Silkscreen Workshop: With Ronnie Gupta

Talk about cool . . .

We the editing class spend an inordinately long time everyday listening and learning. What we don’t get to do is play around on high end computers and do colourful creative things . . . that’s okay because we had a plan.

Tired of watching from the side lines as the design group got to do all the fancy shmancy craft stuff; we plotted in secret. We were prepared to fight . . . fight for all those who were here before us and for those who will come after us; using our collective prowess we decided that we will send an email; an email filled with our demands! And lo’ and behold we were victorious. The establishment relented. They set up a day for us to experience the silk screen process.

Ronnie Gupta, (a man of many talents) was roped in to take us through the process of silk screening—a process by which we can print elaborate colourful design on practically any surface of our choice. He detailed out the materials to be used, the type of mesh used, the exposure time of the photosensitive film etc.

The best way to learn is to do, and that is exactly what was set up for us next. There were all sorts of nervous, excited twitters as Ronnie let us handle the equipment and create our personalised stationery. Soon though, we were turning on each other; we were at each other’s throats competing to create the prettier work. A bloody battle ensued. The victorious walking away with un-smudged ink and their head held high; while the defeated stumbled off the field waiting for the opportunity to fight again, another day.

A lot of technical expertise, precision and experience is required to use this process, to print thousands of exact copies. A slight nervous twitch in your hand can ruin the whole material you are working on, as many of us learnt the hard way. Ronnie was extremely patient and let us have many many tries at it. We got to push gobs of gooey ink across the surface of the screen—some of us overzealous, some hesitant in their attempts. Perfection was not easy. But we all came away carrying our own handiworks, grinning from ear to ear and taking ‘artful’ photographs of said creations.

It was an extremely invigorating experience, not just because of the coffee that brewed beside us but because we got to create something; it’s not something I would have experienced otherwise.

So, ‘Thank You’ Ronnie Gupta and Seagull. We look forward to more sessions like these.

Antara Guha

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The Seagull Bookstore Experiments: With Naveen Kishore

The students at the Seagull School of Publishing have often bemoaned the lack of a good bookstore in Kolkata. Our only options seem to be small cubbyholes in Boi para, or large, impersonal spaces that claim to be bookstores but seem to have just a few popular titles spread out between stationery, toys and other merchandise. The session with Rick Simonson last month, seeing the pictures of the Elliot Bay bookstore in Seattle, left us feeling quite sorry for our state. Some classmates remembered the Seagull Bookstore fondly, and we wondered why it had to shut shop, now remaining only as a showroom for Seagull publications. We wondered why the chain stores seem to thrive in the city, while the independent bookstores that we desire do not exist? We thus requested for a session with Naveen to understand the history of the Seagull Bookstore.

Naveen spent last Friday with the Seagull class, telling us a story that would make quite a page-turner. Henry James in his novel The Ambassadors speaks of the virtues of being a ‘perfectly-equipped failure’. He shows an uncomfortable world that values only money, and he notes: ‘Anything else today is hideous. Look about you—look at the successes. Would you be one, on your honour?’

The story of the Seagull Bookstore perhaps is a clear example of a failed attempt that shines as an inspirational success, bringing together a community and reminding it of what they truly need to value—not the money made in reality, but the dreams of youth!

As Naveen led us through the history of the store, he gave us a parallel insight into the world of independent publishing too. Especially publishing as an independent in Kolkata, and the play of personal–professional relationships. Seagull has experimented with the Bookstore twice—once in 1986, soon after the start of the publishing house itself, and then later in 1997.

The early attempt was grand in scale, with some 92 direct accounts set up with publishers around the world, the best titles sourced, and several in-store events executed. However with a nascent publishing business to run, a list to build and an identity yet to be established, sufficient efforts could not be directed into running the bookstore business. The credit periods ended with low cash in the till, and the relationships required to run the bookstore were no longer viable. The publishing business could not subsidize the bookstore beyond a point, and the experiment had to be stopped.

The 1997 bookstore experiment actually arose from a disastrous event for the publishing vertical—the all-consuming fire at the Kolkata Book Fair. While the fire gave rise to immense debts, it also revealed the support of the publishing, and arts community. With their support, Seagull Publishing pulled through, and it also tried to extend this support to other floundering colleagues. Two such colleagues were offered the Bookstore space to re-start their careers, and Seagull relied on their retail experience to make a success of the experiment this time. The earlier model of direct accounts, sourcing of several titles, and in-store events was repeated. However, success still eluded them. The store, while widely respected, with many celebrity clients, still failed to make any money.

The store last shut shop in October 2011—though the dream lives on. Naveen admits to having quite a few insights into how the bookstore experiment could possibly be made a success. He also notes his inability to devote time towards the same. When the students suggested that perhaps we, as part of the Seagull School, could make a continuing project of the same, Naveen immediately showed interest. The ball is now in our court—can we make a viable business proposal, fully exploiting the depth of retail experience and the width of the publisher’s network that Naveen promises will be available to us? I guess we will soon know.

Aastha Khandelwal

Academic Publishing: With Alan Thomas and Ken Wissoker

It was with a certain level of trepidation, probably brought on by the sight of the pile of reading we had to do, that we began our week-long mini-course on academic publishing with Alan Thomas and Ken Wissoker. The world of academic publishing, we soon found out, is very different from anything we have been exposed to before as part of this course. Commercial viability, though important, is not the primary factor that determines a book’s ‘publishability’, instead there is a combination of other factors including whether the book will garner critical appreciation, or fit into and add to the academic profile of the publishing house. This crash course in academic publishing was brilliantly structured in addition to being a perfect balance of listening to the experiences of the experts and learning from practical exercises. Personally, I really appreciated the fact that a lot of thought and preparation had gone into this week of classes, and that inspired and encouraged me to do the same with the assignments we were given.

It is perhaps impossible to relate in detail what we learnt in those five days and therefore a short overview will have to suffice. We began the week with examining academic publishing, and more specifically, university presses in relation to commercial publishing, and the publishing industry at large. Alan and Ken then described the history and development of the two presses they work at: the University of Chicago Press and the Duke University Press respectively. They also gave us an idea of their unique career trajectories towards becoming acquisitions editors. Having garnered a basic understanding of the functioning of the industry we then went on to look at the most recent spring catalogues of a number of university presses. While going through these catalogues, both before class, and as a part of discussions in class, it became apparent that these catalogues and lists were the means by which the presses represented themselves to the rest of the world. Each press fashions an image for itself, based on the type of books it publishes, how they categorise these books, and perhaps also relates itself to the strengths of the university it is associated with. Understanding the list of a particular press is important not only to a fellow publisher but also to anyone looking to get their book published, and whether or not a book is published by a particular press very often depends on whether it fits that list. Additionally, a book is received differently depending on its publisher: a book on gender stereotyping when published by a press that has a strong gender studies list would be perceived very differently if it was published by a press that primarily published trade books in the sciences.

Having focused on the images of these presses, we then went on to understand the job of the acquisitions editor in greater detail, and thereby gained an understanding of the functioning of the entire press. From how to actively search for manuscripts or ideas, to what to put into a good book proposal, to how to think of the market for a book often years in advance, Alan and Ken took us on the journey of a book from an incomplete manuscript to a published entity. During this class, we spent a lot of time going over the concept of peer reviews, an important element both in deciding on whether to publish the book and in its editorial stages, and a process that is not often used outside of academic publishing. An acquisitions editor stays with the book from before it is signed on, negotiating the terms of submission and then going on to act as an advocate for the book to the rest of the press until it is finally published, and is also a major point of contact with the author. Thus Alan and Ken managed to compress what their jobs entail into a few hours of discussions, explanations and anecdotes. The next day, it was our turn. Each team of two had been assigned two acquisitions scenarios that as an acquisitions editor we might potentially come across. Ranging from unsatisfied authors to the perils of list-building, we each got a chance to put our new-found knowledge to use in our own unique ways. Participating in this exercise made me realise that an acquisitions editor not only has to have a more than working knowledge of the market, an understanding of the academic field and its experts, a certain fingerspitzengefühl, a never-ending supply of patience, but also brilliant people skills.

The last day focused on specific books and their introductions, and what it takes to convert a dissertation into a book. This class was based around the samples, circulated earlier in the week, of introductions from various books. Together, we evaluated what worked and what didn’t in each of these introductions, tried to gauge the target readership of the book and whether it could be classified as a trade book or not and assessed whether the introduction fulfilled all the requirements. The last part of the class was devoted to a topic that we have become very fond of in the last few weeks: the future of the physical book and the advent of e-books and other forms of digital enhancement. The past week could be considered a complete publishing course in itself: covering topics that ranged from a wide overview of the publishing industry, the functioning of specific academic presses, an understanding of the role of the acquisitions editor to an analysis of the introductions of different academic books that acted as visible proof of the effects of editing.

Taarini Mookherjee

Riding the Idea Generation Motorbike

What seemed like just another day in the classroom turned out to be unlike any other. Enter, Sumit Roy, lateral thinker extraordinaire! Via a series of mental creative exercises and teamwork enhancement games, our classroom switched from a technical learning hub to a practical creation legoland. That’s right, we spent the afternoon pulling apart lego pieces, talking to our favourite gurus and getting direct advice from them, and learnt how to come up with infinite ideas, in a finite time and space—all through prime numbers and a dictionary. Confused? Good, you’re on the right track. Sumit believes in creativity without boundaries and has come up with his own little magical ways to teach others how to practise the same. The key is to make something unique, by placing seemingly opposite things together in order to shock, awe, or grab the attention of an audience/consumer. Sumit stresses on learning how to unlearn, and think like a child again. We’re all conditioned to live and work within parameters, when in reality the only limits that exist are the ones we impose on ourselves. I personally loved the exercise where the real me, and the unreal me (which Sumit defines as the part of you that is pure imagination) came together in a jugalbandhi of question–answer rounds, testing my own ability to keep one-upping my own intelligence. Post class, the effect hasn’t worn off, as I’ve been using his techniques in real world situations and hey! they really do work! Thank you Sumit, for an amazing class that goes far beyond the four walls of the classroom.

Devika Arora

The Journey of the Book: With Rick Simonson and George Carroll

GEORGE CARROLL is an independent publishers’ representative based in Seattle, Washington. He blogs at the CroakingRaven.com and is a soccer editor. RICK SIMONSON curates at the Elliot Bay Book Company, Seattle, Washington. He establishes connections between readers and authors.

Both visiting lecturers shared their experiences, anecdotes and perspectives on sales and marketing, as an aspect of publishing addressed during the course at the Seagull School of Publishing.

The session started with George Carroll explaining the identity and role of an independent publisher’s representative. He explained the basic work structure which needs to be followed by an independent publisher. The guests then explained a network through which the book travels from the publisher’s office to the reader’s hand.

I’d like to observe the lecture in a three-stage perspective.

  • The definition and the role of the Publisher.
  • The Publisher’s Representative.
  • The Bookseller.

THE PUBLISHER – An individual or a company who has the responsibility to ‘make information public’ and indulges in the process of publishing. Rick Simonson explained an independent publisher is “editorially independent and quicker.”

THE PUBLISHER’S REPRESENTATIVE—His work is to represent the publisher before booksellers. So his work comprises in taking the catalogues of the publishers (for instance George, an independent publisher’s representative would take the catalogue of Seagull Books, and a few other presses distributed by the University of Chicago Press (UCP) that he represents, to the bookseller, making a case for the books, and receiving orders for the copies.  If he takes a UCP catalogue to Rick Simonson who is a bookbuyer at Elliott Bay Book Company, Seattle, he might sometimes have to explain why he thinks Rick should buy a certain book for his store.) Since USA comprises of a huge area and it is virtually impossible for one person to cater to all the bookstores in USA, the question of geographical territory comes in. It is not the territory itself but the people inhabiting these areas that become a determining factor for the genre and number of books stocked. But that is something book buyer has to keep in mind. During the lecture Rick spoke about his initial worries concerning the kind of books he might have to keep for a neighbourhood with mostly young inhabitants.

THE BOOKSELLER—His work is to select books for the bookstore, place orders with the publisher’s representative and do everything possible to sell the book in large numbers. The selection procedure may be influenced by several factors such as the name of the author, publisher, the target audience, the physical attributes of the book (in terms of shelf space), the reception of the book by other bookstores (for instance, City Lights in San Francisco), etc. His sales strategies include events, staff recommendations, book readings etc.

Rick maintained that bookstores should to respect the reader’s psychology. They need to be sensitive towards the kind of people who would walk in and what kind of books would appeal to them. He explained that a good bookstore has to pay attention to the following factors—community bonding, good staff servicing, providing mental space to the buyer (no pressure on the buyer) and organize book-related programmes and events.

Tathagata Chowdhury

The Right to Write: With Anne-Solange Noble, Rights Director, Editions Gallimard

Day one

Books are like bicycles or scissors; they will never die—Anne-Solange Noble

To understand people’s aspirations has always been among the biggest challenges faced by every society due to the lack of genuine communication channels. It is one thing to be completely oblivious to a culture of people which is separated by geographical distances and another to ignore such cultures due the absence of medium. This is where the word ‘Translation’ is not only a tool for greater engagement but it provides the bridge which connects societies which are thousands of miles away from each other.

The week before and this week have been a very important period for me personally as it made me realize how important it is to make narratives of different countries more and more accessible. The session with Anne-Solange was one of those sessions which make you sit back and see in retrospect the very foundations of communications, storytelling and language. The session no doubt was about publishing and translation rights, but Anne made us all realize the importance of the decision to translate a work. To talk about the session in detail will be a little difficult as a lot things were touched upon but three topics which were central—the agent scenario, translation rights and dying native languages.

Of Rights—Anne-Solange Noble hardly needs an introduction, being a prominent personality in the fraternity of publishing; she is unbelievably energetic and successfully ignites the interest to go out there and to deal solidly with those who make all the important decision. Her grasp of rights is very strong as she introduced us to a whole new concept of licensing or in her words buying and selling. Her knowledge of contracts and deals with publishing houses came very handy for us to relate to the overall scenario. With the Indian subcontinent being a mine of languages and dialects, her personal experiences gave us a picture and an insight which will always help when we proceed to work.

Of Agents—Anne definitely did not talk about agents like James Bond and other apologists of capitalistic systems but she spoke about agents who are far more detrimental to the culture of writing i.e. according to her. For people in the publishing industry, it is very important to have the passion for producing a book, they should absolutely share the same feeling that an author feels. The relation between authors and their publishers has been like a holy pact which now seems to be undermined by the introduction of the agents who speak on behalf of the authors and act as liaisons. The very fact that an author has to go out of his way and find an agent before his manuscript gets a green signal by a publisher is obviously a sad state of affairs. We did not fully know about this kind of culture which not only poses a threat to the creative minority but also will make it impossible for ‘foreign’ writers to get published as English is the undisputed dominating force in the publishing world. The scenario which is quite common in the United States can easily overtake the global markets.

Of Resistance—This was the most interesting part of the session, at least for me. I have always felt wrong about the hegemony which prevails in the writing business and when Anne focused on the importance of writing in one’s native language I couldn’t help myself wanting to blurt out ‘Long live Cultural Resistance!’ Of course that would have been crazy. Jokes apart, she laid a lot of emphasis on how important it is to resist the domination of any one language. As she said, ‘No language is superior.’ As more and more authors turn to English as their mode of writing, the native languages are far from resurging. The purity of language has been violated not only by greater usage of only English but the process of bastardization of one’s native language.

Overall it was a very unique experience to sit and talk with a person who is kind of leading a literature renaissance by bringing forth narratives and works from different corners of the world.

The following lines by Jonathan Lethem are sufficient to sum up everything said and heard during the sessions: ‘Fantastic writing in English is kind of disreputable, but fantastic writing in translation is the summit.’

Azaan Javaid

Day Two

In the second day of our classes with her, Anne-Solange went through the details of the contract very thoroughly. She discussed every point mentioned and also showed us a contract which had subsidiary rights clearly drawn out. As she went from point to point she talked about her experiences and how she was able to get contracts signed in the process. She also narrated her experiences in the different markets that she faced and the related areas of rights. She brought to our notice how detailed the contract was and its importance and why each clause was included in it. She also showed us a computer-generated list that her office maintained to track the manuscripts and their status. It helped to keep a note of all the details of each book. It was however amazing to learn that actually she kept a mental map of each book that was on its way to the publishers and she knew the status of each of them. She also spoke about translation rights in details and how this was worked out in the contract. We learnt from her experience that each book was special and they needed to be taken up as a special work and accordingly a contract needed to be signed. She narrated instances about how she would go to book festivals and meet publishers and understand what was required and get a feel of the needs for certain books. It was a personalized study she made and with every detail worked out an individual case-specific strategy long before the signing of the final contract. There was a lot of effort and methodical study with sensitivity before a contract was actually signed. In the lighter moments during the coffee breaks she listened to us as we spoke about our areas of work and we also debated about how there was no creativity in the Internet age of writing and reading. Over coffee we also agreed on how unstable content was on the Internet. It was a wonderful session, very interactive and we learnt and discovered new facts like we do each day at the school. Anne-Solange was able to bring clarity to our questioning minds and took us a step forward to understand the journey of the book before it reaches the hands of the reader.

Piu Sur