Meet Naveen Kishore: a publisher who went beyond the status quo

A theatre practitioner by heart, Naveen Kishore is the founder and managing director of Seagull Books in Kolkata which began primarily as a response to the growing need for an Indian publishing house for theatre and other arts. With registered offices in London and world distribution through the University of Chicago Press, Seagull is now established in the international publishing world like no other Indian publishing house. Bringing back titles into circulations which are usually not taken up by bigger publishing houses, Seagull has now several projects which work towards bringing relevant literature to the public. He is also a faculty at The Seagull School of Publishing, Kolkata. He is a man, who is led not by the market, but by personal convictions and passions. AABP in candid conversation with him brings a gist of his publishing career, which spans nearly 4 decades.

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Naveen Kishore, Founder and Managing Director, Seagull Books

In 38 years of its existence, Seagull Books an independent publisher that believes in publishing without borders buying world English rights, translating literature from many European languages— something that used to be the providence of US/UK publishers—has become a highly respected world publisher.

Interestingly it all began on ‘March 5th 1972’ – A rock show gave Seagull its name. “I had to make a living very early in life. And as often happens in this country hobbies are turned into livelihoods. We did a rock music concert called ‘Seagull Empire’ by a then very wonderful rock group made up of college friends called The Great Bear. The opening song entitled Seagull Empire—Seagull interestingly was an American slang word for cocaine!—became a letterhead and then an impresario unit that promoted theatre music dance film events in the years to come. Twelve years later, in 1982, while presenting a festival of plays from the grassroots and street theatre movement in Bengal we realized the need to document drama and film and off the beaten track art movements. We already had a name in Calcutta’s cultural life so it was natural to call ourselves Seagull Books!” tells Naveen Kishore.

Later in 1987, The Seagull Foundation for the Arts was set up. Naveen had felt the need to play a supportive role in the field of arts practice and so, “We instinctively turned to the people who we were publishing, like K G Subramanyan and Mrinal Sen who later became our founder trustees and an ideas resource for the kind of activities the foundation began to take on. The Foundation then went on to do many projects, including Peaceworks—a programme that uses the arts to work with school children teaching them to learn to live with difference and harmony; the Seagull School of Publishing; our new initiative the History for Peace project works with school teachers from all over India and the sub-continent on common concerns on how history is taught in these difficult times. And on how we tend to look at the same historical event from so many different lenses,” he shares.

Meanwhile, Seagull Books continued to do theatre translations, books on cinema, fine arts and cultural studies. Seagull also translates the works of major Bengali writers like Mahasweta Devi, Banophool, Nabarun Bhattacharya amongst others.

“In 2005, as a ‘reaction’ to the fact of major UK and USA based multinationals settling down in New Delhi, we set up a independent publishing house called Seagull Books London Limited to translate world literature. This was an interesting project that changed the status quo. You must remember that traditionally US and UK based publishers expected Indian publishers to buy rights only for India. We change this by only acquiring world rights for all our books. This experiment is 14 years old! tells Naveen.

Since 2005, Seagull Books has published English translations of fiction and non-fiction by major African, European, Asian and Latin American writers. It now boasts of a backlist of over 500 titles. Beginning with authors such as Guillaume Apollinaire, Jean-Paul Sartre, Roland Barthes, Jorge Luis Borges, Theodor W.Adorno, Aimé Césaire, Thomas Bernhard, Edward Said, André Gorz, Satyajit Ray, Peter Weiss and Max Frisch, Seagull Books now represents major contemporary writers such as Yves Bonnefoy, Philippe Jaccottet, Alexander Kluge, Hans Magnus Enzensberger, Mahasweta Devi, Pascal Quignard, Hélène Cixous, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Sibylle Lewitscharoff, Marc Augé and many more.

The growing ‘Africa List’ presents writers such as Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Maryse Condé, Ivan Vladislavi?, William Kentridge, Leonora Miano, Kossi Efoui and Abdourrahman A.Waberi. European writers lesser known to the English-speaking world are also showcased by Seagull—Ralf Rothmann, Tilman Rammstedt, Inka Parei, Dorothee Elmiger, Tomas Espedal. The list expands daily.

In 2012, Seagull author Mo Yan was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature while in 2015, Laszlo Krasznahorkai, another Seagull author, received the prestigious Man Booker International Prize.

Maryse Condé, whose three volumes have been published by Seagull won the alternative Nobel Prize in 2018.

So, what was the idea behind setting up of an international company, and he replied, “The idea was to reverse the model – we produce good books, we saw no reason to stick to buying rights only to sell in India. It is a globalized world and publishers no longer need to be ‘region based’. The key thing is distribution. We are distributed in the rest of the world other than India by the University of Chicago Press. It isn’t as easy as it sounds! It is difficult as these are very slow selling serious Literary books. We try to make them as visible as we can, and sell as many as we can. We subsidise this for India, for example, a 27$ book in America is sold for Rs 500-600 as our market is price sensitive.”

Giving back!

On asking about the genesis of The Seagull School of Publishing, Naveen replied, “When we started, we had 30 years of experience in publishing; we wanted to share it with young people. This was started with a wonderful accidental meeting with the Norwegians – who were really excited with the idea of a Publishing School; they funded it for the first 6 years. The idea was this was a school that did not teach you to be an Indian publisher or a UK publisher it simply teaches you to be a PUBLISHER and has 3 months of intense training.”

Seagull School – Nurturing potential global publishers

Sharing about the course, Naveen says, “Seagull School aims to create publishers, not just editors and designers. Every editor or designer trained at the School has holistic knowledge of all aspects of publishing—from manuscript preparation to rights management to print and production to sales and marketing. It is essential for those working in the publishing industry to have this breadth of knowledge, so that the decisions that they make as editors or designers or publishing entrepreneurs are always informed decisions. We believe that the Seagull School is unique in providing this kind of rounded, universal knowledge to its students. Furthermore, our focus is on hands-on practical exercises, rather than lectures. This prepares the students for the everyday life of an editor or designer.”

The School derives a lot of its human resources from Seagull Books and the latter’s relationships with the international publishing world. “This leads to publishers, editors, authors, translators from around the world (especially US, UK, Germany, France, Norway) visiting the school and teaching master classes, facilitating workshops and interacting at length with the students. As a result, those trained at The Seagull School emerge as potential global publishers—their knowledge of the industry is not limited to the Indian context,” he added.

Publishing successes

With an understandable degree of pride, Naveen shares the success stories of his students. “More that 80 per cent of Editing students who graduate from the Seagull School have joined different publishing houses as editors. It is difficult to ascertain exactly how many have joined mainstream houses and how many have joined independents. We believe there would be a 50–50 division, but we are unable to give you exact numbers. One of the entrepreneurs who emerged from one of our early courses and who has successfully set up her own publishing venture is Ruby Hembrom, the founder of Adivaani (www.adivaani.org). Several designers have their own small ventures too, through which they freelance for some of the best-regarded publishing houses in the country. Many have been working in various publishing houses such as Oxford University Press, Sage Publications, Zubaan Books, Niyogi Books, Bee Books, Ratna Sagar, and so on. Design graduates have been working (as freelancers) for houses such as Routledge and Orient Blackswan, among others.”

Challenging times

“Seagull School is a subsidized service and it is hard to survive, the books we publish don’t have that kind of margins to support a school. Our challenge is funding. We have, for the past six years, been generously supported by a grant from the Royal Norwegian Embassy, New Delhi. However, that funding has come to an end,” told Naveen.

“We spend a lot on our courses—by creating an inspiring environment for the students, by bringing in international publishing experts— and yet we do not want the course to be too expensive for the students. In order to maintain the quality of our courses as well as to keep them affordable, our challenge now, is to look for alternative sources of funding. But we are confident that if the world understands and appreciates a need for an institution, it finds ways to support and nurture it somehow. So, we are full of hope,” he described.

Best communications bring best translations

Seagull has a wide list in translations from different languages. So, how does he selects a literature to be translated? As per Naveen, “Independent publishing is all about relationships. We have relations with authors, translators, publishers and book sellers and are in constant communication.

The rights catalogues from different publishers, which has a 200 word description, or sample English extract is the first starting point for selection. Sometimes we send the book to a translator. Often, translators bring interesting books to us. So trust! It’s like a fluid chain of your instinct and the instinct of the translator. It is very personality driven. Often it is what interests you in the initial synopsis, what bells it sets-off! It is an ongoing circle of trust and relationships with a community of publishers and translators and authors the world over. A way of life.

When you look back, it looks like a plan but at that moment, we were just excited in doing, in making books happen.”

Sharing more about the current scenario of translations, he added, “In India, a lot more translations are happening. It is getting better but there is no facility for training in terms of say regular workshops, and no infrastructure within the community to nurture translators. It is a self-taught skill. There is no organised data and it is difficult to find translators for different languages. There is not enough promotion of translated literature. Some European countries have translators associations that define guidelines. This is worth exploring in the Indian context.”

European connect

His personal interest in European literature has helped him to be successful in selecting titles. “I have always grown up reading European literature in India, it used to be translated in the old days and used to be imported. Our bookstores used to be full of world literature. I always found European literature to be a space of hope, sometimes the darkest of literature has light in it. I grew up reading a lot of women writers, it helped me for the rest of my life. This world literature then disappeared in our bookstores as gradually it became a lot about number crunching,” he said.

“The spirit of what you choose to do defines the Independent Publisher,” he shared.

“And at school, one of the sessions we do is- “Beyond the contract, there are a lot of instances of things we do as human beings which are ethical choices which you as an individual you wish to use in your work in publishing. This defines our spirit of Independence,” he added.

Changing times – Backlist versus Frontlist

On asking about the changes that he has witnessed in recent years, he shared his views as well, “When I started publishing, most of the direct selling requests were from Bihar, Kerala, Amritsar, Chandigarh, etc. India has always read, it depends what we are giving our young to read! When you walk into a bookstore, it looks like a wonderfully stocked bookstore, but does not have world literature. Now, bookshops have to reinvent themselves and curate the list as people are coming back to independent bookstores.”

“I think as a community there is much more openness amongst publishers, we in India have learnt over time to plan our books in advance. This happened I suspect with the advent of so many MNC’s in Indian publishing. Publishing is more structured now and has more outreach in terms of rest of the world. There is a focus on distribution and marketing because of major players who have settled in New Delhi. I think what is important to note is that content has not always changed for the best. I think when we were growing up, the content was much more exciting,” tells Naveen.

“Backlist vs frontlist publishing – the concept of the American front list publishing has now been adopted everywhere. A famous personality books sells 60,000 copies – an example of a front List title –but will it stand the test of time? I believe in building a strong backlist that readers across generations may visit again and again,” concluded Naveen.

Since 2005, Seagull Books London Limited has ventured into newer fields of publishing, including English translations of fiction and non-fiction by major African, European, Asian and Latin American writers.

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