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HarperCollins India signals a shift with the entry of new CEO from Penguin Random House

The move indicates a new urgency in the business plans of the multinational book-publisher in India.

The English-language publishing business in India doesn’t often witness dramatic moves at the top. That’s why the announcement on Tuesday that PM Sukumar had resigned from his post of CEO of HarperCollins India came as a minor shock to the trade.

Sukumar’s replacement completes the other half of the biggest top-level shift in the industry. HarperCollins India’s next CEO will be Ananth Padmanabhan, till now the senior vice-President, Penguin Random House, where he oversaw the crucial sales function. A Penguin veteran of 18 years – he joined the company in 1997 – Padmanabhan, like Sukumar, was often thought to be umbilically attached to his company.

Significantly, HarperCollins’s education business in the country, represented by Collins India, which publishes text and educational books, will be run on a day to day basis by Krishna Naroor, who will not be reporting to Padmanabhan but will be working alongside him.

Neither HarperCollins India nor Penguin Random House announces their financials publicly, but the two companies are believed to be the No. 2 and No. 1 company in English trade publishing in India, respectively. However, the gap between them has widened after the merger of Random House and Penguin.

While there are, naturally, no official reasons for the change at the top, the near-concurrence of the announcement of Sukumar’s departure and Padmanabhan’s arrival at HarperCollins India points to the move being a choreographed one. Sukumar piloted the company through its early day and initial growth, and now Padmanabhan is expected to step on the gas.

The move also coincides with the shift in HarperCollins India’s global alignment. The Indian company will now be overseen by HarperCollins UK instead of HarperCollins US, with UK CEO Charlier Redmayne – whose brother Eddie won an Oscar for his portrayal of Stephen Hawking – being personally involved.

Known for stability

That this change at the top is taking place at HarperCollins India is something of a surprise, for the company has been an oasis of calm when it comes to editor and publisher movements. While Penguin Random House, Bloomsbury and the Aleph Book Company, among others, have seen departures of top and senior-level editors in recent times, HarperCollins India has sailed serenely through such turbulence.

For instance, the two editors at the company, Karthika VK and Krishan Chopra, have been with HarperCollins India since 2006, when they moved from Penguin Books. And Sukumar himself joined the company as CEO in 2005.

Padmanabhan is taking over at a difficult time for trade publishing in India. After three years of back to back growth of over 20%, 2014 saw the market turning flat for the first time, with little or no growth in most segments. And the first half of 2015 is believed to have seen a fall in both the number of books sold and their value.

Rupert Murdoch’s empire, which owns the HarperCollins group, has made no secret of his desire to expand all its businesses in India, the biggest of which, of course, is the STAR television network. If appointing Padmanabhan is a signal that HarperCollins India will now look to being the No. 1 player in the industry, it will be interesting to see whether organic growth or acquisition takes precedence.

Padmanabhan was believed to have been in the running for the post of CEO of the post-merger Penguin Random House in 2013. But the post eventually went to Gaurav Shrinagesh, till then the CEO of Random House India. At 40, he is considerably younger than the outgoing CEO Sukumar, the difference probably an indicator of where HarperCollins realises the future of books lies in India.

Corrections and clarifications: An earlier version of this report had mistakenly stated that the STAR television network is part of News Corp. It is in fact part of 21st Century Fox. Both News Corp and  21st Century Fox are part of Rupert Murdoch's business empire.

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