Chiki Sarkar is the last person to whom you’d want to repeat a “Random Penguin” joke about the recently announced global merger of Penguin and Random House. Sarkar, publisher, Penguin India, has been heading the editorial arm of India’s biggest publisher since she moved there in 2011, from her last post as editor-in-chief of Random House India (RHI).
In Indian readers’ minds, Sarkar’s seven-year career in Indian publishing might be the strongest link between the two presses. On a dusty November afternoon in central Delhi, we meet over lunch at Latitude 28 in Khan Market, where the sunlight pours off the walls decorated with motifs from Shammi Kapoor’s Kashmir Ki Kali. She’s waiting to get back home to Jor Bagh, where there are salads to be made and a rack of lamb to be marinated in time for a dinner party that evening; author Siddhartha Mukherjee, an old friend, is in town. We talk about life in publishing so far over Latitude’s delicious yakhni and red wine—which, unsurprisingly, go very well together.
Sarkar, the 35-year-old daughter of Aveek Sarkar, chief editor of the Ananda Bazaar Patrika group of publications (who launched Penguin India in 1985 in a joint venture with the British Pearson group), was born in Kolkata, but left at 16 to attend school and university in the UK. She was a young editor at Bloomsbury Publishing’s London headquarters, a few years out of Oxford, when she heard one day that Sonny Mehta, the legendary New York-based editor (currently chairman, Knopf Doubleday) was looking for someone to head Random House’s future India operations.
“I was at a very early stage of my own professional career,” she remembers. “I was just getting to the stage where I was getting my own books to do.” Nonetheless, she emailed Mehta and told him that they should talk. Two conversations later—one with Mehta, the second with Gail Roebuck, Random House’s chief executive—they offered her the job.
So Sarkar came home. “It was the best decision I made,” she says. “I would never leave India now. I’m too addicted to life here.”
Delhi, the hub of India’s publishing industry, was hard to cope with at first. “I thought, I hate it, I feel trapped here. I can’t get out when I want to, I can’t hail a cab in the middle of the night.” But she’s made her peace with it. “I have a lovely flat. I have really dear friends. I have Lodhi Gardens right across from me, where I go regularly to run. And I like my job. I don’t feel romantically about Delhi, but as far as tragedies go it’s not really a tragedy.”
Sarkar is one of several women at the head of the editorial arms of Indian publishing companies, big or small. I ask her whether this hospitable industry has a sort of glass ceiling, though, when it comes to becoming chief executives or managing directors.
“In India the only reason there’s not a woman MD is literally because they don’t want to be,” she says. “Publishing has always had women. In Britain, in the 1970s, they were publicists and maybe editors, but then even by Alexandra’s (Pringle, editor in chief of Bloomsbury UK and Sarkar’s mentor) time, things had changed. Look at people like Gail Roebuck, or Susan Petersen Kennedy (president, Penguin USA) or Victoria Barnsley (CEO, HarperCollins UK). There’s no issue about a glass ceiling.”
She, personally, would like to continue working with books and editing. Sarkar is a “books girl,” as she says, a literary-minded person. Several of the authors she’s edited and published in the last seven years, including Shehan Karunatilaka, Aman Sethi, Katherine Boo and Basharat Peer, have had great critical and commercial success. Coming to RHI allowed her to build a list almost from scratch—the only author she inherited from the international office when they set up was Manju Kapur. It also introduced her to a new sort of tension: balancing the love of reading and making money.
“It was possibly the most pleasant surprise of my life: from having this vision of myself as someone who went to Oxford and worked at Bloomsbury, naturally inclined to publishing Daniyal Mueenuddin or Mohammed Hanif, to actually enjoying doing diet books and business books.”
"IN PARENTHESIS: “The reason I read,” Sarkar says, “is 19th century European and British fiction.” When she started at Random House India, as a present to herself she got three shelves’ worth of the Everyman Classics series—fine editions of classic works, of which she reads “two or three” every year. Last year she read Gustave Flaubert’s ‘A Sentimental Education’. “You know, those books combined what TV series today combine, which is high artistry with relevance. At the moment, whether it’s ‘The Wire’ or ‘The Killing’, there’s enough nuance and sophistication, but also an addictive quality that makes these things very commercial. I think novels today have lost that sense; of social purpose, relevance, a feeling that people will read it and plug into the currents of the world in some way.”"
Life at RHI was intense. Sarkar involved herself in everything from sales and marketing, to the sort of flowers they had at the office reception. Moving to Penguin meant that the scale of her job grew bigger, but more focused as well. She says she’s “obsessed” with the shape of her lists, crafting Penguin India’s strategies for the 150 books they publish each year to make sure their timing and balance is right.
Does the sales side of things irritate her? “I love it,” she says. “As a publisher you’re not a girl on a sofa reading a book. It’s about translating your passion into sales. And that’s what I do. I’m not a critic, I’m not an academic, I’m not a writer. I think every publisher will tell you, there’s at least one day in a month when you want to give it all up. But without that push, you’d just be the girl with nice taste, congratulating herself on being a bookish girl. And I don’t want to be that girl. I want to be the girl who may get it wrong but remains fighting.”
I ask her to deconstruct the Penguin Random House mega-deal, and whether itwill create the largest publishing house the world has ever seen, for Indian readers. “This doesn’t affect India,” she explains. “But a bunch of things are happening in the world abroad. One is that the e-book is creating a one-price standard for a book, which eats into the traditional margins from which publishers made their money. The second is that when you’re not actually spending money on printing and physical distribution, your actual costs go down, so writers should be getting a larger share. But publishers find other costs coming up, and no one knows what numbers will stay firm at the moment. Because of e-books, traditional book retail has collapsed in the US and UK.
“So your areas of sales have closed; your price points have closed; it means you have a smaller and smaller piece of the pie. That’s not even talking about piracy. Like the music industry, the only way these companies are going to survive is through a consolidation.
“At the moment, we do know the companies plan to remain separate,” she adds. “They’re going to combine backroom stuff, such as printing and distributing. I don’t think that Penguin and RHI editorial will remain anything but separate.”