Literature is an art that has been facing a slow death in Pakistan. The literary greats bemoan its demise and the young are discouraged from indulging in such pursuits as it is considered a waste of time and effort. Young, aspiring writers are only told to pursue writing as a means to pass the Cambridge exams. Once in the real world, if they are to seek a writing career, they face dejection and ridicule. Writing is hardly seen as a lucrative or worthy career in Pakistan. This social mindset has resulted in a dearth of local literary works. Add to this the terrible state of publishing houses in Pakistan and there is virtually no platform for an aspiring writer to get their word published. Enter Daastan.
A for-profit company working for the revival of literature in Pakistan, Daastan is the brainchild of budding and enthusiastic entrepreneur Syed Ommer Amer. Belonging to a family of teachers and professors, the appreciation for literature was inculcated in Ommer from the start.
He grew up to love writing and wanted to publish his own book. But when he completed his manuscript, he was disappointed to find that there was no publishing house available to publish a young writer’s book.
The setback turned out to be a blessing in disguise. Determined to publish his book, he decided to found his own publishing company, and that was when Daastan was born.
The journey started with two other people Hafsa Idrees and Tahniat Saba, who gave Daastan the initial push along with Ommer.
Seeking funding, the team turned to Plan 9, Pakistan's biggest technology incubator run by the Punjab government. They were successful in their pitch and were awarded USD6,000 by Plan 9. On April 16, 2015 Daastan saw light of day.
Daastan’s goal is to help writers generate revenue. Having an online platform also allows the writers to gain international traction. To this end, it has two platforms for writers to chose from: self-publishing and freelancing.
Any writer who wishes to self-publish their work with Daastan can simply get in touch with them on their Facebook page, which is run by team members Maheen Ahmed and Zahra Akbar. A contract is then sent to the writer ensuring confidentiality. Once the contract is signed, the manuscript is processed and sent for printing. It takes about a month to complete the order and five hardcopies are dispatched along with personal bookmarks and some freebies.
Work is currently underway to have an automated submissions platform ready by the end of this year, which will allow the whole process to become much simpler and faster.
In order to attract more writers and stories, Daastan launched an open story writing competition on May 23 of this year. Ending a month later on June 23, the competition is looking for writers to write on the theme perfect Imperfections and how the struggles of people and how their imperfections make them unique. The stories will be judged on the plot, characterisation, grammar, and story structure. Daastan will publish the top five best submissions.
While the initial idea was to have a platform for writers to self-publish their works, Daastan has now added another wing that focuses on finding writers freelance gigs. After a number of experiments, the directors realised that not everyone wanted to write a novel; many writers were simply looking for an avenue to find paid work. Keeping this in mind, the team decided to strengthen the freelance platform to provide more such opportunities for local writers.
Their business model is similar to international freelance marketplaces. They charge a nominal commission for each writing order outsourced to the team. They also take a small percentage from the writer’s earnings.
Typical freelance work includes blogs, creative writing, advertisements, short stories as well as ghost writing novels. So far the start-up has managed to secure writing gigs worth as much as Rs300,000. Within a few months of creation, the freelance team grew from zero to 20 writers, delivering 105 orders to 35 different brands in 10 countries. Seven novels ranging from 10-27 thousand words have also been written by the team for international clients.
They maintain a strict criteria whereby only active writers are given projects. Daastan’s aim is to build a more robust freelance infrastructure to accommodate as many as 1,000 writers and 20 businesses by the year end.
Daastan is heading for another venture to distribute its stories. A deal is in preparation with Bombadil publishing house in Scotland for distributing 75,000 tablets in schools on subscription basis . The tablets will contain stories published by Daastan and the deal will allow the company to reach children in their classrooms.
Self-publication platforms such as Daastan differ from traditional publication houses in one major way: Daastan does not offer professional editing services and manuscripts are proofread for syntactic errors only. The editorial process is left to the author themselves and Daastan only takes care of the legalities, distribution and promotion.
This kind of publishing inevitably brings up the question of quality control or lack thereof. To put it straight, quality control and self-publishing do not go hand in hand. Amazon’s self-publishing service, for example, is extremely popular but readers face a massive influx of low-quality books.
Like Amazon, Daastan does not allow much room for quality assurance. It is left to the readers to discuss, rate and review the works.
Self-publishing remains a double-edged sword. Should it be disregarded because there is no quality control, or should it be given a chance to thrive and let the best emerge? The question is yet to be fully answered, and the biggest task for Daastan would be to convince the skeptics.
Daastan will also have to show that it does not seek to simply make money by having as many publications as possible. Is the company in the business of publication or is it also concerned with reviving the quality and not just the quantity of literature in Pakistan? It can only do so by ensuring production of quality works.
Header photo courtesy Creative Commons