Ahmed Nadeem Qasmi, our major poet, fiction writer and literary editor from the last century, once recalled meeting a few writers and publishers from the then Soviet Union. They casually asked him about the volume of the first print-run of a regular book of creative writing in Pakistan. Those were the days when the first impression of a literary book would comprise a maximum of a thousand or 1100 copies. No doubt that after some time, a few would be reprinted in an equal number and even fewer would be published again and again — but then even 10 impressions or editions of a popular title from Shafiqur Rehman would eventually mean only 10,000 copies sold. The vast majority of the titles, even by some leading writers, would be published only once, to be later sold in old bookshops or on the pavements of Karachi, Lahore and Rawalpindi.
Qasmi thought it was too embarrassing a fact for a country as large as Pakistan and he exaggerated the figure by a few thousand, quoting a number that was not the norm, but perhaps the highest in the country’s publishing history. Upon hearing the number, one of the Soviet writers remarked that Qasmi must be talking about the edition that went out to reviewers, and that the delegation was asking for the size of the first edition that reached the general public.
For the last many years, the print-run for the first impression of most books has come down to five or six hundred. Similar is the story with other languages we speak and write. Sindhi publishing, the second largest in the country after Urdu, faces the same situation. I know of publishers who have brought the number down to 300. There are perhaps a few major publishing houses that will bring out a thousand copies of a new title, and that too by someone already popular. Or if they have running contracts with institutional and government libraries, that would ensure a certain amount of sales. Those from our current breed of authors whose titles are reprinted can be counted on the fingers of one hand.
This is not necessarily the case with religious material — provocative or benign — or juicy political scandals. A bookshop owner in Islamabad tells me: “I like good literature. But my bread and butter comes from selling textbooks and trash.” Publishing creative writing faces unprecedented challenges in Pakistan. But it cannot be true that there are no readers. Just the number of teachers involved and students enrolled in studying languages and literature in the public and private colleges and universities of the country at undergraduate and postgraduate levels are in thousands at a particular point in time. No one expects them to buy all the new books, but the libraries in their institutions can provide some contemporary writing. Besides, there are serious readers of literature found in every city and town across the country.
However, information about, and access of interested readers to, new titles is extremely limited. The commercial environment has developed such that literary books do not reach bookstores spread far and wide in the country, because most distributors are not interested in selling anything that does not bring in a quick buck. Since there is no proper promotion of a title, booksellers who receive these books keep them hidden somewhere at the back or in the lowest or the highest shelves which never meet the eye. The mainstream media has different concerns and there is not one single purely literary programme aired from about a hundred TV channels that we have. Many of my writer colleagues will tell you that when they meet readers from another city or a smaller town, the readers often ask them where and how their books can be found.
Despite this hostile environment, the literary scene is abuzz with the arrival of one new book after another. The creative spirit in Pakistan never ceases. Perhaps the same creative spirit should be applied by writers, poets and serious publishers in promoting the work properly and then effectively using digital media, e-publishing, websites and audio books to reach out to the readers.
The writer is a poet and essayist based in Islamabad
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, October 7th, 2018