Publishing Lives 3. Chiki Sarkar, Penguin India

After exploring the world of independent publishing on the previous days, day five was devoted to multinational (mainstream) publishing. It was our distinct honour hosting Chiki Sarkar, who at the age of 34, heads India’s largest English-language publishing house, Penguin India. Her talk was more like fitting the last piece of a jigsaw puzzle in our minds. She took us through her journey as a student at the Oxford University and how she joined Bloomsbury in London, the publishing house known for producing the most popular Harry Potter series. Then the adventure was spoilt by the problems of getting a work permit and she had to return to India. ‘The first year I returned from England, I literally cried every single day.’ But it turned out to be a blessing in disguise when she was appointed as Editor-in-Chief of Random House, where she worked for four years before she could pilot Penguin India in May 2011.

According to her, the major difference between independent publishing and multinational publishing is rooted in marketing and sales. She gave several instances to prove that some independent publishing houses produce good books that often beat the standard of multinational publishing. Seagull Books was one of those, and she truly admired their cover designs and quality of material used for their books. She mentioned that, in multinational publishing, the process of deciding to accept a manuscript is based on many people including sales and marketing, whilst in independent publishing it is frequently a one-man decision. ‘The battle between the editor and sales helps me to up my game,’ she proudly declared. The marketing department produces a detailed strategy on how to advertise that book. In the case of most independent publishing houses, you are likely to find one person doing all these. The most critical difference is the fact that most independent publishers survive because of funding and sponsorship whereas multinational publishing houses enjoy a certain financial security. This reminded me of S. Anand’s statement on running an independent publishing house, when he said, ‘Paying myself is like eating my own fingers.’

The next day she spoke at length about the entire production stream in a multinational publishing house. She then broke it down to the role of each individual, starting from the writer to the bookseller. ‘If selling is not your aim, then you shouldn’t be a publisher,’ she boldly uttered about publishers irrespective of size. On a controversial note she mentioned that in her opinion the list at Penguin India before she joined was not entirely to her liking or taste. She emphasized that her list defines her ‘good’ taste for books.

The highlight of her session was when she sketched the cash flow of who gets what out of every book sold. She demonstrated how almost 50 per cent of the money goes to the distributor and the bookseller, then the remaining covers production costs, salaries and author royalties. Despite having published books before, some of these factors were unknown to me, and I guess they equally contribute to this unending tension between authors and publishers. If only publishers could supply such budgets along with the contract when they buy manuscripts, perhaps the author’s confusion would be slightly reduced.

Furthermore, she pointed out how vital the relationship between the publisher and the writer is. She explained how she would go all out for her writers to make them realize that she treasures them. ‘I always feel privileged to be with these people [writers] because I’m not as smart as them,’ she confessed. On the other hand, she cautioned that, after editing a manuscript, there’s commonly an undeclared battle between the author and the editor. Authors feel that they deserve every credit for they are the ones who wrote the manuscript, though the editors feel that they also contributed a lot to the making of the book. ‘As a publisher, you will discover talented writers, you will nurture them, and when they get successful, they will leave you—it happens,’ she warned.

She warned us about the technological changes taking place in our times. She was specifically concerned about the role of Flipkart, e-books and book piracy. She mentioned that Penguin India has already started preparing for any change as the result of technology.

All in all, not only was what she was saying significant but her biography was equally inspiring too. Her intimidating background in the world of publishing, at her age for that matter, gives us a reason to dream. And as Mahasweta Devi once said: ‘The fundamental right is the right to dream.’ Perhaps this is the same reason Naveen Kishore decided to address us as publishers right from day one of this course. What a stimulating session!

Ke tšhaba mediti! Let’s carry on . . .

DAVID WA MAAHLAMELA

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