A Beloved Publishing House and a Business Model of Impulsive Ethics

Many of us know the story of Seagull, the independent publishing house that boasts of the giants of world literature and academia on their list. A documentary takes us inside their intuitive and unusual business calculations.

“Money takes on a different kind of tyranny over most people,” translator and editor Anjum Katyal says in Pushan Kripalani’s documentary, Of the Book and Other Stories. The film is on Seagull, the independent publisher known for its exquisite books and cerebral catalogue that completed 40 years in the business in 2022. The idea for Kripalani’s film was seeded at the 40th anniversary celebrations of Seagull, and took a few more months to complete – by which time Seagull completed its 41st year in business.

Katyal is speaking of Naveen Kishore, the theatre lighting practitioner, photographer, poet and publisher of Seagull who founded the publishing house in 1982. “He’s got a different way of thinking about money. We’re scared, we’re conservative, we need the back-up, we need the security…It doesn’t bother him. It would bother me a lot, I wouldn’t sleep at night, thinking that I have to do this, do that, pay him back,” Katyal says. She would know. She was Seagull’s chief editor for close to two decades.

The subject of money comes up some nine times in the 111-minute film. Kishore brings it up four or five times himself. His colleague and senior editor Sunandini Banerjee, also known for her startling book cover design, mentions it twice. The quizzing tycoon Siddharth Basu, who brought the international MasterMind and Who Wants to Be a Millionaire to India with terrific success, mentions it once. Katyal mentions it in her interview.

And this is apposite. For the last several years when I have identified myself as a Seagull fan, I have been told of the publishing house’s secret trust fund that actually enables them to stay in business. Or Kishore’s enormous side business in art and artist representation, always mentioned with a dismissive air or a wave of the hand, implying something amiss or underhand. Another story is that Seagull is a front for the American government’s philanthropic organisations. Yet another goes that Kishore’s father was wealthy, ‘a hotelier’. And sometimes, the story is that Seagull is about to fold up. ‘It’s incredible that they managed for as long as they have!’

In the film, Kishore reveals his secret. When he entered college, his father had an unfortunate spate of being in and out of jobs. Kishore started working for a motor parts company where his work was composing letters on behalf of the firm and his salary was Rs 65. His college fee was Rs 19. With the remaining, he played cards for money, making an average of Rs 700-800 a month that he handed over to his mother for the household. This continued for a period of 13 months until his father got a stable job for another year. “It was a strange time, but what that probably did was make me comfortable with risk.” Incidentally, Kishore’s father was indeed in the hotel business – he worked as a manager with the Oberoi’s.

Money runs through the film as a thread, and this is refreshing. Publishing as a business is opaque about financials – in the public domain, we tend to hear that things are tough and there is no money in books. Yet, the image of publishing in the media is glamorous – photographs of events in literary festivals and well-appointed hotels with wine and nice things. It solidifies the impression that publishing is a mysterious business meant for a chosen few.

Kripalani’s film does not give a price breakdown of how a Seagull book adds up – how much a writer is paid, how much the printing costs, what the marketing budget is, none of that. But it does take you into the calculation of how Seagull approaches a book project. When Nemai Ghosh, who made a name for himself as the still photographer for Satyajit Ray’s films, wanted to publish his lifelong work in theatre photography, he had approached a few publishers. Photographs are expensive to publish well, so it was not an easy call. Kishore’s thought was: this person has paid their dues, as it were, through their work. “When you take on a book like this, you say no to the possibility of eight other books which are textual and perhaps just as vital. But you can make it possible that this particular person does not have to go to six other publishers hawking a life,” he says in the film. Ghosh’s book Dramatic Moments: Photographs and Memories of Calcutta Theatre from the 1960s to the 1990s was published in 2000 as a 191-page hardbound book priced at Rs 900.

What this is, is a different way of doing business. Kishore does the financial math – one book of photographs costs the equivalent of eight other books. But he also does another math – how can we give a man with a lifetime’s worth of work their due?

In a note about the film, Kripalani himself says he was “overwhelmed by talk of distribution, strategies, market forces, bottom lines” after finishing a feature film. This film Goldfish, a superbly written and realised drama about the repairing of a relationship between an ageing mother and an angry daughter, released in theatres in September this year. Kripalani is, in a way, a child of Seagull. His parents, the actors Jayant and Gulan Kripalani, are friends of Kishore. He was drawn to making a film on Seagull because they seemed to have a different metric of success. “They did not seem to look at a feasibility study before they made a decision. They jumped. And then looked around for a parachute.”

Stills from ‘Of the Book and Other Stories’. Photo: X/@seagullbooks

In the film, Kishore’s story about a Nobel-winning author offers an almost fairytale-like example of the Seagull way of doing business. The prize announcement for Mo Yan came around the Frankfurt Book Fair, known to be the world’s largest book trade fair. Seagull owned the rights for all languages, and they sold rights for 32 territories after the Nobel announcement, sales worth 132,000 euros. Seagull decided to pay the author 50% of what they earned, instead of the percentage drawn up in the contract years ago. “It was an intuitive act of ‘Hey, things would have been different if I had contracted you today.’ It may seem very romantic and goody-goody…But it’s nice to be able to do this percentage sharing differently because eventually, money is a conduit.”

This is likely the kind of thinking that has allowed Seagull, a publishing house with six editorial employees (as of the moment), to develop a catalogue of more than 600 titles, including five Nobel Prize winners (Mo Yan, Imre Ketesz, Peter Handke, Elfriede Jelinek, Herta Muller), one alternative Nobel winner (Mary Condse), the rockstar academics Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Romila Thapar and Judith Butler, and the legendary writer-activist Mahasweta Devi. It began as a publishing house for theatre, cinema and the visual arts. But sometime in the early 2000s, Seagull pivoted to translations of world literature – not merely the French and German – a good decade and a half before the current buzz around translations that we see in India today.

Seagull’s enviable list of writers and astounding book covers have been written about over the past few years, and an article by the writer Anjum Hasan in Caravan is especially good. But what Kripalani’s film does is a behind-the-scenes look at how it is to work as a small publishing house with big cerebral ambitions. Publishing is a subjective business, like any creative industry. You never know if a book will work. And so, the call to go by instinct rather than second-guessing oneself, by taking decisions with the heart, and treating your writers as friends rather than clients may in fact be solid business strategy. An impulsive decision like offering your newly-minted Nobel prize winner 50% of sales proceeds may in fact help draw in other celebrated writers.

The story of Urvashi Butalia and Ritu Menon

There is only one other film about publishing in India that I know. The Books We Made by Anupama Chandra and Uma Tanuku is a delightful documentary, funded by the Public Service Broadcasting Trust, about the work of Urvashi Butalia and Ritu Menon who set up feminist publishing in India. First, they worked together on a publishing house called Kali for Women from 1984 to 2003, and there on separately – Butalia set up another feminist house called Zubaan and Menon, Women Unlimited. This film too speaks of money: how there was none for a long time, how Butalia and Menon budgeted no salary for themselves for years, how Menon’s family garage served as a rent-free office and even water and electricity bills did not come out of the publishing budget. Of having too little money to print photographs well and the unexpected generosity of outsiders like the photographer Pablo Bartholomew who did a series of portraits of women poets for a Kali for Women diary for free or nearly free.

This too is a story of doing business in a different way, “on the margins” as Menon says, without the resources or the pressure of the mainstream. But here too, we hear of the need to survive as a business, to sell well. Mainstream publishing tends to speak of independent publishing as vanity projects or cottage industries, financed by largesse and freed of the demands of business.

The Books We Made, however, invokes a terrific tactile love for books as objects. It spends many minutes of its 67-minute run time putting the books produced by Butalia and Menon on screen. Savouring them. Butalia describes a book called Shareer ki Jaankari authored by 75 women in rural Rajasthan, illustrating the female body. The book ingeniously uses folded paper to depict the sexual organs and reproductive system of women. We see the processes of printing and laying out of pages as they were once done. We hear Butalia say she loved the printing process and the filmmakers take that as a cue to underline that publishing is not only about ideas and creative labour but also technical processes.

Kripalani eschews this approach completely, using interviews with Seagull editors and authors and collaborators to tell the story. To me, this feels like a missed opportunity because Seagull is known for its cover design and superb production quality. Kishore himself is full of stories of fixing little things, such as how he figured out a way to avoid the bubbled spines we would sometimes see in books before automate perfect binding machines became used routinely. He stuck a strip of chart paper on the inside of the spine so that it stayed firm. Seagull would often give the work of typesetting to P.K. Ghosh (in the era before desktop publishing), whom the historian Ramachandra Guha called “one of the world’s great typesetters”. What does a book printed by Ghosh look like? What can we see on the page to appreciate the mastery Guha refers to? Have we lost some beauty in the move to desktop publishing?

Kripalani’s choice, however, is a deliberate one. “I wanted to focus on the ideas behind publishing what they do. For processes, people can google it themselves,” he said, when I put the question to him after a screening in Kolkata. “I wanted a film of ideas.”

For those who know Seagull even a little, a story of conversations also makes sense intuitively. If you have ever visited the bookstore and asked a question or two, or even if you have interacted with their accounts on social media, you would be offered a coffee or lemonade and invited to a conversation. Anyone who knows Seagull even a bit knows how much they value the give and take of conversation. That anyone who enjoys the world of ideas and stories and art becomes a part of the Seagull family, so to speak. And from there, a book or a project can just be a conversation away.

Of the Book and Other Stories by Pushan Kripalani is currently being screened at events open to the public in cities across India. In addition to the main film of 111.14-minute film, there are six long interviews with patrons, long-time collaborations and admirers of Seagull. 

Sohini Chattopadhyay is a National Award-winning film critic and award-winning journalist. Her book The Day I Became a Runner: A Women’s History of India Through the Lens of Sport will be published by HarperCollins India in October 2023