Richard Charkin on India: ‘A Million Mutinies Now’

In News by Richard Charkin

‘The future for Indian publishing is bright,’ writes Richard Charkin, reviewing its evolution ‘from carbon paper to digital innovations.’

Richard Charkin and associates toast VS Naipaul. Image: Richard Charkin

By Richard Charkin | @RCharkin

‘My Love Affair With India’
In December, I published a piece in Brill’s excellent scholarly journal of publishing Logos on the development and potential for Indian publishing as part of a special issue on India.

Richard Charkin

I was reminded of how important publishing is in India and how much opportunity there is for further development.

There is, of course, an element of tension between the former colonial rulers and the vibrantly independent Indian publishing scene, but a number of shared values and goals have allowed international publishers to sit alongside their wholly Indian counterparts, working together to build a new industrial infrastructure.

I use the word mutinies in my headline—unashamedly cribbed from Vidia Naipaul’s wonderful book of the same title [William Heinemann, 1990]—because it sometimes needs a mutiny to effect change, and Indian publishing has changed beyond recognition.

There was a time a decade or so ago when India was viewed as a “difficult” market because of logistical, managerial, and commercial shortcomings.

China was understandably held up, by contrast, as an example of how rapidly a country can elevate its position by dint of discipline and single-mindedness, not attributes frequently used about India.

But India had several things going for it.

“There was a time a decade or so ago when India was viewed as a ‘difficult’ market because of logistical, managerial, and commercial shortcomings.”Richard Charkin

It had a legal system which, while complex, was based on British law, which most of the world understood. It had a democratic constitution which guaranteed freedom of expression, a sine qua non of successful publishing. And, last but not least, in my opinion, it has an extraordinary love for an extraordinary sport, cricket.

One difference between cricket and most other sports is the size of the scores. An international five-day match might rack up 1,500 runs in total and the more runs you score, the better. Compare that with soccer, tennis, rugby, or even snooker. A perhaps spurious consequence of that has been that, while China was trying to restrict its population by imposing stringent rules about the number of offspring per couple, India was merrily procreating such that it’s expected to have the largest population in the world later this year. Of course, for those who understand cricket, a first-innings lead is good but no guarantee of victory.

India was seen as a natural extension for British publishers in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Macmillan was one of the first publishers to both ship books to India and to establish offices there. The story goes that India, being so vast, required two general managers to be shipped in from Britain—one for the east of the country, based in Calcutta, and one for the west, in Bombay. They each served loyally for several decades, but the difficulties of traveling between these two great cities were such that they only met in person on the ship taking them back to Britain for their retirement.

That was before my love affair with India began. Somehow or other in 1977, I finagled a trip to Delhi to see the office there under the guiding hand of the bidi-smoking and overwhelmingly charming manager, Ravi Dayal, the first non-European leader in India for Oxford University Press.

He explained to me how difficult it was to publish economically, and therefore costs had to be pared to the bone. One cost-saving measure was to employ graduates to retype correspondence three times to save on the cost of carbon paper. For those younger than me, carbon paper was the etymological source of  cc, for carbon copy.

It wasn’t until the 1980s that OUP dared hold a sales conference in India.

Oxford University Press in New Delhi. Image: Richard Charkin

Macmillan India

On joining Macmillan in 1998, I found myself chairman of Macmillan India. The seeds planted by those 19th-century colonialists had allowed a huge empire to develop. There were offices in every major and not-so-major city. There were separate offices and structures for general books (Pan Macmillan), academic (Palgrave Macmillan), science (Nature), and a hugely important and profitable typesetting and digital publishing-support business largely based in Bangalore.

Macmillan was among the first publishers to realize the potential for publishing services from the educated, highly skilled and lower-cost work forces in Southern India. Macmillan India was a public company on various Indian stock exchanges, although the United Kingdom business owned by far the majority of the shares.

As chairman, I was responsible for presiding over the annual general meeting held in Chennai, a pretty terrifying experience, as it was not always easy to understand the questions from the floor given Southern Indian accents. Gradually I realized that—apart from wanting higher dividends—the real issues requiring a detailed response related to the quality and quantity of the tiffin, the snacks and drinks supplied by the company at the annual general meeting.

At its height, Macmillan India employed some 2,000 people, but a change in strategy and a focus on publishing rather than publishing services led to the typesetting division being sold to become the hugely successful MPS.

At Macmillan India in Jaipur. Image: Richard Charkin

Bloomsbury India

On to Bloomsbury, which had successful subsidiaries in the United States and Australia. India seemed to be the natural extension, and Rajiv Beri, previously managing director of Macmillan India, was tapped to be its founder and leader.

Whereas the Australian business focused primarily on the sales and marketing of global English-language titles, Bloomsbury India had to become an “Indian” publisher, as well, if it was to have enough scale and credibility to publish economically and effectively.

Thus began a rapid expansion, publishing Indian authors such as Shiv Khera in English and in local languages; international authors such as JK Rowling in local languages; and maximizing the sales of international English-language authors such as William Dalrymple, Elizabeth Gilbert, Sarah J. Maas, and the whole gamut of Bloomsbury’s literary and commercial roster, alongside academic and professional books.

At the launch of Bloomsbury India, Richard Charkin and Nigel Newton on the back row. Image: Richard Charkin

India’s Voice

Finally, as India has developed, so has Indian publishing’s influence on the international stage, including the International Publishers Association‘s (IPA) 2018 International Publishers Congress in New Delhi.

Being India, there’s nothing so straightforward as having a single trade association. (As I write this, I remember, of course, that the United Kingdom has several as well.) Indian publishing is represented by the Federation of Indian Publishers and the Association of Publishers in India, largely representing the international companies.

India’s voice is heard clearly at meetings of the International Publishers Association on matters of the freedom to publish, copyright protection, education for emerging economies, protection of minority languages and cultures, and the importance and quality of translation.

The future for Indian publishing is bright, as the logistical bottlenecks of the past are remedied; as the country’s technological excellence is applied to developments in digital publishing; and as India’s vibrant cultural scene as evidenced by Bollywood, the Jaipur Literary Festival, and the Indian Premier League,  enjoyed in many parts of the world.

Witnessing the evolution from retyping letters to save carbon paper to ground-breaking digital innovations that may help save the planet has been a 50-year pleasure and with so much more to come.

Long may India’s million mutinies continue to challenge and reshape the world of publishing.


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About the Author

Richard Charkin

Richard Charkin is a former president of the International Publishers Association and the United Kingdom’s Publishers Association. For 11 years, he was executive director of Bloomsbury Publishing Plc. He has held many senior posts at major publishing houses, including Macmillan, Oxford University Press, Current Science Group, and Reed Elsevier. He is a former president of the Book Society and non-executive director of the Institute of Physics Publishing. He is currently a board member of Bloomsbury China’s Beijing joint venture with China Youth Press, a member of the international advisory board of Frankfurter Buchmesse, and is a senior adviser to nkoda.com and Shimmr AI. He is a non-executive director of Liverpool University Press, and Cricket Properties Ltd., and has founded his own business, Mensch Publishing. He lectures on the publishing courses at London College of Communications, City University, and University College London. Charkin has an MA in natural sciences from Trinity College, Cambridge; was a supernumerary fellow of Green College, Oxford; attended the Advanced Management Program at Harvard Business School; and is a visiting professor at the University of the Arts London. He is the author, with Tom Campbell, of ‘My Back Pages; An Undeniably Personal History of Publishing 1972-2022.’ In the June 2024 King's Birthday Honors, Charkin was made a member of the Order of the British Empire, OBE, for his "services to publishing and literature."