Since 2006, Seagull has been an influential global publisher, building up a world literature list with more than 300 titles that it sells around the world. Almost incredibly, the list includes, inter alia, one Nobel Laureate, two writers shortlisted for the 2015 Man Booker International Prize, and several others on the doorstep of major awards. How does this six-member team pull off this extraordinary feat? Publisher Naveen Kishore explains 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."

Formula vs instinct
"So there are no easy formulas. There is instinct, for sure. And trust. In other publishers. In our translators, because Seagull Books works closely with translators from many languages. In our authors. Remember that 70 per cent of our books are translated from languages other than English. From languages that none of us read.

So our selection of books arises from a combination of our reading rights catalogues and interpreting the little plot summaries in them, our instinct, our preoccupations at any given moment. Sometimes, even our response to a cover. Imagine, then, the satisfaction when the translation arrives upon your table and you read it and feel justified at having said yes to that book in the first place."

No reader profile
"We are not aiming for anything beyond the excitement of content and craft. The rest is logistics. I am never worried about what it will mean to the reader, because I don’t have a reader profiled! I simply hope that it will work for many people if it works for me. Besides, who knows with complete certainty what the reader wants?

And no, we don’t concern ourselves with highbrow–lowbrow labels. We do what we feel is vital. And let the work speak for itself. After all, the market has a responsibility too, to find us and our books. It doesn’t always have to be the other way around. The other way round – of a pre-decided target readership – keeps a lot of people busy but doesn’t necessarily work better."

Small town India reads better
"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.

If you can’t find it on a shelf, look on the Net. Hunt out the publisher online and ask for the books you want to read. Online bookstores are reaching the rarest of books to the remotest of addresses in a matter of days. And with a hefty discount. Do keep in mind that all our books have a drastically reduced “special Indian price” in order to make them extremely affordable in the English-reading market in our country."

The opposite of structure
"I have often said that I live hand in hand, or hand in glove, with “the uncertain” and “the intangible”. With the opposite of “structure”. I am aware that I also live in a time that does not lend credence to that feeling at the pit of one’s belly often referred to as the “gut”.

Instinct is frowned upon. And the intuitive is dismissed and easily replaced by “the practical”. I, on the other hand, respond to the intuitive in “visual” terms. The hand and glove imagery suggests magic. And theatre. (Remember, that I am a man of the theatre.) And mystery. And confusion in the eyes of the beholder.

Magic is good when it works. When it creates before the world the illusion of amazing success. When it creates in people the idea that I must have some secret method. Since the nature of my work doesn’t make it look as though it’s a great business!"

There’s never a business plan
"So, no one ever invested money in Seagull Books. Nor did I ask or expect anyone to do so. Nor do I have a business plan, except the belief that in the long run it would all even out if I persist. If I use all my means possible to make the ‘business of books’ work. By juggling. Borrowing. Seeking likeminded people the world over and persuading them to my cause. After all, there is no reason for idealism to be an embarrassment. But there is every reason for it to be a way of life.

I am clear about the fact that Seagull Books has to survive on our own terms – our own way of appreciating what we do, our understanding of fair play, our vision of what to publish. Seagull’s sense of resistance is practised, tangible. Manifest in everything we do, from the art we showcase (through the Seagull Foundation for the Arts) to the books we produce.

It is a living, palpable presence in our lives, both as individuals who make up Seagull and as an organization, however loosely structured it may be. We are also aware of the terminal nature of such enterprises. This is not a pessimistic view. Just an appreciation of a fact. What it does is to make us count your blessings. Every day. So the struggle and the focus and the preoccupation is not with how long but, simply, how.

It’s never about the prizes. Those are a bonus. For the writers. And for us.

It’s the book that wins. Every day. Every time."