A tiny Indian publisher is translating hidden gems of world literature for global readers

“It isn’t about size. Or the scale. It is about the choice. The instinct that allows you to take the risk to step outside the structures the world of corporate publishing has so magnificently set up. And publish books that in your opinion need to be read.”

The mission statement of Seagull Books says it all: This is not your usual Indian publisher.

Founded in 1982, the Kolkata-based company publishes everything from literary fiction and poetry to philosophy and even cultural anthropology. But these books aren’t what you’d find on the catalogues of publishing giants such as HarperCollins or Penguin Random House. At Seagull Books, the focus is on translated writing from around the world, much of which has never before appeared in English, in India or anywhere else.

“We publish anything and everything to do with what I like to call ‘the human condition,’” founder Naveen Kishore told Quartz. “It is in many ways a wish-list of books we want to publish. Not dictated by trends or the marketplace or target readers.”

And that’s a far cry from the norms in India’s publishing business, which is estimated to be worth $6.76 billion, according to Nielsen. Though the sector is poised to grow at a compounded annual rate of over 19% until 2020, far above the global rate, it is overwhelmingly dominated by educational books. As a result, the massive success of commercial fiction writers, such as Chetan Bhagat, has prompted most publishers to focus more on cookie-cutter stories that sell well. And in this quest for bestsellers, original and unconventional writing has been pushed to the sidelines.

But Seagull Books also stands out from the crowd for another reason. Western publishing giants usually control the global rights for books, leaving Indian firms to handle the subcontinent only. Despite this equation, Kishore’s tiny, homegrown company has made a name for itself as the third-largest publisher of translated fiction in the US, according to 2016 data from Three Percent, a resource of the University of Rochester that tracks literary translations.

That’s the result of a decision made in 2005, when big US- and UK-based publishing houses were setting up shop in New Delhi. To reverse the trend, Seagull Books decided to establish its own independent publishing house in London, where it would go on to buy the global rights for books, printing one universal edition, in either Kolkata or the US, that would be sold around the world.

Read more: Quartz

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