Q&A: Penguin India’s Chiki Sarkar

March 26, 2012 8:00 am by

Photo: Michel Figuet.

Chiki Sarkar was just 29 when she became the head of the newly-formed Random House India in 2006. There, under her watch, the publishing house launched a bestseller in the form of Rujuta Diwekar’s diet bible Don’t Lose Your Mind, Lose Your Weight, and the highly acclaimed Chinaman by Shehan Karunatilaka. Last year, she was appointed publisher of Penguin Books India, making her at 34, the head of the country’s largest English-language publishing house. Sarkar, who has a degree from Oxford University and worked at Bloomsbury Publishing in London for seven years, responded to our questions via email, explaining among other things the rigours of sniffing out a bestseller, hand-holding authors and how not to impress her. Edited excerpts:

At Random House, you oversaw a slew of major titles from Mohammed Hanif’s A Case of Exploding Mangoes to Rujuta Diwekar’s Don’t Lose Your Mind, Lose Your Weight. Do you have a feel for a best-selling book? Or is it entirely unpredictable?
It’s not too complicated. I buy what I really enjoyed or loved—my tastes are wide ranging, and I am curious about most things from serious fiction and history to diet books. But most importantly, I am a real believer that if I really love something, chances are that others will too. Then it’s my job to take it out into the world.

Did you expect Rujuta Diwekar’s book to be the success it eventually became? Much of the information in the book were things people already knew, but there was a sense that it was packaged and conveyed in exceptionally “digestable” form. Do you agree?
Don’t Lose Your Mind had two things going for it. Rujuta had a unique philosophy about food—it was simple, counterintuitive, it felt right and yet, it also felt different. She’s really thought about stuff, and has an overarching and deep view of food and health. When I work on books like this and find myself actually changing my patterns, I know it has something special about it. I still follow some of Rujuta’s principles (though sadly not all!) for example.

Secondly, there was the size zero factor. I think the latter was the big publicity hook but the reason the book has been such a success is because of the former. However, much as we publishers might like to believe otherwise, the real successes are the books that readers take to. It’s something beyond our influence. And so to come to the next part of your question, I don’t think Rujuta’s book worked because it was packaged right. If only it were that easy.

When a book fails to perform as expected, what happens? Is there a post mortem or a last-ditch effort to boost sales?
It’s heartbreaking and it happens all the time. You can try and pump it but ultimately as I said before, you can only make a book work so far. Abraham Verghese’s Cutting For Stone was very highly acclaimed, got brilliant reviews, and was a US bestseller but it never took off here. We changed jackets, pushed it constantly but it just didn’t work.

Last year, you were quoted saying that “Indian fiction on the whole is not particularly interesting”. Do you still believe that?
Yes, I am afraid so, although I think there are exceptions. However, I meant Indian fiction in English. I have been reading a lot of contemporary regional Indian writing because my editor Sivapriya is concentrating on publishing these, and there is a lot of really interesting writing in other languages. These novels play with ideas, are often genuinely subversive, and are about worlds that most of us know very little about.

In a magazine interview, you said “What you say no to is more important than what you say yes to”. Can you give us an example of this and also of a book you turned down that you wish you hadn’t?
I think the most well-known book I passed on was White Tiger—I thought it was a really interesting story but I didn’t believe in the voice. I said no to Mussharaf Farooqi’s Story of a Widow and that’s the only book I have passed on that I perhaps shouldn’t have. He’s terrific—and Aleph are publishing his next novel, which is really something. On the whole, I don’t question my instincts.

Which book reviewers do you follow in India? Do reviewers have any kind of impact on sales in India?
I read them all—Nilanjana Roy, Jai Arjun Singh, Supriya Nair, Chandrahas Choudhury et al. I think, on the whole, very few reviewers impact sales, at least to my knowledge. If however a book gets superlative reviews, across the board, for example as Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers did, this can drive sales. Kate hasn’t come to India yet for her launch and was only able to give us a limited number of interviews and yet it’s been one of our top selling new titles. So yes, in this case the massive reviews, often double page and absolutely effusive, and the buzz we created around the book during the Jaipur Literature Festival plus its success in the USA has led to the sales.

What kind of editor are you?
Committed and passionate about my writers, and someone who pushes them to do better.

There’s a great quote by T.S. Eliot that says “An editor should tell the author that his writing is better than it is”. Do you believe that? What essentially is the role of a good book editor?
I believe in a version of that—I think writers should feel secure and loved by their editors. When one of my authors say they feel happy to be around me, I take it as the ultimate praise. But with the editing, I try and be as tough as I can be. Alexandra Pringle, who is publisher of Bloomsbury and my old boss, used to say to me, pay a bunch of compliments, then slip in something negative when you edit. So it’s true the compliments need to usually be much more than the criticism. What’s the role of a good book editor—first to be discerning, second to edit, third is to worry about every aspect of the book from cover to typeface to sales and marketing, and last try and love their authors as much as possible (though in some cases this is impossible!).

You published the excellent Chinaman—The Legend of Pradeep Mathew while at Random House. How did you discover Shehan Karunatilaka?
Shehan sent me an email with a few pages. I took a look at it, liked what I saw, asked for the manuscript, read it slowly (I happen to know nothing about cricket), realised it was a masterpiece and bought it! I did say to Shehan that I would need to cut a 100 pages if I were to publish it and he agreed. Now some of his more fanatic admirers actually buy the original, unedited Sri Lankan edition so they can have those extra 100 pages!

One for the aspiring writers out there looking to get published—what’s the best way to impress you?
By being really serious about the writing. I never understand why people insist on meeting me before they send me their work. The writing should speak for itself.

And lastly, what have you commissioned at Penguin that we can expect to see out this year?
At PBI, I am involved in publishing everyone’s books, so commission much less. But the books I’ve bought are Anjum Hasan’s marvellous new collection of short stories out in April called Difficult Pleasures, Pico Iyer’s very moving memoir about his obsession with Graham Greene, Man Within My Head (also out in April), and Amit Chaudhuri has come to PBI with all his backlist, which we are thrilled by. I’ll be publishing his big non-fiction book about Calcutta next year.