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India’s Independent Publisher Seagull on Crafting Beautiful Books

Bookwitty By Bookwitty Published on January 24, 2017
This article was updated on September 17, 2017

In 1982 Naveen Kishore launched Seagull Books first as a press for books about theater and art. Today, Seagull specializes in English-language translations of European literature. With a global vision from the start, Kishore opened Seagull Books London in 2005 in order to make titles available in the UK as well as in the US. It has since become a global publisher with a list of world literature, including one Nobel laureate and two authors listed for the 2015 Man Booker International Prize, and more than 300 titles sold world wide. Seagull now includes the Seagull Foundation for the Arts, the Seagull School of Publishing, curates art shows through Seagull Art, and the “Peaceworks” initiative “to strengthen values of mutual coexistence and respect for all communities. Conceived as a programme which grounds itself in the arts and culture, PeaceWorks works within the area of civil society and education.” Founder Naveen Kishore and Sunandini Banerjee, Seagull's editor and graphic designer described, among other points, the challenging and rewarding aspects of being an independent publisher:

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Sunandini Banerjee

What is your editorial line? What makes you stand out?

Seagull Books began in 1982, in a publishing environment that was dismal, not in terms of the readership—there is a vast market for English-language publishers in India—but in terms of the craft of making books. We decided very early on that we would use the best paper, design, binding and block-making for our titles. Seagull’s first books were exclusively letterpress. With regard to content—we chose to document theatre, films or art. So right from our first few titles, the aesthetics of both content and form were in place. Not out of a formal learning or strategy or vision but, rather, out of intuition and a desire to make good books.

Many years later, in 2005, we set up Seagull Books London Limited. The idea was to focus on translation of a certain kind of world literature. We felt that over the last two or three decades, translations of literary fiction and poetry and a certain kind of non-fiction, the kind that focused on the human condition through the social sciences, had become a low priority for major world publishers. This became our editorial focus. Over the last 10 years, almost 500 books from different languages have been published.

If there is anything that makes Seagull stand out it is our list of translated literature from various Indian and European languages. That, and the quality of both our editorial choices and the design aspects. We make beautiful books.

What is the most rewarding aspect of being an independent publisher? What is the most challenging aspect?

Independence. To be able to publish what we want to publish. Often this appears to be out of sync with trends around us. That is OK too. We publish books across cultures. Across languages. Borders. Ideologies. We practice a world without borders. We see ourselves as a part of a world community. It is in this spirit that we openly share ideas, connections, thoughts, resources, with other publishers.

The challenge is surviving, but surviving is a positive thing. Like everyone else in the book trade, you’re constantly hoping people will keep reading, keep looking at the backlist, keep coming back to the books.

The challenge is managing the logistics effectively. We are based primarily in Calcutta. Which is where we originate our books. Our books need to reach every reader, irrespective of their physical location or ours. We used to print in India but between the freight cost and the time it took to reach our distributors, The University of Chicago Press, it became a rather expensive and time-consuming enterprise. So we began to print most of our books in the United States. Every book we now publish goes out to the whole world—the same edition with the same cover.

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How do you connect with your readers?

We try and make use of both online and offline media, we try and organize from bookstore events in the city or elsewhere in the world, we try and attend book fairs, we have regular updates on our social networking sites, as well as on our own website. With Facebook, Twitter and other online platforms, it’s easier—and becoming increasingly more important—to actively engage with readers, generate interest and receive real-time feedback.

How important are book fairs for you?

Independent publishers thrive on relationships. With authors and content. With the entire book reading, bookmaking, bookselling community. With cultures as diverse. With readers equally widespread. Book fairs offer us the opportunity to meet like-minded people from the community of world publishing that we are a part of.

How important are independent booksellers for your business? Do you see more sales online or through bookshops?

We value independent bookstores with their specialist stocks, their ability and instinct to curate for a interested and dedicated readership. We also firmly believe in and use the Internet. With technology enabling us to traverse geographical boundaries, we find ourselves exploring every possible avenue to present our books, to make them more visible and more accessible to readers across the board. For an independent publisher, all avenues of reaching the reader are important.

What books have helped you to stay afloat?

Our backlist of over 500 titles. And our belief that in the truly long run it will all even out if you persist. Persistence implies that you utilize all the means possible to make the ‘business of books’ work. We work round the year to bring out quality literature with the belief that readers will discover our books over time. We are prone to the temptation of an idea, even if that doesn’t necessarily add up in numbers every time. But it’s exciting, inspiring and liberating. This is how we survive.

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If you were to name one book you've published that you expected to be wildly popular but never quite caught, which would it be?

This does not apply to Seagull. Our focus has been to publish books that in our opinion need to be read.

Can you give us an example of an extraordinary cover design that a larger publisher wouldn't have risked?

Alas, no. We take great care to design each cover well! That is enough.

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