Home / Lounge / Features /  Chiki Sarkar’s Nobel run

Chiki Sarkar has fond memories of economist Abhijit Banerjee rustling up “a salad of roasted peaches in Paris" and “a deeply satisfying Kolkata street-style chicken curry" in her kitchen.

On 14 October, Banerjee, 58, and Esther Duflo, 46, won the Nobel prize in economics, along with Michael Kremer, for their “experimental approach to alleviating global poverty".

Sarkar got acquainted with Banerjee and Duflo when the couple’s first book together, Poor Economics, landed up on her desk at Random House India in 2010. The two were well-known in economics circles but didn’t have the kind of broader recognition they carry now, she tells me over the phone. She signed on the India rights for the book “without reading it" after seeking endorsements from Infosys co-founder Nandan Nilekani and columnist Pratap Bhanu Mehta. Both told her that Banerjee and Duflo would win the Nobel one day.

Now close friends with them—“they attended my wedding, I attended theirs"—Sarkar concedes that she has spent more time talking to Banerjee about cooking and Duflo about parenting than about economics. She’s stayed with them, in Boston and Paris. The win felt personal to her. This month, in what can only be extremely fortuitous timing, nearly a decade after they made their acquaintance, she has just published their second book, Good Economics For Hard Times. In 2016, she had published another Nobel laureate, Svetlana Alexievich (a year after her win), which takes the young publishing house’s Nobel tally to three. For Juggernaut, the digital-first publishing house Sarkar founded four years ago, this is a coup. And it is a coup very much led by the cult of Chiki Sarkar.

Part of the cult is talk about her being a difficult and unemotional boss. But that is a predictable cliché for all young and successful women. It also includes glowing praise from former colleagues. Hemali Sodhi, who worked with her for close to five years at Penguin Random House India when she headed marketing and Sarkar headed editorial, tells me about Sarkar’s fastidiousness for “shout lines" (those lines under the book title). “She is well-rounded, with an interest in shout lines, cover design, blurbs, pricing…." For Sodhi, Sarkar is someone who truly gets the dynamics of the publishing business, has an evolved editing sensibility and also a great eye for publicity and packaging.

The unnamed force that made Sarkar decide to publish Poor Economics without reading it—I must clarify that she can now detail its specific genius for hours—is also the one that convinced her to release Good Economics For Hard Times last weekend following a vague bit of internet speculation about Duflo’s Nobel nod. “I alerted the Harper team (Juggernaut has partnered with HarperCollins India on the print business) so that we could come up with an advance plan in case the rumours did prove true. The book was slotted to be published end of October but we released it from the warehouse last weekend itself. We also prepared a press release, stickers and social messaging so that we would be prepared if the news was good on Monday. However, none of us actually thought it would happen!" she says. The Poor Economics hardback had sold 15,000-20,000 copies (first year numbers). Good Economics For Hard Times had been planned as a 10,000 first run but 15,000 were reprinted as soon as the Nobel was announced.

This has been a significant year for Sarkar and Juggernaut. Its print business, which is 30% of the overall model, broke even earlier this year. The company is soon to announce a partnership with Tweak, the new women’s media platform by Twinkle Khanna, whose book publishing career itself is very much a Sarkar creation. There’s a children’s audio show with Soha Ali Khan. According to her, there are currently over 10,000 paying subscribers on the Juggernaut app.

While these developments give an overall fillip, there is work ahead. She knows that the digital business, which is the mainstay of the company, will take longer to break even. There is always buzz, accurate or not, about the company’s potential mergers, high attrition rates and other failures. From an editorial perspective, many Juggernaut books often appear too rushed; we have received final proofs with errors and typos. A cultural programmer once told me Juggernaut’s missteps were rooted in its drive to “chase news".

Earlier this year, the publishing house also found itself in the midst of an image crisis while defending their decision to publish Kiran Nagarkar’s book The Arsonist, which Penguin Random House India dropped following three #MeToo allegations. On its Twitter handle in June, @juggernautbooks said “…we felt that by not publishing Kiran Nagarkar’s book we would be suppressing an important novel that compellingly addresses some of the major issues and debates in the country today". The tone of the social media statement wasn’t comprehensive but in person, Sarkar has nuanced thoughts on the episode, which I hope she will someday publish.

In times like this, that are difficult for the publishing business and for all media in general, an energetic industry leader who tweets “I love my job" is a delight. Sarkar’s inquiries to Nilekani and Mehta are part of how she regularly functions.

I have occasionally received the quintessential Chiki Sarkar text or email to seek a writer or ghost writer recommendation or vote on an idea. The excitement is always palpable. Everything is in lower case. She’s a woman far too much in a hurry for subject lines. In the Chiki Sarkar universe, full stops are mythical.

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