My Life With Books: Karthik Venkatesh

Based in Bangalore, Karthik is an Executive Editor with Penguin Random House and the love of his life is… of course, books! He reads quite extensively, across a diverse range of genres and in multiple languages, including English, Hindi, Kannada and Punjabi. He is a writer as well and has written for Mint Lounge, The Hindu, First Post, Deccan Herald and Madras Courier among others. You can see his writing portfolio here. We caught up with Karthik for a chat on his work in publishing, his love for books, and some of his favourite books and authors. 

Tell us a bit about your interest in publishing. From working in sales and business development, how/why did you decide to move to publishing? What was it about the publishing business that you found most exciting?

I moved to publishing by accident. I was always a vigorous reader. And a friend – Paul Vinay Kumar, now with Bloomsbury – who worked in publishing believed that I could be a good editor. He trusted in me and gave me my first publishing assignment. That’s how it began.

When I began working in publishing, I had moved away from business development and sales. I was then heading a school. And publishing was something I did in my spare time. It didn’t feel like work given my deep interest in books. In a few years, the publishing life took over. And I have been in publishing ever since.

What excites me about publishing is the opportunity to work on books. Books have consumed me all my life since I was three or four. And it is the one thing I love the most.

Tell us about your early years at Westland Books. What was it like, working for Westland 10 years ago? Of the books you commissioned at Westland, which were some of the most successful?

I began working in Westland part-time and my initial emotion was one of unbridled joy simply because books were so important to me and here I was, working in a place that made books. Even today, my joy has not dimmed. Westland was a great place to work in. They were nimble, open to new ideas, forever looking for talent and willing to experiment. So many of the books I edited gave me so much joy.

Harsha and Anita Bhogle’s Winning Way (my first edited book), Andrew Otis’s Hickey’s Bengal Gazette, Nadeem Paracha’s Points of Entry and Panjab by Amandeep Sandhu are names that come to mind. But there were many, many others – Leopard Diaries by Sanjay Gubbi, Indian Icon by Amrit Raj, Why I Stopped Wearing My Socks by Alok Kejriwal, The Fire Burns Blue by Karunya Keshav and Sidhanta Patnaik (the first history of Indian women’s cricket), Lift Off by Hema Hattangady and Ashish Sen, One Man Two Executions by Arjun Rajendran, Wizards: The Story of Indian Spin Bowling by Anindya Datta, The Gangster’s Gita by Agni Sridhar, Sponge by Ambi Parameswaran, Venkatesa Suprabhatam by Venkatesh Parthasarathy and so many more.

What’s the best thing about working with Penguin Random House?

Working in Penguin Random House is to be in a continuous state of excitement; there is so much here that is exciting that it blows your mind. What excites me most at Penguin is the wide range of authors I get to work with. As a non-fiction editor, much of my day is filled with editing some great books, reading submissions and meetings, with authors, and with colleagues, all revolving round the one thing I love most: BOOKS! My biggest challenge is that I wish had a 40-hour day, not a 40-hour week. There is so much to do, most of it which I enjoy.

What’s the biggest change you’ve seen in the way people buy books these days, as compared to how it was a decade ago?

The biggest change, in my view, is the rise and rise of online books shopping. The traditional book store which is where one found books is still there but it has to compete with the reach and commercial aggressiveness of online stores. What’s great about online stores is the reach. I lived for 11 years in Bathinda, Punjab and I know how online changed my life simply because I could get easy access to books which otherwise was difficult for me, as someone who lived in a small town. But yes, discovering books online is a challenge. Often, one zeroes in on what one wants. One does not browse. That is the challenge. That being the case, whether this is for the better or worse is a matter of personal opinion. In short, it’s complicated!

‘My biggest challenge is that I wish had a 40-hour day, not a 40-hour week,’ says Karthik

In India, is the publishing environment encouraging for new/first-time authors? Also, what kind of impact has the rise of self-publishing had on traditional publishing?

Yes, the environment encourages first-time authors. I believe that because I am constantly looking for writing talent. Self-publishing has certainly helped people who want to publish but may not be accepted by mainstream publishers. But besides that, it has made little difference to mainstream publishers.

Would you like to talk about some major trends in publishing (fiction and/or non-fiction) in India, which you may have witnessed in the last 2-3 years?

My opinion about publishing trends is not a very original one. Like everyone else, I too believe that non-fiction is really popular now. History, self-help, politics, business, spirituality – all these kinds of books are immensely popular. Editors look to commission in these areas, yes, but equally, no editor will only commission in these areas. Experimentation is always grist to the publishing mill.

Do you yourself read a fair bit? What book are you reading now? Otherwise, what kind of books do you usually read? Any favourite genre? Favourite authors? Any favourite Indian authors?

I read a great deal. Right now, I am reading In the Shadow of the Gods: The Emperor in World History by Dominic Lieven. I am also reading the Collected Stories of Naiyer Masud.

I love books on history and politics, I am a big poetry fan and I am always game for auto/biographies. And with nagging regularity, I drop everything I am reading to either read an exciting mystery/thriller or a book on sport. I recently read How Football Explains the World by Franklin Foer and loved it. I love Ian Rankin and have read many of his works.

In my preferred genre of history/politics, The Great Game by Peter Hopkirk is a favourite. AK Ramanujan’s translations of Tamil classics and Kannada vachana poets is something I return to, time and again. I also love ML Thangappa’s translations of Tamil classics and HS Shivaprakash’s translation of Kannada vachana poets. I am also a big fan of the poetry of Manohar Shetty.

I also try to read in Hindi, Kannada and Punjabi, all languages I have some proficiency in. In Hindi, I have been working my way through Nirmal Verma’s short stories. In Kannada, I have been dipping into an essay collection by Jayanth Kaikini and as for Punjabi, I like to read poetry – Pash and Surjit Patar in particular.

What have been the 2-3 most memorable books that you’ve read in the last two years? Any books that are on your must-reads list for 2023?

I enjoyed Ayesha Jalal’s The Pity of Partition, a book on Manto. This book was published in 2013, but I read it only last year. Manto is a writer I have read and like very much. And this book was a deep look at his life and work and resonated with me a great deal owing to my interest in him. It was a book that was about literature, but it was also about history. And that’s why I like the book so much.

I also enjoyed Fire in Babylon: How the West Indies Cricket Team Brought a People to its Feet by Simon Lister. Again, this was an older book, a 2015 book. Cricket, particularly sub-continental cricket and West Indies cricket, I find enthralling to read about. I am particularly interested in cricket history and the social aspects of sport. And this book was just that: a look at West Indies cricket through a social lens. It was an unusual book in some sense. Originally, Fire in Babylon had been a documentary. And this book had emerged out of that. It is usually the other way round.

On my to-be-read list: Languages of Truth by Salman Rushdie, The Shudra by Jalalul Haq. Also a re-reading of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World.

Do you ever use a Kindle or similar device? What is your take on relatively newer digital formats like eBooks and audiobooks, which seem to be gaining popularity in India?

I use a Kindle regularly. I love the convenience it offers me. I have not yet got into audiobooks. I think technology is always going to keep evolving and if it encourages people to read, then I am all for it.

See Karthik’s writing portfolio here

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