As SAGE India Shuts Books Publishing Wing, Cloud Over Future of Laid-Off Staff, Volumes on Anvil

Employees – more than 80 of whom have allegedly lost jobs – say they’ve been asked not to speak on it. Authors mourn the loss of a publishing house that catered to the social sciences landscape like no other.

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New Delhi: The books division of SAGE Publications has shut shop in India with a sudden note to employees on Thursday, July 28. Since it was founded in 1981, SAGE India has published numerous academic volumes of note, written by academics from diverse disciplines from across India.

On July 30, Indian Express was the first to report on an internal email that was sent by the US-headquartered publishing house to its Indian employees, letting them know that the books publishing wing had stopped being financially viable and would close, although the journals division would still continue with its work. 

In Indian academia, the void left by this departure is significant.

‘State and Civil Society: Explorations in Political Theory,’ Neera Chandhoke, SAGE Publications, 1995.

“An institution has fallen,” says Neera Chandhoke, Distinguished Fellow at the Centre for Equity Studies. “SAGE made me as an academic,” says the former political science professor who published her first book, State and Civil Society: Explorations in Political Theory, in 1995 with SAGE. Her second book with SAGE was published in 2015.

The Indian Express report mentioned that 70 employees had lost their jobs. Sources within the company have told The Wire that the number has since risen to 83 or 84. 

Express quoted from an internal email by Blaise R. Simqu, chief executive officer, who wrote, “Over many years now our attempts to make domestic book publishing at SAGE India commercially viable have faced significant challenges and the pandemic has only made it more problematic.”

Sudden announcement

At least two former employees said that staff members across roles – from academic editors, to textbooks editors to production staff to those who handled finances – have been asked to go. 

“If a company decides to shut a division, it is their decision. The execution caused a lot of panic and could have been better handled,” says an employee who lost their* job. 

“We did not know that things were wrapping up until last week**, when an HR representative called most of us and asked us to arrive in the office [in New Delhi’s Mohan Estate] the next day with our company-provided laptops,” says another employee who also lost their* job. 

On July 28, a companywide meeting was held in which the decision was announced by Sonia Kumar, the executive lead, says the employee. Managerial staff told other employees that “83-84” people would be “allowed to resign”.

“This is purely a business decision, it has nothing to do with people,” it was said at a meeting.

Days later, the second employee says, they were made to sign a resignation letter saying that they were quitting for personal reasons. An agreement, which they were also made to sign, prohibited social media posts on the matter, they added. “One of the clauses said that I could not disclose the circumstances surrounding this letter to anyone,” says the employee.

This clause has led the two employees that The Wire spoke to, to request anonymity for this article. An employee who spoke to Indian Express also mentioned the signing of non-disclosure agreements.

The company is in the process of crediting severance pay to employees, according to both employees who spoke to The Wire

No clarity on books in production

However, there is little clarity on books that are on the anvil. The employees estimate that around 40-50 volumes are now stuck at various stages of production. The company’s plans regarding them are not clear, although both employees say that it is likely most of these volumes will be seen to fruition. 

Until August 2, no formal email appeared to have been sent by the company to any of the hundreds of authors who form its catalogue.

The Wire has sent questions to Aarti David (the senior vice-president), Sonia Kumar (the executive lead), Smrithi Sudhakaran (the head of public relations) and the official PR email addresses listed in the SAGE website for information on this and other processes. A few hours after this article was published, Sudhakharan replied to The Wire with a statement which is added below.***

The Wire has learnt that an email notifying of SAGE Publication’s decision was sent by David at least to some authors on August 3. Among them is Distinguished Professor at the Council for Social Development, Kalpana Kannabiran, who has published four times with SAGE – three books with SAGE India alone. Kannabiran says that David’s email to her did not address the future of her books.

Employees have been asked to not contact authors they were working with, they said. Most former employees have lost access to their official email addresses.

Kannabiran is saddened but not surprised by the move, noting that in the last four or five years several foreign-based publishers have moved production of Indian books abroad and that this has made the process time consuming and expensive. This appears to have come at the cost of the development of Indian publishing infrastructure by foreign-based houses. In CEO Blaise’s email, quoted by Express, he mentions that “the marketing and selling into India of imported Sage books…continues to be an important part of the international book program.”

Also read: Amazon Shuts Down Westland Publishing House Five Years After Acquiring It

‘Women and Law: Critical Feminist Perspectives,’ Edited by Kalpana Kannabiran, SAGE Publication, 2014.

Kannabiran, like many of SAGE’s authors, speaks fondly of the house.

“I have published 22 books under several publishers, many of whom are friends, but SAGE is the only one from whom I receive annual royalty statements, notes on the number of books sold and the annual royalty itself,” she says. Her first book with SAGE India was published in 2008. Two more came out in 2014 and 2021.

‘Drastic changes in higher education syllabi to blame?’

Kannabiran wonders if the drastic changes brought to the higher education syllabus in the last few years have had a role to play in stifling the business of publishers who have hitherto published books “committed to the values that are being eroded.”

“In the world of academic publishing, there are tumultuous changes happening in terms of syllabus and prescribed texts. We may think that the restructuring of higher education doesn’t really have any relationship with publishing, but I am not so sure that is true. Part of the problem could also be that publishers have taken a hit because of the drastic changes in syllabi which would affect their publishing lineup…you really don’t know. Note also, that their primary markets are university libraries and research institutes,” says Kannabiran.

Allegations that university syllabi have been saffronised under the current government have often made news.

Kannabiran notes that this is not a statement but a guess into what might have caused SAGE India’s financial unviability and the shutdown of the books division. 

Buffalo Nationalism: A Critique of Spiritual Fascism,’ Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd, Samya (SAGE Publication), 2019.

SAGE is known especially for its volumes on niche social sciences issues which strike at various aspects of religious, social and gender inequality.

Among volumes published or republished in the last two years by SAGE or its sister houses were Buffalo Nationalism: A Critique of Spiritual Fascism by Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd, Inheritance, Hierarchy and Caste: Origins of Political Decay in India by Dhananjay Soindaji Wanjari and Kashmir after 2019: Completing the Partition by Werner Menski and Muneeb Yousuf.

‘Loss to academia’

Akhil Ranjan Dutta, whose book Hindutva Regime in Assam: Saffron in the Rainbow was published by SAGE in 2021, is particularly poised to observe the change speculated upon by Kannabiran. He echoes Kannabiran in noting that the void left by SAGE’s absence would be enormous, especially for academics and for those in the northeast.

Dutta had been in touch with company representatives over email for royalties but had not known of the decision until The Wire informed him of it on August 2.

He, too, speaks glowingly of SAGE’s conduct.

“When you produce a book, you do not work with a company but with people. SAGE’s editors were professional, had deep knowledge, and made the process enjoyable,” the professor of political science at Gauhati University notes.

Chandhoke, quoted earlier in the piece, similarly noted that SAGE marketed books efficiently and also highlighted how important its processes were to early career academics. 

“It is relatively easy to get an ISBN number now but when an academic sits before a selection committee, they will ask her, ‘Have you written for a publisher who referees your books?’. SAGE followed a normal process of getting books vetted by two referees,” she says.

SAGE India also, notably, worked with independent publishing houses like Yoda Press and Stree-Samya, bringing out compelling volumes on social sciences, addressing issues of caste, women and inequality. Their reach – if not everyday operations – is also likely to be impacted.

The Wire has reached out to Yoda Press but has not received a reply. Stree-Samya founder Mandira Sen said she would not like to speak on the issue.

*Pronouns withheld to protect their identity.
**The exact date is withheld to also protect their identity.

***SAGE’s statement addressing some of the questions The Wire sent is below.

“Over the past few years, we have experienced a particularly challenging business environment for book publishing in India due to the pandemic and other economic factors and as a result we have decided to close the SAGE India book publishing operation. This decision is very specific to books and does not impact our thriving journals publishing program, as well as our strong imported books sales in India.

“We are actively looking for a new home for our book titles and will make an announcement as soon as we are able. Meanwhile our book publishing operation is active until the point we transition it. We are continuing to support our authors and keeping in contact with them through this process.

“Sadly,  this decision inevitably is resulting in exit of some of our employees. Our aim is to carry out the transition with utmost respect and care to our people and we are helping them with extra ex gratia payments for easier transition as well as enabling access to outplacement services to assist them in finding placements.”