They say that Pakistan is witnessing a literary renaissance; be they from small villages or urban metropolises, Pakistani fiction writers are winning accolades on many a literary platform. Recently, Intizar Husain, one of Pakistan’s greatest literary voices in Urdu, was published by the New York Review of Books and is also a finalist for the Man Booker International Prize 2013. However, the refrain in all these stories is the lack of presence of Pakistani publishers.
Writer and translator, Musharraf Ali Farooqi summed up the dilemma in a single statement: “[The] publishing industry does not exist in Pakistan in any meaningful sense.” Farooqi’s novels, translations as well as one of his illustrated works have all been published outside the country: mainly in India. “Publishing in India is a proper industry with all the protocols and standards one expects. It is the largest publishing industry in South Asia, and worldwide it is the only publishing market that is showing strong growth. I have published different projects with six publishers in India over a period of 13 years and the experience has been great.”
The situation is not totally bleak, however. ILQA Publications is the new kid on the block — they have recently published the Urdu translation of Bapsi Sidhwa’s The Crow Eaters, titled Junglewala Sahib as well as her latest short story collection, Their Language of Love. Sidhwa fondly talked about the experience of being published in Pakistan: “[ILQA] bought the rights to Their Language of Love from Penguin, India, and published and distributed it well. They also bought the rights to publish my previous novels from me. I found the terms they offered were fair and they paid the advance promptly.”
ILQA’s publishing quality may not be at par with international standards, with concerns being raised regarding their editing quality and distribution networks, however, they are targeting a larger audience with their low-cost paperback as well as hardcover publications. Amir Riaz, general manager at ILQA elaborates: “Our publishing venture is young, yet in less than four years we have published more than 45 titles catering to children including fiction, poetry, research, classics as well as books targeting young adults. Majority of what we publish is fiction, both in English and Urdu.
“As there is no institution in Pakistan that helps to develop professionals for book publishing and its related fields like editing, proofreading, jacket designing and layouts, we find it very difficult to hire. Locally published books are badly edited, be they in English or Urdu, with glaring errors and unattractive cover designs. With our experience in dealing with foreign books and publishers, we are consciously trying to bring our standards at par.”
Bina Shah, with four novels and two short story collections to her credit, is probably among a handful of English fiction writers to have been published in Pakistan — by Oxford University Press, Karachi and Alhamra in Islamabad. Though she did not face any major glitches, according to her, “marketing and distribution have always been in need of more support and attention, with not enough people to do the job. You really have to do a great deal of self-promotion. In addition, in recent years, with Alhamra and even SAMA going inactive, and OUP deciding to no longer publish original fiction, writers in Pakistan are pretty blocked in their attempts to break-through.”
With only a few names sought out by international as well as local publishing houses, new and upcoming writers face a grim reality: “Publishers and agents abroad are not that interested in Pakistani writing, no matter what they may have said. Once they have one or two Pakistanis on their lists, they’re not really looking for any more. And once the ‘war on terror’ changes focus or locus, Pakistan will no longer be ‘terrorist flavour of the month’ and there will be even less attention on whatever commercial fiction might have served that need,” adds Shah.
Ayesha Salman, whose debut novel Blue Dust was published by Roli Books in India, recounts the trials of being a first time writer searching for a publisher in Pakistan: “The publisher I tried, quite a prominent one in Pakistan I might add, did not want to take a chance on the book by funding it so the editors suggested that I pay for the publication myself. I was disheartened and angry about the whole thing and so I refused. I was also aware that being published in Pakistan would not expose me to the wider market so I turned my attention to India.”
Her experience is India was no better when, two years after being accepted by one of India’s largest publishing houses, she was informed that her novel was “not really for them anymore.” It was then that Roli Books accepted the manuscript.
“Publishers in Pakistan believe there isn’t a market for English literary fiction in Pakistan so they worry about losses. I refute that. I think readership of English fiction in Pakistan is huge, especially for new and emerging Pakistani writers and it is growing all the time. We need to encourage our writers to become part of the international landscape of fiction writers.”
With regards to Urdu, many claim that it is dying out and so are its readers; in reality, the state of the Urdu publishing industry in Pakistan is much more optimistic. Sang-i-Meel Publications, though they publish in English, are known for their high-quality Urdu paperbacks and hard-covers. Managing director Afzaal Ahmed elaborates: “We normally publish Urdu fiction, history, Urdu criticism, travelogues, and also reprint rare books about pre-Partition times.” Talking about the problems Urdu writers face while trying to get their work published locally, he pointed out how, “If someone approaches publishers without good references like already published pieces in newspapers, journals or literary magazines, he cannot convince the publisher easily. Because very few books even manage to break even, new authors get de-motivated”.
Apart from battling piracy and copyright issues, publishers here are also faced with a constant threat and so monitor what they publish. Controversial topics are avoided at all cost, and as a result, many stick to publishing non-fiction. Grants and funding on an institutional level have encouraged research-based books to be published widely but fiction clearly lags behind.