On May 14, 2021, an email arrived in the inboxes of those who work at Bloomsbury India. It was from CEO Rajiv Beri. Short and full of emotion, the email informed teams across editorial and marketing that Yogesh Sharma, senior vice president, Sales and Marketing, had died of Covid-19.

When author and screenwriter Advaita Kala first met Yogesh Sharma in 2006, the publishing landscape was very different from what it is today. Floppy disks were still around. Penguin Books was the kingpin of publishing houses in India. Shakti Bhatt had just joined the newly opened Random House India as editor.

To give you a sense of what it was like, the RHI offices were on the third floor of the World Trade Tower in the Hotel Intercontinental, on Barakhamba Lane, near Connaught Place. Rupa Books had just published Chetan Bhagat’s Five Point Someone. HarperCollins India had the “brand value,” as Kala puts it, but it hadn’t hit the big numbers in terms of presence yet either.

The early years of the new millennium were also, significantly, much before the age of Amazon and e-commerce. This was an era when bookselling was heavily bookstore-oriented. In order to make the numbers, sales had to be manually – almost aggressively – pushed.

Publishing was, as it is now, an elite club. The difference, of course, was that in the early 2000s, connections mattered far more than they do now. If you didn’t know anyone within the industry, it would be doubly harder to get published. Known authors were given star book launches at the Oberoi Hotel, and unknowns were left to struggle along as best as they could. Kala herself recalls that as a first-time author, she was given no advance.

To this world, Yogesh Sharma represented a curious paradox – an ideal fit and a misfit. Grounded, practical and a man of few words, he had arrived at HarperCollins India (HCI) in 2005, just a year before Kala submitted her first novel, Almost Single. His brief was to take over strategy and business planning in sales and marketing, but his career trajectory prior to taking charge at HCI was anything but publishing-specific. He had done a little bit of everything.

How it began

Sharma started his career as an Educational Representative (P&R) with Tata McGraw-Hill India in 1995. In 1997, he moved to Pearson Education, where he would stay for seven years, honing his experience in sales and marketing. For a brief spell, he was General Manager, Sales, with the Indian branch of Grolier International, which is one of the largest American publishers of general encyclopaedias.

From here, he migrated to HCI, where he surpassed expectations. At HCI, former CEO PM Sukumar was pleasantly impressed by what he saw in Sharma. “Yogesh was from a higher education background but he adapted to general and trade books well,” said Sukumar. During the three years that Sharma was with HCI, he transformed the publishing house’s presence.

For instance, he introduced the idea of standing orders/supplies to distributors to ensure guaranteed visibility for new books. He was an ardent advocate of local printing of books from the UK and the US, in order to make them price-friendly. For a publishing house trying to break through walls of indifference or ignorance from readers and bookstores alike, the methods had to be aggressive – and deployed on a daily basis.

Strategies had to be creative, in order to appeal to readers’ sensibilities, as well as to give books visibility. Today, social media has diluted the pressure in some ways, with visibility being almost overwhelming. But between 2005 and 2008, the art of marketing was an evolving one.

For Sharma, it was the kind of challenge he enjoyed. Unashamedly aggressive, he didn’t give a jot about big names or connections, just about the kind of writing that readers might find within the covers of the book in question. At a time when there was an undoubted snobbery over the binary between commercial and literary fiction, Sharma had a keen eye both for what would sell faster and for great literary content.

‘Brutally honest’

“He loved books and he loved good writing,” Kala recalled. “It didn’t matter who had written it. He was wonderfully open. Your last name never mattered to him. He was an ally.” Nothing encapsulates this better than Yogesh’s earlier assignments at HCI, which was to simultaneously market Almost Single – a debut novel by an entirely unknown author – and the books of Sam Bourne – a pseudonym born from a combination of the author’s younger son’s first name and the Bourne Identity, then showing in cinemas.

The works were almost poles apart, with Bourne’s books being muscular political thrillers, while Kala’s novel was what is sometimes rather awkwardly defined as chick-lit. Bourne was one of HCI’s first direct imports, introducing Indian readers to the world of international espionage. “I would tell him that his first love was Sam Bourne, because he was really pushing it,” said Kala, “while there I was, running around Delhi myself to promote Almost Single.”

But with Sharma’s strategies behind Almost Single, Kala was soon crowned – much to her consternation – the queen of chick-lit in India. Jonathan Freedland killed off his alter ego of Sam Bourne in 2015, but the name would always be a point of banter between Kala and Sharma, a warm inside joke which they laughed over until just two months ago.

Gruff and focused almost passionately on his work, Sharma was also a man who gave you nothing less than brutal honesty, telling Kala that Almost Single was not his kind of book. “You couldn’t exactly say oh, hey, I’m feeling this way. He wasn’t a man with whom you could have an emotional conversation,” said Kala. If you were a writer burned by a particularly scathing review, you soon learned to take your bruised ego to anyone except Sharma, who had no time for it, telling you brusquely to focus on the numbers instead.

Indeed, if anyone saw his softer side, it was after his marriage and the birth of his two children. He doted on his children, and more than anything, they brought out a warmly empathetic side to him. “Bloomsbury was distributing a collection of football biographies a while ago,” said Paul Vinay Kumar, “One day, Yogesh came over and dropped off those books. He said that he recalled my son was a soccer buff and he thought he might enjoy reading the books.”

Growing and building

Books, then, remained the centre of Sharma’s world, as did his desire to continually take up new challenges. In 2010, he moved to the Springer Nature Group, where he would take over as General Manager for the Science and Business Media section for the next two years. Publishing had exploded in 2008, and it would receive a further fillip in 2013, with the advent of Amazon to India.

Here, Sharma was quick to use his knowledge to start ProLibris Publishing Media in 2012, when he moved to Bloomsbury. The imprint is still alive today, publishing quality trade and general titles, focusing primarily on business. In 2012, it was an ambitious move, considering that Bloomsbury India had not acquired the scale that it has today.

The publishing house was running out of offices in Vasant Kunj, with a very small team. Sharma was back once more to a tiny, cramped office – after turning HCI into one of the biggest names on the publishing scene. It was perfect. Beri thanks his stars that Sharma brought such varied skill-sets to Bloomsbury India. “We are not just about trade books, but also about publishing academic books,” he said. “Yogesh’s experience helped a lot in handling our diverse range of books.”

Prerna Vohra, associate publisher at Bloomsbury India, agrees, “Yogesh’s inputs were integral to our commissioning,” she said. “He had a unique vision, an unparalleled knowledge of the Indian market and he was the one to consult when we editors struggled to find the right title or pitch for our books.”

He also had a very quick temper. “His energy and drive meant the occasional bout of impatience, leading to differences with team members, but Yogesh wasn’t one to nurse grudges,” said Sukumar. “He was quick to shift focus to the next task at hand.” recalls Sukumar.

Work and Yogesh went hand in hand, though he made time to have fun with the people who worked with him. The difference between having fun and networking, however, was a striking one. Sharma was a teetotaller, and never one to hang around at publishing parties or literary festivals. “That wasn’t his scene,” says Kala, “He wasn’t someone who schmoozed. He was very much about the brass tacks.”

Meenakshi Singh, senior manager, marketing and publicity (Consumer Division), who worked with him closely at Bloomsbury India, knew him for four years, and for her, he was not just her boss and mentor, but her friend. “He loved cricket,” she said. “We quickly learned that the day after India had lost a match was never a good day to have a meeting with him.”

The final chapter

As India went into its first lockdown in 2020, Sharma turned his focus to health, starting a plan of intermittent fasting and going gluten-free. He experienced Covid-like symptoms in that period as well, though he never got himself tested. This year, as India experienced a brutal second wave of coronavirus, Kala and Sharma spoke again. “We spoke maybe once in three weeks, but when we did, it was about everything – life, family, politics, books,” she said. Sharma asked Kala to work on an idea for a new novel. Kala decided to write the draft first before she contacted him again.

Kala first saw the news of Sharma’s death in the form of a brief obituary on Facebook. For a moment, her brain couldn’t process the information. “I googled him. Looking back, it seems remarkable that I couldn’t even comprehend that he was gone – to the point where I had to conduct an online search,” she said.

In their conversations over the years, Sharma had told Kala that he would like to set up a publishing house of his own one day. He enjoyed the excitement that comes with a continually evolving landscape. His death lifts the curtain on those who work behind the scenes of publishing.

This series of articles on the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on publishing is curated by Kanishka Gupta.