My Life With Books: Sachin Rao

Based in London, Sachin is a commercial features Editor at Guardian News & Media. One of the best writers/editors in the business, he has worked in the UK since the mid-2000s. Before that, he was based in Bombay, working with leading newspapers like Business Standard, Indian Express and Mumbai Mirror. With an eclectic range of interests and a lifelong passion for books, Sachin talks to us about his life in journalism and his take on the Internet-vs-books debate. He also tells us about some of his favourite books and authors.

From Business Standard in Bombay, to The Guardian in London, you’ve worked as a journalist for more than 20 years, with leading magazines, newspapers and websites. How has the journey been? If not journalism, what is it that you would have done instead?

I started off as an advertising copywriter in Chennai, but quickly moved to being a motoring journalist for no more complex reason than that I liked motorcycles and enjoyed reading about them in magazines like Bike, Two Wheels Only and Motorcyclist. Bijoy Kumar Y was kind enough to offer a slightly clueless dreamer a job as a feature writer at BS Motoring, and I had a great, horizon-expanding time being a skint young journo in Mumbai.

After doing a Master’s degree in creative writing in Leeds, and short stints at Mumbai newspapers, I migrated to the UK in the mid-2000s. My general, vague plan was to become, in the gaps between pub-crawling and Eurotripping, a feature writer for Sunday papers. But over time I’ve gravitated towards commercial content. After creating internal and customer publications at a string of agencies, I currently work at The Guardian, in their advertising wing – specifically, in their branded content unit. We create content campaigns that live within the various Guardian platforms, for dozens of brands each year. It’s sort of come full circle for me, in a way, to be at the intersection of advertising and journalism.

Are we exploring alternate realities? Ok, I’d love to have been a pilot. But if I could start again from scratch, I’d make a career in something cutting-edge, like artificial intelligence or robotics or aerospace engineering. Or, I’d go artisanal…. make small-batch craft drinks in a rural setting, and write books on the side. But for now, I still enjoy being part of the media world; there’s never a dull moment and you get a ringside view across so many industries.

How has journalism changed and evolved over the last 20 years? What impact has the rise of the Internet had on print media? Do you think print magazines and newspapers are still as useful/relevant as they used to be?

As a writer and editor, I still greatly value print stories: well-crafted, complete, tangible ‘things.’ But as an industry insider and as a consumer, I can’t argue with the numbers and my own purchase habits: print media is in structural decline. Newspapers are more of a weekend read, while newsstand magazine circulation figures are dropping steadily. I do still read ‘proper’ magazines, albeit online, through aggregators like Readly, and I have a handful of digital subscriptions to, say, the New York Times, but there’s only so many publications you can pay for. So, paywalled content is sometimes out of reach.

The Guardian’s model of complementing advertising with reader contributions is working well for them, but I don’t think every title can replicate that success. I think you have to identify your tribe – the readers who share your values – and then build up a trust-based relationship with them. Quality must prevail over quantity, otherwise it’s a clickbait-driven race to the bottom. But unfortunately, advertisers and online metrics still often tend to prioritise quantity.

News media is unarguably web-first, and melding into the social media ecosystem. As we all spend more time online, content creators are competing for eyeballs. Shortening attention spans and virality-oriented algos means that mobile and video-led content is definitely the direction of travel for the younger generations – they use TikTok like a search engine – and advertiser money will naturally flow there.

Of course, with the proliferation of streaming services and so many brilliant TV dramas being produced, we are all also spending hours watching content now, not reading it. At 8-10 hours a season, that’s a lot of competition for books. I know it’s a bit apples-and-oranges to compare TV to books, but from a consumer point of view, there’s only so much time to spare. We live in a visual age where technology is all-captivating and edging ever closer to magic. People want to be spellbound, without necessarily putting in a great deal of effort. With books, you need to self-isolate and put your brain to work. It’s a very different kind of reward.

Anyway, in terms of magazines, what’s attracting money is – from the bottom up: premium, well-made, passion-driven specialist magazines (think Delayed Gratification, Huck or Magneto) targeting focused groups; and from the top down: brand content – where brands are turning content creators and turning out publications (and some really nice ones – seen Sandwich?) for their community of buyers and fans. I’ve worked on some automotive brand magazines myself, so I might be biased, but I think when done right (and there’s always a tension between creativity and corporate messaging, so it’s important for the client to share the vision and to be on the same page), they can be really good. You want to apply true editorial principles and harness talented writers, designers and photographers to tell in-depth, interesting stories on behalf of brands, creating a bond with their customers. The likes of British Airways, Waitrose or Red Bull have made a long-standing success of it. 

“With books, you need to self-isolate and put your brain to work. It’s a very different kind of reward,” says Rao, who’s drawn more to non-fiction these days

What are you currently reading? What kind of books do you generally enjoy reading? Favourite authors?

Of late I find myself drawn more to non-fiction books. There are so many wonderful and intriguing things to learn about in this world, which had or still have an impact on all our lives, and truth is indeed often stranger than fiction. I’m currently reading The War of Nerves: Inside The Cold War Mind by Martin Sixsmith. It’s an absolutely fascinating look into the mental machinations of a wildly febrile period that has, alas, been reanimated today.

I’m a bit addicted to new information; I voraciously consume magazine features and news articles (and Wikipedia – in my opinion, the singular best invention of the 21st century; I donate whenever they ask!) on my phone, and when something interests me I often want to delve into it more deeply. I’ll happily dive into encyclopaedias or visual dictionaries on classic cars, or aircraft cockpits, or world whiskies, or London architecture. I’m fascinated by recent history, especially the Second World War and Cold War periods, as well as what drives the engines of the modern world: geopolitics and trade – so I’m keen to read the likes of Harald Jähner’s Aftermath, Rose George’s Deep Sea and Foreign Going, and Chris Miller’s Chip Wars. Confession: I have these and lots more titles lined up in my online shopping wishlist, and I keep adding more, but I’m trying to be disciplined and only order my next one once I finish something!

Favourite authors – that’s an essay in itself. I’ve been really into certain authors at different points, and yes, including trying to channel their writing style… I remember I went through a Tom Robbins phase, and a Bill Bryson one. I was a massive science-fiction reader in my youth – Asimov, Bradbury, Clarke, Dick… all the stalwarts. Then I read lots of Indian authors, bookended by Arundhati Roy’s and Aravind Adiga’s Booker Prize wins. And I’ve always been a big fan of comic books and graphic novels: everything from Tintin to Alan Moore. I also love it when I can buy a book written by a friend – Murali K Menon, Chandrima Pal, Daisy Hasan, Jane De Suza, Arathi Menon, Rukmini S, Gautam Malkani, to name but a few.

What are the most remarkable books you’ve read recently? Why do these stand out among all others?

I was captivated by Skyfaring. The author, airline pilot Mark Vanhoenacker, is simply in love with flying, and conveys the sheer magic of it so beautifully to the reader. Economix by Michael Goodwin is a really neat graphic novel that skilfully and eye-openingly tackles a vast topic that’s kind of seen as boring but underpins all our lives. Prisoners of Geography by Tim Marshall traces a finger around the globe tapping a finger at why-something-is-the-way-it-is, and combines my love of maps and geopolitics. Dishoom, by the London restaurant of the same name, is a beautiful mix of travelogue and cookbook, and a love letter to Bombay. The Information Capital by James Cheshire and Oliver Uberti is a marvellous piece of work, bringing my adopted city of London to vivid life through infographics. Like all the best creative, meticulous research informs every inch, yet lets the art take centrestage.

You’ve been a travel journalist in the past. Who are some of your favourite authors for travel writing, and which are some of your most favourite travel-related books?

I think that was the phase of my career that I enjoyed the most. Good travel writing, to me, is sharp observation without the weight of bias; a desire to experience the new, without imposing the self. (Indeed, that is the essence of journalism.) But I salute anyone who can capture the spirit of a place in a short time without being superficial, finding fresh, relevant and readable angles on a world that has been Instagrammed to infinity, while staying well clear of the mucky quicksand of commercialised quid-pro-quo.

I got hooked onto travel writing in a few parallel streams. The first was through motorcycles. I’d pinpoint the gonzo journalism of Dan Walsh, Bike magazine’s roving travel writer back in the day. His collection of despatches, Endless Horizons, still takes me back to my dreamer days in a flash. In a similar vein, Che Guevara’s The Motorcycle Diaries and Ted Simon’s Jupiter’s Travels make me want to straddle a motorcycle again and just… go.

Classics like Paul Theroux’s The Great Railway Bazaar and William Dalrymple’s In Xanadu instilled a sense of adventure – that the world was explorable and accessible to the curious, something you don’t instinctively realise growing up as an Indian who needs a visa to go most places. William Sutcliffe’s light and breezy gap-year novel Are You Experienced?, though fiction, hit the same note. Gregory David Roberts’ Shantaram, though also fictionalised (and laced with the kind of deep thoughts that only come to mind after a spliff or two) was suffused with a raw, passionate love for place, an authentic weight that the fleeting mag journo can never bring to bear. Meanwhile, Bill Bryson’s easy charm and banter in Notes From A Small Island and Neither Here Nor There were a refreshing counterpoint to chin-stroking travel philosophising (which I have also been guilty of) and showed me the value of the lighter side – it’s perfectly legit for travel writing to just be a bit of fun. I also liked Ross Kemp’s A-Z of Hell for spelling out loud and clear that not every trip can result in a travel brochure. And I’ll read anything by Anthony Bourdain, even it was merely a pen-testing scribble on a sauce-stained napkin.

Of course, travel writers can be something other than white British or American men! Titles like The Global Soul by Pico Iyer, Butter Chicken in Ludhiana by Pankaj Mishra, Maximum City by Suketu Mehta, Following Fish by Samanth Subramaniam, and Around India in 80 Trains by Monisha Rajesh, among others, influenced me in various ways. Fresh perspectives are the very essence of travel writing, and it’s vital that editors and publishers promote not just new insights from the same sources, but any insights at all from new sources.

Any particular bookshops in London that you like and particularly enjoy visiting? Given the sheer convenience and, often, the price advantage that sites like Amazon can offer, do you think bookshops can still survive?

Oh, I can spend hours in the Foyles on Charing Cross Road, and love a little browse in specialist stores like Moon Lane Books or independent ones like Crofton Books. Sometimes you have to see something in order to know you want it, and browsing online just isn’t the same. So I think physical bookshops will always have a place, though the space between large well-funded stores and small specialist stores will continue to empty out.

In terms of physical versus online… I get the Amazon dilemma, and why a lot of people feel strongly about it, but I’m not sure there’s a clear answer to it for me. I don’t mind paying a pound or two more for a book at a store, but as a consumer with an average-joe bank balance, I don’t really want to be paying ‘full price’ for the same product when I know Amazon has it at half and delivers it to my door the very next day. Over the year I just try to balance out my Amazon purchases with in-store purchases.

Ever tried eBooks and the Kindle? Can these ever replace actual physical books?

I have, but I never really got into it… my Kindle is sadly gathering dust in a drawer. I liked e-paper, too; phone screens are not great for the eyes. But smartphones now just make it so much handier to read – in snatched pockets of time, or on the go – both news and longer form journalism. And when you’ve had enough screen time for the day, paper books are a nice, back-to-basics alternative…. no plugs, chargers, accounts, passwords. I think the paper book has plenty of life left! You can make of a book what you like… a coffee-table statement to home guests, a conversation starter on public transport or at the office, a nice little gift.

What’s your stand on borrowing books from and lending books to friends and family? What do you have to say to people who borrow books and never return them to the owner?

I suppose if you’ve enjoyed a book and are keen for someone else to have that experience, giving them your copy is fine. Ideally, it’d come back to you. If not, it’d at least be nice to think it continued its journey, touching more lives along the way, rather than lying unread or half-read in a heap somewhere. Either way, I think books should be offered, not taken. If you are a taker, I’d say, make it a habit to trade instead.

On the other hand, there’s the aspect of collection – of curating a set of objects that hold some meaningful value, represent your mindset, symbolise your mental and physical journeys – which sort of demands you keep your books, organise them and dip back into them as needed. Like records or DVDs, or model cars or fridge magnets, you get joy from the ownership element, and having some of your books disappear gets in the way of that.

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