Chiki Sarkar became Random House India’s first editor-in-chief in 2006. She moved to Penguin Books India in 2011, became the publisher of Penguin Random House India in 2014, and resigned from there earlier this year. Diya Kar Hazra, the first publisher of Bloomsbury India that began operations in 2012, too, resigned this year. David Davidar has been the publisher of Aleph Book Company only since 2011. His co-publisher, Ravi Singh, left the company last year to set up a new publishing firm called Speaking Tiger.

Now take Karthika V.K. The 47-year-old publisher of HarperCollins India has been running the show at the firm since 2006. One afternoon this week she sat down with us and spilled the secrets of her stable governance, and offered us her Bodhi-tree perspective on the state of India’s mainstream book publishing scene. Edited excerpts:

Give us all the gossip you have on Penguin Random House.

Gossip? No way. Though it’s all very interesting, isn’t it? There are so many versions of what happened and who said what to whom. One just listens from outside and wonders what actually took place. A literary agent told me the other day that Harper is so stable while everyone else is in a kind of flux, and we should make the most of it. But stable can also seem dangerously close to staid—and no publishing house can afford to appear boring or complacent. It’s important to constantly innovate to be perceived as exciting and as hungry, if you like, as the newer houses, or those newly reorganized.

Your long-time star writer Anuja Chauhan left you recently for Westland.

She broke our hearts. That didn’t stop me from enjoying her new novel... She had her reasons to leave us but we continue to be in touch, for seriously, you can’t hold grudges or quarrel with writers whose work you love. We published three of her novels and of course we tried very hard to stop her from leaving us. But she felt it was time for a change and who knows, maybe she will come back to the marriage after a fling or two!

Name the writers you would like to dump?

You are not serious! Well, actually, I can think of a person or two who do drive us up the wall, but for the most part, authors are really good with their editors. It’s like the darker side is reserved for the sales and marketing folk. You know, it’s hard to keep books visible after that first flush of newness, and despite the best efforts of the sales team, older titles tend to vanish into the back of stores, which is obviously hard for writers to accept. And then there is the constant pressure on marketing, to do book launches and events, despite the fact that the money spent on these is, honestly, much better spent on other kinds of marketing. I’ve had colleagues coming to me, very upset about having been snapped at, sometimes in public. But the thing to realize is that it’s a hard time for everyone—there is so much at stake, and obviously writers can only show their anxieties to their publishers.

How involved are you with your marketing team?

They work really hard against all sorts of constraints, especially time and budget—it’s always such a struggle to get books to be talked about. I spend a good part of my own working day thinking about packaging and marketing and author management. Reading and editing are only really possible before and after office hours. It occurs to me that I spend my whole blessed day on the phone or in meetings. Yet I never catch up. When I began work in publishing, contracts were being typed up on electronic typewriters. Today one has to be on top of e-mail, text messages, phone calls and WhatsApp and then there is Facebook, where I sometimes get gaalis (abuses) from my writers (laughs). “Oh, she actually responded!" Or curt messages like “I sent you the manuscript three months ago. You have not looked at it!" or a writer saying, “You have time for Facebook. How about responding to my email?"

And then there’s Twitter, where you promote books, engage in conversation, retweet stuff. If you don’t do it, writers feel like you don’t care. There are even times when they get annoyed if you say something nice about another writer, because hey, why haven’t you got around to reading their stuff yet.

Tell us about your relationship with writer Aravind Adiga.

Well, yes. It is a rather unusual relationship. We’ve never met in all these years but we write mails to each other almost every other day and I enjoy our interaction. I know he trusts me with his work and I would do nothing, ever, to devalue that trust. Of course we’ve had our share of disagreements but as he told me once, I am a mother of two boys and I should know how to handle tantrums!

I think writers reach out to their editors almost like they are anchors. We have a stake in working together, we need each other, and though it is essentially a professional relationship, it combines that core of professionalism with something personal, even intimate.

What do you think of the book reviewing scene?

I can’t say it makes me happy. Book review editors say too many books are being published. I say, nobody is expecting that every single book will be given space, but for god’s sake, don’t just focus on the big books. Give young writers a chance, allow for some discoveries, and please don’t shrink that space any more, it’s already half-dead. If you think about it, most book reviews you see are plot summaries. There is very little understanding of context, no attempt to try and locate the writer within the body of their own work and that of their peers. There was a time when one looked forward to what reviewers had to say, but the longer I spend in this profession, the more cynical I am about the process.

When Tarun Tejpal used to write a review in India Today, all those years ago, one read it not just to know what the book was about but also for the sheer pleasure of reading a well-written review that took you into the book and also outward, to ideas about writing and literature.

But now? I remember when Manu Joseph’s first book was published—he is one of the best writers we have and Serious Men was a standout book. Yet, the first review that appeared said the author seemed to be complicit in the perpetuation of the caste system or something to that effect, which to my mind was clearly missing the point. I remember standing at my desk, magazine in hand, furious as hell and utterly helpless. You see, the first review is really important—once the tone is set, others are often reluctant to tow the other way. Thankfully, in this instance, no lasting damage was done and the book went on to win a major prize.

You always wanted to enter publishing?

I had no idea what I wanted to do. I came to Delhi in 1992, after college in Kochi and university in Hyderabad, to do a PhD in JNU (Jawaharlal Nehru University). I had a UGC (University Grants Commission) fellowship that gave me 3,000 a month. A friend mentioned there was a job going at Penguin and I went along for a lark and wrote the edit test. They offered me 3,500 and I said, let’s join. It was as unthinking as that. I started as an editorial assistant and remained there for the next 10 years. I remember the first book I had to proof-read was a Shobhaa De novel.

Those were still early days at Penguin. A year or so after I joined, David (Davidar, then Penguin India publisher) gathered us in our office in Chiranjiv Towers, Nehru Place, and told us how he wanted to reorganize the structure and we should now work as two teams: commissioning editors and copy editors. I don’t think I had even heard that word before: commissioning. Today, I look back and think that was a fairly historic moment in trade publishing in India. If I remember right, there were five of us sitting around that table—David, Ravi Singh, Renuka Chatterjee, Krishan Chopra and I. All of us are still in publishing, though scattered in different places. Ravi heads Speaking Tiger and Renuka works with him; Krishan and I are at Harper. David, of course, runs Aleph.

How come you have stuck so long with HarperCollins?

Maybe I’m a settler, not a leaver. You know, the real difficulty in publishing is not setting up but dismantling. You don’t just leave your work space and colleagues, you have to say goodbye to all those writers who trusted you with their work. And that’s a wrench, almost a betrayal. I am sure every editor feels that way. Like when I left Penguin for HarperCollins in 2006, I remember writing to all the authors I worked with, saying, I’m sorry I’m leaving but I’m leaving you in the hands of xyz and I’m sure you will be fine… but that step is always very hard.

Close