India’s publishing world has just been shaken and stirred ‒ yet again ‒ by movements at the top. This time in the form of the sudden, coordinated exit of five ‒ you read that right ‒ top people from Penguin Random House India, which is India’s largest trade publisher in English.

Publisher Chiki Sarkar led the exodus. She had joined Penguin Books in 2011 in the same post, after five years as editor in chief at Random House. Ironically, Random House and Penguin merged in 2014, and Sarkar became publisher of the combined entity that year.

The four other people who have also quit PRHI:

*R Sivapriya, managing editor, who looked after the classics and translations lists.

*Nandini Mehta, a senior editor who commissioned books by high-profile writers.

*Jayashree Ram Mohan, who ran the company’s formidable team of copy editors.

*Gavin Morris, who designed many of the books and their covers, besides managing the design team.

PRHI now

Following these departures, it appears that there may not be a successor to Sarkar. According to a communiqué from the company, the overall editorial leadership ‒ usually given to the person designated publisher ‒ will now be split between Meru Gokhale, who currently heads literary fiction and non-fiction for the entire company, Milee Ashwarya, who looks after business and lifestyle non-fiction books, and Udayan Mitra, an old Penguin hand.

Both Gokhale and Aiswharya came into the merged company from Random House, and were given virtually independent leadership roles. By contrast, the senior editors at Penguin Books continued to play their existing roles alone, and little or nothing more. The only exception was Sarkar, who, as Publisher, headed the entire editorial function.

Widely considered the best-known face of PRHI to both writers and those involved in the trade, Sarkar acquired a string of reputed literary writers ‒ such as Amitav Ghosh and Ramchandra Guha ‒ and oversaw the acquisition of bestselling young writers like Ravinder Singh, Durjoy Dutta and Ravi Subramanian from other publishing companies.

Why the exits?

That these exits signal a major change at PRHI is obvious, even if it isn’t yet clear what the triggers were. Like every other trade publisher, PRHI too has been realigning itself aggressively to the market over the past couple of years. It is believed that this created a certain cultural conflict between an editorial team focussed on bringing out good books and the management imperative for revenues and profits in a market threatening to flatten out.

If this was one source of change, the other was the merger with Random House India, which led to a realignment of the editorial leadership and to the introduction of Gaurav Shrinagesh, then with Random House, as CEO. Armed with a clear mandate to grow revenues and profits, Shrinagesh is believed to have ushered in several changes in both strategy and operational methods. One of the changes that the company may have been considering is doing away with an in-house copy editing department ‒ although this is not confirmed.

Interestingly, whether or not these changes led to increased pressure in business terms on the editors, PRHI is believed to have turned in a profit on its Indian publishing operations in the last financial year, which resulted in sizeable bonus payouts for employees. The coming months will demonstrate just how these five exits will affect PRHI’s publishing in terms of both the kind of books published and revenues and profits ‒ and who will be brought in as replacements.

What's next for Sarkar?

Of equal interest is what Sarkar ‒ as well as Sivapriya, Morris, Mehta and Ram Mohan ‒ will be doing now. There are only a handful of publishers similar to PRHI in India, among them being HarperCollins India, Hachette India, Bloomsbury India, Westland, Rupa, Aleph Book Company, and the newly formed Speaking Tiger Books. Of these, Bloomsbury India may be searching for a publisher soon, with Diya Kar Hazra having put in her papers there.

Will Sarkar ‒ whose father Aveek Sarkar, co-owner of the ABP Group, sold his 45% equity stake in Penguin India at the time of the merger for a sum in the vicinity of Rs 50 crore ‒ start her own publishing company? Will any of the others who quit PRHI join her? These questions are not even in the realm of speculation at the moment.

But watch this space.