India’s Seagull Books: Building a Global Business by Trusting in Translators

In English Language by Amanda DeMarco

By relying on translators to guide him, Naveen Kishore turned India’s Seagull Books into a major player in the West.

By Amanda DeMarco

“Seagull is bizarrely daring and ambitious,” says Katy Derbyshire, a well-regarded translator from the German and proprietor of the blog Love German Books, “and they produce the most delicious books you’ve ever seen . . . ”

Based in Calcutta, India, Seagull Books has become a high profile publisher through a rather unexpected means: by buying world English rights and printing English-language translations of European literature — something that, in the past, was generally the providence of US/UK publishers. But what makes Seagull especially remarkable is not just the mere fact that they deign to publish translations, but the depth of its list of translations, which includes a strong roster of titles from French and German, with books ranging from Sartre to Hans Magnus Enzensberger.

But rattling off a few major names as examples doesn’t really do Seagull justice; there’s a consistency of mission that doesn’t rely only on all-stars, one that’s been there from the start.

From Calcutta to Chicago

Naveen Kishore launched Seagull in 1982, initially as a theater and art press. His vision — if not the distribution — was global from the outset, and he set off building a respectable translation list alongside original English-language titles. Then, in 2005, he opened Seagull Books London to make the titles available in the UK as well as the US. “What we did in 2005 was to reverse the trend of the large corporates settling in India because they perceived it as a great marketplace for their books,” says Kishore, “We decided  to explore the opposite: settle in London and New York.” What changed, he says was “distribution and acceptance — acceptance by the West of a different way of publishing.”

Seagull specializes in translations

Today, the University of Chicago Press handles distribution in the West, and Kishore is upbeat about the reception they’ve gotten: “What I have encountered is huge respect and courtesy and unadulterated support, even love for the books we produce. Across cultures and languages and nations.” It’s not surprising. Seagull’s titles tend to have a classic style. They’re well translated. And they’re beautifully designed by Sunandini Banerjee, a self-educated Indian graphic designer and Seagull editor. All in all, the books leave a strong impression of good taste and love of literature. Even company’s catalogs are printed in beautiful hardcover editions.

Trusting in Translators

Kishore himself doesn’t speak French or German. Instead, he’s built Seagull’s impressive catalog by making the wise decision to trust in the judgement of translators, asking them for suggestions for what they’d like to see published: “The thing to understand is that I genuinely believe that this business of publishing is a collective institution involving authors and translators and publishers,” says Kishore. “Everyone must be a part of the process. Slightly at tangent to the logic of the marketplace, but that’s okay, too. It takes a bit longer but the buyer will find the book. Eventually.”

Seagull publishes works from underserved voices, such as Iran's exiled publisher Arash Hejazi (a one-time Publishing Perspectives contributor)

The impact of this approach on translators is not to be underestimated. “When I first met Naveen he just asked me for my wish-list straight out. I think those were his actual words. So I gave him two titles and he answered ‘Is that all?’” says Katy Derbyshire. “I suppose the effect on my outlook has been quite radical. Before Seagull, I would struggle to find publishers for projects I loved . . . The effect on my work is that I’m doing more serious fiction and less genre, and of course that I’m working almost entirely on books that I love. Which is an amazing privilege!”

Changing the Game of Global Publishing?

There are some limits to these wish-lists, says Derbyshire: “I don’t get everything I ask for because some German publishers are still wary of Seagull — or keen to sell to more prestigious US or UK houses. Also, Seagull only purchases world English rights and some German publishers prefer to split up the territories.” Scattered holdouts notwithstanding, simply due to the “sheer volume of translations they publish,” Derbyshire says that “for those German publishers that are happy to work with Seagull, they have indeed changed the game.”

Kishore emphasizes that his relationship with each publisher is unique, but there have been some important bonds that opened doors to other connections: “Suhrkamp is dear to us because they were our first pillar of support for the German list. Through them we got the strength to talk to other German publishers and now there are quite a few more with whom we have developed relationships and whose titles we are translating.”

Indeed, that’s exactly how translator Donal McLaughlin learned about Kishore and Seagull: “It was none other than Petra Hardt of Suhrkamp who first sang his praises to me.” McLaughlin, who says working with Seagull is “a dream, in both personal and professional terms,” is currently fulfilling a three-book contract for translations of titles by Urs Widmer, a contemporary Swiss author, with more on the horizon.

“The Swiss list at Seagull, like that of Dalkey Archive, provides a meaningful framework for the translations: a strong team of authors, as opposed to isolated/random individuals, appearing in translation.” McLaughlin’s point is an important one; only a small handful of publishers have healthy translation lists, but even fewer have the kind of depth to present authors in a meaningful context, and to build real relationships with them and with translators.

Training the Next Generation

Beginning in 2012, Seagull will offer a four-month-long publishing course in Calcutta for people looking to establish foundational knowledge in the trade. According to Kishore, the venture is “not addressing a lack as much as a desire to work with young people and see if one can help develop a new generation of publishing entrepreneurs. Particularly in the vernacular languages rather than in English. The vision is a collective one: not just an individual but a whole lot of us at Seagull and the world are keen on the project. A hands-on course that brings a certain philosophy of working into an industry currently under the shadow of a half a dozen corporate entities! To make possible, in a small way, for our young to take pleasure in becoming independent publishers.”

Amanda DeMarco is a contributing editor for Publishing Perspectives; she also edits Readux: Reading in Berlin.

DISCUSS: What Advice Would You Give to the Publishers of the Future?

About the Author

Amanda DeMarco

Amanda DeMarco is a freelance writer and translator living in Berlin. Originally from Chicago, her work for Publishing Perspectives focuses on German-language publishing news.