Sunday, November 13, 2011

Vivek Mehra, MD and CEO, SAGE, South Asia

An Interview with Vivek Mehra
MD and CEO, SAGE, South Asia

In this month’s Vartalaap we feature Mr Vivek Mehra, Managing Director and CEO at Sage Publications India. Mr. Mehra has been with SAGE India since 2005. Mr. Mehra has a PhD in Chemical Engineering from the University of London and Bachelors in Textile Technology. He also has an MBA from the Columbia University. He shares with us some wonderful insights about the world of publishing, his interesting career and also some advice for our readers.

Q1: You have had a diverse educational background ranging from Textile technology, Chemical Engineering and an MBA from the Columbia University. How has the journey been and how did the transitions come about?
I come from a family of textile pioneers. Silk Screen printing was first used (commercially) in India by my great grandfather. I grew up surrounded by printing inks and that is all I wanted to ever learn. When I graduated I worked for what is today a power brand in the US. The MBA was in night school (4 nights a week; the rest spent doing a bartender’s job in an Indian restaurant in New York). On my return to India the joint-family as I knew it was in disarray. I spent a decade trying to find my calling; from food processing to selling innovative products, I tried a lot. In 2000 I discovered technical writing and began seeking jobs for this. My perseverance led me to an Australian company that first hired me as a freelancer editor then a writer and eventually a trainer. In 2005 SAGE discovered me and the rest as they say is history.

Q2: Can you share with our readers an incident/moment which you’d call a defining moment for you and your career?
My career was going nowhere and I was even given a moniker by my family: Padha Likha Bewakoof. When an Indian won the Booker in the late 90s I was convinced there was a Booker Prize novel in me. I wrote the book in about 4 months, spent a year trying to get it published. Nothing happened. I then discovered I could still write and make money. I will never forget the day my first pay check arrived it was for a princely sum of Aus $145 (about Rs.5000 in those days). I was in Bangalore visiting my parents then and spoke excitedly about the first real pay-check in a long time, especially for something I had done completely by myself. My father laughed and insisted I was still the fool who believed this was a career. I have not forgotten how I felt that day and it was the feeling of hurt that ensured I found my calling.

Q3: Sage has been at the forefront of the publication industry in India for a long time now. How has the landscape of the Indian publishing industry changed over the years?
Publishing in India was an off-shoot of owning printing presses. The only real books India had, came from overseas. There were some publishers in India (MacMillan, OUP etc.) that catered to the lower end textbook market. But as Indians became more literate the demand for books grew. Printing presses became publishers; many times reproducing Indian versions of popular overseas books. Overseas publishers looked at India as a market for ‘remaindered’ books (a term used to describe books that are sold at 80 or 95% of their list price; sometime even sold by weight). This sort of book availability led to the creation of neighbourhood lending libraries and bookshops. It was only in the late 70s that India started reaching critical mass in terms of the number of books being bought vs. the availability of books to fuel the demand. Printing presses began publishing books and in the last decade the retail boom has made overseas publishers sit-up and take notice of India’s market.

Q4: Where do you think the future for Sage South Asia lies? How do you see the company shaping up say 10 years down the line from now?
SAGE is on track of fulfilling its primary objective – becoming a publisher of choice for books and journals in the fields it publishes in. We continue to grow at a rate of 22% per annum and I don't foresee this ever falling below this level.

Q5: Sage is coming out with the “Legends of Marketing” series. Can you throw some light on how it was conceived and how important the series is to Sage?
The series has already seen 2 legends already published. The project is the brain child of Prof Jagdish Sheth. It began as a gift for his 70th birthday but has since become a ‘legendary’ product. SAGE gave it the form you currently see it in and behind the form came the push to disseminate it as far as possible. SAGE has long been regarded as one of the top publishers in reference works. This series marks the entry of SAGE India into the field on a global scale.

Q6: Sage mainly deals with books with a limited circulation (distinguishing itself from the so called mainstream) , keeping this in mind, what role does the marketing department play for a Sage publication?
It is not true to classify our books as those with limited circulation. They are widely circulated within the markets they address! It is true our books are not as glamorous as fiction ones are but there is hardly a library in South Asia that doesn't have some of our content. Marketing as a discipline predates sales. Most often a sale is the consequence of good marketing. Given the territory we cover, it is not possible for us to have physical contact with our potential clients. We can only reach them through messaging about our products. And it is in this messaging that marketing becomes crucial. With the growing proliferation of the Net and humans relying heavily on it for information, the role of marketing can only get bigger, better and faster. SAGE India’s marketing department is at that turning point in its life cycle. It is moving rapidly towards both technological and ideological advances.

Q7: What would your advice be to youngsters looking to make a career in the publishing industry?
Publishing is a good career but not for everyone. In the fast paced environment dominated by commercialism, it is difficult to take the path of a steady paced career. Publishing in India is on a faster growth trajectory than that of the rest of the world, but it is painfully slower than say financial services or business consultancies. At some point in everyone’s life comes a time when the soul wants more than just commercial perks. Publishing has a lot of collaterals that no other career offers. Names are often immortalized by appearing in print (mostly books), the crowd that publishers move in are allows the cream of society, government and or academia. I can’t think of another career that adds to job satisfaction the way publishing does; the fruits of one labour are recorded very effectively.

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