Meet the Publisher: Seagull Books and the Value of Independence

The idea of target readers out there is a myth: no one can know for certain what people will read.

In a globalized publishing landscape Seagull Books, based primarily in Kolkata, India, stands out as having uniquely made a mark as a world publisher. In its thirty-five years of existence, Seagull has primarily concentrated on publishing literature in translation with a particular emphasis, from its early years, on Indian theatre and cinema from different regional and linguistic backgrounds. Seagull has introduced Indian readers to the joys of literature from different world languages — writers such as the Nobel Prize winners Mo Yan, Imri Kertez, Ellfride Jellinek and the more recent Man Booker International Prize winner László Krasznahorkai. Operating with a small team to produce and design books distinguished by superior literary content and exquisite aesthetic appeal, each Seagull book is a collectible that is also reasonably priced for the Indian buyer. While Asymptote has previously covered Seagull books, Sneha Khaund caught up with Naveen Kishore, Seagull’s founder, to know more about how the publishing house continues to support translation and shape world literature. 

 Sneha Khaund (SK): Can you tell me a bit about how Seagull was conceived?

Naveen Kishore (NK): Overnight. Very specifically, the event that marks our “birth,” as it were, was a festival of grassroots theatre I produced in 1982. Around that time there were a lot of theatre groups working with original themes and using their bare bodies with no props or costumes. Their plays dealt with the human condition around them and the dailyness of survival. Working in a 40km radius around Calcutta, these groups were more interested in going into villages and the interiors of the state rather than trying to perform for an urban city audience. At this event I noticed someone in the front row of benches madly sketching the body movements of the performers. So I turned to a theatre scholar, Samik Banerjee, who was also at the time an editor at Oxford University Press, and I said what a pity there is no way to capture this moment. We were not familiar with words like documentation and there was no digital photography and so on at the time. It was Samik da who suggested that a specialist niche publisher focusing on the arts could be a good way of documenting these evolving movements not just in theatre but also in cinema and fine art. We already had a name! Seagull! So Seagull Books was waiting to happen. We decided to explore the possibility of a theatre publishing programme that would do theatre scripts from different Indian languages in translation and document the vibrant New Indian Cinema movement: Satyajit Ray, Shyam Benegal, Adoor Gopalakrishnan, Jabbar Patel, Goutam Ghosh, to name a few. We would not focus on anything but the performing and the visual arts. So after thirty-five years, in fact after the first twenty-six years—that’s how long it takes sometimes—all the s, a lot of the Tendulkars, a lot of the Mahaswetas, a lot of these plays have now become textbooks. Classics of Indian drama like Ghasiram Kotwal, Charandas Chor. The irony is that even after thirty five years because it’s not a great commercial thing there’s still no other dedicated theatre publisher. It just doesn’t pay enough. So that was the first lesson for a non-publishing person stepping overnight into publishing — that you have to build a back-list because that’s how publishers survive. You can’t produce one book, sell it, recover, then re-invest because the way a publishing chain works is that you are expected to keep producing the books. Regardless. No single book is a profit centre. Small numbers selling across a list of say 500 books is how the numbers begin to make sense. Sometimes there are spikes and you sell certain titles very well. These then support the ones that don’t sell that well! Who said it is easy?!

SK: Nearly 70% of your work is literature in translation. How does the team manage?

NK: We cannot possibly know all the languages we work with. Maybe certain Indian languages, but the world languages we entrust to translators. The way the process works is first we identify the book we wish to translate and typically say that we wish to purchase the English-language world rights. We work out an advance and royalties and once we have negotiated that we translate it at our cost. After that we sign the translator on with a separate contract and the translation then comes to us in the English language. Now, it is at this point, our editing instincts come into play. Does the translation work in the English language? That is the vital issue. We cannot counter-check each language so there is an element of trust in locating the right translator. There have been cases where your instinct tells you that something is wrong. That’s when you go back to somebody of equal repute to counter-check, in which case you commission them to do that. That also happens sometimes. In the Indian languages, we can always do that as we can find someone of equal stature to look at the play script, go back and forth with the translator and author if possible. But with the foreign languages it isn’t always easy to do that. Often you are going to relationships which authors and translators already have. There are checks and balances here. You can get sample chapters translated before settling on the translator match. We have been lucky to have built some amazing translator relationships.

SK: After so many years of working with translation, what are some of the challenges you have faced? How has the landscape changed and how have the nature of these challenges changed over time?

NK: The landscape is ever-changing. As it should be. The horizon shifts with every new perspective. There are challenges with every single book you do. You have to be on your toes. It’s not something that you settle into. Readers are evolving. Often what may have worked for you as a translation forty years ago does not work for you today because language usage changes. In quite the way cinema works. The way Mani Ratnam cuts a film today as against say a Raj Kapoor may have done decades ago. The rhythms change with time. So what worked for me fifteen years ago may not now because technology has changed the way you look at images and your ability to absorb them. We’ve had translations we did in the 1980s which now don’t work for how we speak or the way we read or receive. So you don’t settle into a groove with that because even the authors change. The same author writing then and now may change stylistically, if he or she decides to do different things—it often happens, you don’t necessarily settle into your signature style. So there’s no kind of blueprint for that. But yes, it is challenging, the whole act of translation. In today’s world, translation is not just about one language to another—Mahasweta Devi is a case in point. See, we can put everything into wonderful English, but then we’ll all sound the same. Your voice and my voice, and our ways of speaking, have to find not just correct English, but often not so correct English, or French or whatever, to be able to convey. Otherwise you will have, you know, Toni Morrison and Mahasweta sounding the same, which doesn’t make sense. So you have to capture, and especially with someone like Mahasweta Devi who has got so many voices, so many registers—she never settled for any one thing—she’s like a travelogue of languages, you know. So it’s hard to pin her down and say this one translator’s done this so well and now you just replicate it; it doesn’t happen like that.

SK: You have said many times that you don’t have a target audience, but can one create an audience that is more appreciative of translations?

NK: By consistently working away at it. People have always been appreciative and curious about other cultures. Perhaps not in what you may call “mass market numbers!” But there is a growing readership. Especially today when it is important to publish translations even as an act of resistance. Getting to know the world’s other cultures, learning about differences through literature—and target audiences? Well, we are independent publishers with specialist lists. Independence. The right to choose what you want to do and not always be dictated by the market and so-called target audiences. The idea of target readers out there is a myth: no one can know for certain what people will read. It is always after the ‘event’ of the book being bought and read that you get wise, not before that. What I am trying to say is that literatures of the world resonate. A story about a woman in a small town in Germany may resonate and find a parallel with something in Jharkhand. The human condition works like that. Languages need not always cut off people; they can, and do, also unite them through reading about the Other.

In the Indian context it is important to understand that for over two decades a certain kind of translated world literature had disappeared. Now independent publishers are changing the scenario by doing relevant translations. This is also giving a choice to struggling retailers who had become trapped with a certain kind of choice of published books year after year. So initiatives like ours—and there are others in India who are attempting this too—build a critical mass of serious literature from the world over including our own country and give bookstores a wider choice. After all it is pointless complaining about the online giants like Amazon and Flipkart if you as a bookseller are not going to work harder and locate books of the kind publishers like us are publishing.

Today’s bookstores, if you walk into them, look wonderful but as you get closer to the shelves, there’s a certain vision of India. That’s all. (And some popular fiction from the English speaking West.) But beyond that, and beyond the handful of wonderful stylists writing in English from India, there is nothing of anything happening anywhere else in the world. This is a world where you can buy anything in three easy clicks of the mouse. So that’s why retail is competing not so well with the Flipkarts and the Amazons of the world. Our attempt is to create not a popular literature flood but a serious, literary literature flood, just to test the waters. Now you can turn around and say that this is bad economics and where’s the money coming from or that commercially it makes no sense, and I would agree with all of them because commerce is relative to the fact that it’s taken us thirty five years to become genuinely world publishers. It doesn’t mean size, because there are only five of us. When I say genuinely world publishers I mean traditionally we’ve always been seen as Indian publishers who, when they want world literature, have to either import it or buy the right to reprint here. We print only once for the world and we buy the world rights, so it’s a different model. I don’t think it’s desperately unique but nobody else is doing it at the moment. So it has qualities that make it stand out. In other words, what you are doing is you are questioning the status quo as you go along, which is what you do in translation too—you don’t take the easiest, quickest, swiftest solution to form a sentence.

Being an independent publisher means all sorts of things. It can mean ownership patterns or the legal aspects of ownership and then there is the spirit of independence which is what you choose—if you and I believe this—that if we didn’t intervene to make a certain book happen it might not happen.

SK: What upcoming titles are you excited about?

NK: Difficult! Our entire list is a wish list so all our books are exciting! There’s a wonderful book called The Atlas of an Anxious Man by Christoph Ransmayr.

The thing to realize is that we don’t just do books. We do authors. We don’t just do one-off books by a writer. Instead we build relationships and do many books by the same writer. The impulse that brings me to your writing in the first place has to not just be a one-off, it has to be a relationship, that’s important.

Sneha Khaund is an Asymptote Blog Editor and is based in New Delhi, India.


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