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ESSAY: PUBLISH OR BE DAMNED

October 28, 2018

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Getting published as an author is the dream of many worthy individuals, but no mean feat. While an aspiring writer may believe the most trying part of the process is formulating words into a sequence that does justice to the hypothetical plot formed in an unknown locality of the grey-coloured apartment on one’s top floor, the truth is that the post-writing path is the more tedious to tread. This is the time when the ‘art’ of writing has left the building, and the ‘science’ of publishing has walked in.

If one were to visualise these stages, the art of writing could be imagined as a middle-aged, bespectacled, serious-looking lady with sharp, beady eyes who has done quite an enormous amount of soul-searching. Publishing is the complete opposite. The science of publishing is a fierce-looking business woman in a power suit, dark aviators hiding her eyes, a grim expression hiding her emotions. She means business, and it is not a revelation but a fact that publishing is very serious business. All the more so when it comes to fiction.

There is no such thing as an accidental novel. In the world of non-fiction, a newspaper columnist may put five years’ worth of work together and call it a book. A photographer might trawl through a trove of pictures, find a hundred that conform to a theme and bring out a coffee-table collection. A television chef may jot down her most popular recipes and call it a day. A fiction writer, however, creates from the get-go. In making a conscious decision to tell a story because she has not read it elsewhere yet, she cooks up the characters, situations, settings and subplots. Amalgamating observation, experience, the conscious and subconscious is emotionally involving and psychologically challenging. At the end of the day, the creation is purposeless if there is nobody to read it. Writers need to be read. Manuscripts need a publisher. So the novelist sends it out.

The science of publishing is distinct from the art of writing, but it is equally important for aspiring writers to understand

The question that arises here, is ‘where’ to send it out. This applies particularly to Pakistani writers, for the publishing industry in Pakistan is scarce. A more apt term would seem to be ‘non-existent’, but that ignores the enthusiastic output of Urdu-language and academic/non-fiction publishers. Pakistani English-language fiction is a different sob story because, even if it weighs heavily in terms of quality, it suffers from poor marketing and inadequate promotion — if it finds a local publisher at all.

Those writers blessed to have a connection in the West, as is the case for exceptionally talented, well reputed authors who have international acclaim to their names — Mohsin Hamid, Kamila Shamsie, H.M. Naqvi and others — have a slight edge. Their geographical proximity to the meccas of publishing (ease of email notwithstanding, address/location prejudice is a very real and very ugly thing) gives them greater opportunity. They also have numerous options; they can send their manuscripts to a dozen agents and publishers and hope that one might take it. English-language fiction writers based in Pakistan have no such choice. There is hardly anyone here.

My first work of fiction, The Satanist: A Novel, suffered much because of my lack of experience and lack of opportunity. I hadn’t fully realised how necessary a literary agent was to ‘sell’ a manuscript to a publisher. Do we have any in Pakistan? No. So I self-published, but no matter the number of multiple-starred reviews on online portals, it never received the kind of recognition a traditionally published book would have. For my next manuscript, a collection of short stories titled Unfettered Wings: Extraordinary Stories of Ordinary Women, I was determined to go down the traditional route. I looked up local options and they weren’t many. The very few indie houses declined as most did not publish fiction; presses run by bookshops responded somewhat more positively, but the problem was the cutthroat competition in the tiny market. For one, they brought out very little English-language fiction. For the other, they didn’t stock or sell books brought out by rival bookshops-slash-presses.

This is why, for many aspiring writers, it makes sense to send their brain-babies to literary agents or publishers eastward across the fence to India, where the publishing industry is massive. The big fish — Penguin, Bloomsbury, Pan Macmillan, HarperCollins and Hachette — all have a presence and local houses — Rupa, Roli and Westland among others — command a valuable amount of respect in the business.

I continued emailing publishers abroad and oh, joy! Rupa in India took me on! It was a long wait, though. From signing with the house to seeing pre-orders on Amazon, it took two years. Two of the most trying and testing years of my life. Long waits, delays and the sheer absence of communication is all part of the business, and it is like walking on a path strewn with thorns. The reward, however, made everything worth it. The book was sold-out on pre-orders and went into reprint even before the physical release. This was the beauty of being traditionally published. There was not much effort from me in promoting it; professionals were doing it for me and, as a result, people were reading my book, writing about it, talking about it. What more can a writer want?

For Pakistani fiction writers who have no option at home, this really boils down to neighbours working for each other’s mutual benefit, as Indian publishers and agents are very open to receiving proposals from Pakistani writers. However, as Suhail Mathur, literary agent with The Book Bakers agency in Delhi-Mumbai, says, “Pakistani fiction carries an essence of the socio-political scenario prevalent in the country through literary fiction and has yet to explore a bevy of genres from romance, thrillers to historical, fantasy and horror.” He hopes that “Pakistani genre fiction fortifies itself in the time to come owing to a huge interest in India to read stories from across the border.” He is actively involved in this development, too: he recently signed on teenaged author Mahnaz Mir from Lahore whose debut, a Young Adult crime thriller, has been bought by Rupa. Who in Pakistan would have published something so off-beat, as it were?

Rudra Narayan, senior commissioning editor at Rupa, says, “There is this unsaid, undeclared interest in stories coming from Pakistan. Most stories talk about the turbulence in Pakistani society, the conflict of the liberals and radicals, so in terms of fiction, there is angst in the writings. However, we do wait for those middle-class love stories, that legendary Pakistani humour to come to us in book form.”

I second these observations on our need to break into diverse genres. Much of our literary fiction is steeped in socio-politics. Perhaps it has to do with our national obsession with politics, which impacts publishing trends. A tremendous number of non-fiction books being published locally are on political or sociological matters and similar submissions are being sent abroad. Sambhu Sahu, former commissioning editor at leading publishing houses in Delhi, and currently running his own literary agency, WordsCount, says, “We receive more queries for non-fiction books than we do for fiction from Pakistan.” He further says that publishers are happy to take them because non-fiction “generally does [well] on both sides of the border so it is a good bet, usually.” He quotes the example of Born to be Hanged, Syeda Hamid’s political biography of former prime minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, Raza Rumi’s Being Pakistani: Society, Culture and the Arts, Mehr Tarar’s Do We Not Bleed: Reflections of a 21st Century Pakistani and Sanam Maher’s The Sensational Life and Death of Qandeel Baloch.

Lately, though, it appears that fiction is doing just as well, too. The current year has been exceptional for Pakistani fiction writers. Books by Shandana Minhas, Nadya A.R. and myself to name a few, were received well on both sides of the border. Publishers, readers and writers are, thankfully, not affected by political atmospheres or temperatures and that in itself is a success story for both countries.

As for Pakistan, the business of traditionally publishing English-language fiction is still in its embryonic stage despite the surge of youngsters interested in writing. Social media is one avenue of sharing one’s writing with the world but, as I’ve said earlier, self-publishing can have depressive consequences. Indie houses for English-language fiction can be counted on half a hand, and their output is understandably small. Mongrel Books, for example, has published two authors, Sidra F. Sheikh and Sarim Baig, so far and managed to get them considerable recognition, but these are still baby steps and there is a long way to go.

The writer is the author of two books, including Unfettered Wings: Extraordinary Stories of Ordinary Women

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, October 28th, 2018

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