work with authors at the top of their fields who were interested in writing for wider audiences. As part of this we started publishing some original and classic science fiction like the Twelve Tomorrows and Radium Age series, some graphic novels like The Dialogues by Clifford Johnson, and books for young adult readers like The Curie Society and Power On!

The MIT Press: In addition to your work leading the department through these changes, you have also continued to acquire award-winning and impactful books. What are some highlights from your catalog?

Gita Manaktala: I’ve worked with so many talented authors; it’s hard to pick just one or two. I have always tried to acquire work that is impactful in its research and arguments. Beyond that, I’m interested in books that stake out new and fertile areas of inquiry and pioneer new publishing models.

A book that checks all those boxes is Data Feminism by Catherine D’Ignazio and Lauren Klein. Yes, it’s an award-winning book (the MLA Prize for Collaborative, Bibliographical, or Archival Scholarship)—and it is a prime example of what I want to put into the world as an editor. Like many STEM fields, data science is dominated by men, and its results in the world, as we know, have not always resulted in positive social change. This book, from two powerhouse scholars, puts forward an entirely new way of thinking about data science that is explicitly informed by intersectional feminist thinking. It was also one of our earliest open peer review projects. We knew we had something special when dozens of readers engaged in real time on an early manuscript of the book, and that energy has continued.

I am also proud of the books I’ve published with Meredith Broussard, Artificial Unintelligence and More Than a Glitch. Meredith is a data journalist and a professor at NYU. She writes really good code and really good prose. Her books put forward big ideas about technological chauvinism, but they read like a conversation with a friend. They are the epitome of what the trade program at MIT Press sets out to do.

The MIT Press: These are fantastic books for all the reasons you list, but they also speak to your efforts to diversify who, what, and how we publish. Can you talk a bit about your efforts on this through AUPresses and at the Press?

Gita Manaktala: The publishing industry has faced a lot of criticism over the lack of diversity in its workforce. I didn’t think about this very much until fairly recently. I saw myself in a group photo of runners at a publishing industry meeting maybe nine years ago. It was a strange feeling to see that mine was the only dark face in the bunch.

Around the same time, Larin McLaughlin at the University of Washington Press invited me and the MITP to participate with a few other presses in a pipeline program she had developed and planned to roll out with the help of funding from the Mellon Foundation. The goal was to remove some of the barriers preventing people from low income and otherwise underrepresented backgrounds from considering publishing jobs. The Mellon University Press Diversity Fellowship program was the first of its kind in the industry and has been the model for many other initiatives since. Over six years, the program hosted and matriculated 30 brilliant fellows, most of whom still work in publishing.

At the MIT Press, my colleagues and the senior leadership team are dedicated to creating equity, justice, and inclusion in our workplace and for our authors. We started a diversity and inclusion working group, which currently continues as our Equity and Justice Forum. We created a paid internship program and an IDEA plan to hold ourselves accountable for specific results. We established a Fund for Diverse Voices and a grant program within this to provide support to authors and books that bring innovative ideas and underrepresented perspectives.

The Association of University Presses has been a leader of efforts to create a more inclusive publishing landscape and continues to be out front on these issues. Change has come slowly to the publishing industry. There’s much more work still to do.

The MIT Press: What you’ve described so far would be an incredible legacy for any career, yet you’re not done yet! What are your plans in your new role as editor at large?

Gita Manaktala: It’s an amazing privilege to work as an editor at large. It will allow me to acquire a range of topics and to work on projects that I find useful and necessary in the world. It also allows the Press to fill in gaps that naturally exist between our established areas of acquisition, deepening the connective tissue between our editorial lists. And lastly, it provides me with the time and resources to publish top tier books from dream authors. I don’t know exactly what shape this will all take, but I look forward to building a list that creates a real impact in the world.

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