How Calcutta’s Seagull Books Defies Expectations

In Global Trade Talk by Dennis Abrams

Seagull Books has become a global publisher of note, with 300 titles, including books by numerous prize-winners, all produced by a team of six.

By Dennis Abrams

Seagull Books LogoAt, Naveen Kishore took a look at remarkable success story of Calcutta’s Seagull Books.

Founded in 1982, Seagull has, since 2007, become a global publisher of note, with a world literature list of more than 300 titles sold world wide. And not just “a” list: it’s a list that includes one Nobel laureate, two writers listed for the 2015 Man Booker International Prize, and many others; all put together by a six person publishing team. (Seagull also sponsors the Seagull Foundation for the Arts, offers professional classes at the Seagull School of Publishing, curates art shows through Seagull Art, and has launched 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.”)

How has Seagull done it? Publisher Naveen Kishore explained to his philosophy:

“You don’t go out into the world seeking-locating-publishing prizewinners. That our author Mo Yan went on to win the Nobel Prize in Literature is an accident – of chance and circumstance. As is the fact that the recent Man Booker International Prize 2015 shortlist has our authors Maryse Condé and László Krasznahorkai on it. And that our author Toby Litt is on the long list of the Edge Hill Short Story Prize 2015. And that our author Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o almost got the Nobel Prize last year – if the betting agencies are to be believed!

“Independent publishers often have half a dozen could-be Nobel winners on their list. We, for example, have Cees Nooteboom, Yves Bonnefoy, Peter Handke, Pascal Quignard and so many more who are of that stature. One invests in writers who may one day win prizes – but not only because one hopes and prays that they will. One invests in writers because one finds that their writing, their content, is remarkable.”

In a discussion ranging from business models, reader profiles, to initiative and magic, I found this particularly fascinating as well as heartening:

“It might interest the world to know that readers in Ludhiana and Gwalior and Pune and Sikkim and Siliguri are all reading our translated fiction and philosophy and poetry from the German and the French and the Italian. Much more than they are in some of the metros.

If you don’t believe me, look at the figures that Atlantic Publishers and Distributors (who distribute us in India) and Maya Publishers (our sales representatives) have tabulated! So-called small-town India reads across the range, from the most esoteric to the most popular books. Correction: it devours them.

The metros, on the other hand are too busy complaining about where they could get those books. Between the lopsided selection that is offered by the chain bookstores and the short-of-space and swiftly vanishing independent bookstores, the only way to get to what you wish to read is to make the effort yourself.”

To read the piece in its entirety (as you well should), click here.

About the Author

Dennis Abrams

Dennis Abrams is a contributing editor for Publishing Perspectives, responsible for news, children's publishing and media. He's also a restaurant critic, literary blogger, and the author of "The Play's The Thing," a complete YA guide to the plays of William Shakespeare published by Pentian, as well as more than 30 YA biographies and histories for Chelsea House publishers.