FEATURE: THE DAMMED BOOKS

November 17, 2019

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Photo courtesy Irfan Aslam
Photo courtesy Irfan Aslam

Novelist Sara Naveed self-published her first English-language novel, Undying Affinity, bearing all the expenses on her own. The publisher was linked with a leading bookshop in the country, which took care of distribution. Naveed’s second novel, Our Story Ends Here, was published by Penguin India. The Indian publisher liked the novel so much that it decided to get the rights of her first book as well and offered Naveed a two-book deal. This time, Naveed got paid instead of paying the publisher. Her subsequent novels were also published by Penguin India and her new novel is expected to hit bookshops in February 2020. But Naveed is now concerned about the distribution of her novel in Pakistan as all trade — including that of books — with India has been halted by the Pakistani government.

As tensions escalated between the two countries in the wake of developments in India-held Jammu and Kashmir, on Aug 9 Pakistan suspended the Samjhota Express — the primary train service between Pakistan and India — as well as the Thar Express and the Lahore-Delhi Dosti Bus Service. It also stopped trade and postal services with India and stopped receiving any kind of post from India on Aug 23. Among other sectors, the effect of this is being felt deeply in the publishing and book sales businesses, which ultimately reaches the readers — particularly of English-language books — already struggling to cope with rising inflation.

Saleem Hussain, managing director of Liberty Books, which has outlets across Pakistan, says that book imports stopped on Aug 9 when most communications with India were ended by the Pakistani government. Liberty Books imports books written by Pakistan authors besides fiction, children’s and higher education books. “The ban is affecting the business as at least 20 to 25 percent of books available at Liberty Books are imported from India,” says Hussain.

According to Hussain, Pakistani bookshops import books from India because India has become a hub of the publishing industry in the last couple of decades and serves the whole region, not only Pakistan.

The ban on import of books from India is having a disastrous effect, not only on the business of bookshops, but also on Pakistani authors

“Most international publishers are now based in India,” says a manager at another popular bookshop in Gulberg, Lahore. Besides catering to readers of literature, the bookshop imports textbooks on business and computer science and children’s literature. One third of the books in the shop are imported from India. The official, who asked not to be named, says, “Books from India have reasonable prices and there is also the option of economical editions, too. Secondly, we get a weekly consignment from India and it takes maximum two to three weeks after placing the order for the books to reach the shop, while the same order from the United Kingdom would take four to six weeks.”

The bookshop is not getting at least 90 percent of the books that are in demand and published in India. It manages to get the remaining eight to nine percent from the UK. The volume of monthly imports of the bookshop is around $30,000-40,000. After the trade ban, they have no option but to place orders from the UK or the United States, but that increases the price by at least 40 percent, the man says. Giving the example of William Dalrymple’s new book, The Anarchy: The Relentless Rise of the East India Company, he points out that the UK edition of the book sells at the shop for Rs 2,000 while the Indian edition would have retailed for Rs 1,200-1,400. According to him, the difference in price is because of the freight charges.

“The bigger issue is that many publishers in the UK and US have given distribution rights to distributors in India and the publishers would forward the order back to India. Such books can’t be acquired even from the UK or the US then.”

Another reason he gives for the need to import books from India is that most Pakistani authors writing in English are being published from India now.

Hussain agrees. “In the last eight to 10 years, many new Pakistani authors have been published and these authors have a sizeable market in India, too,” says Hussain, implying that the Pakistani authors would lose that market.

There is definitely a growing market for English fiction writers in Pakistan and they include Pakistani and Indian authors as well as writers from the rest of the world. The vacuum created by the ban on imports of books would likely be filled by piracy, as happened with the ban on Indian films in the 1970s and the following decades.

Hussain points out that Pakistan is already infamous in the world regarding piracy of books and infringement of authors’ rights. He foresees the problem getting worse with the halting of the import of books, saying that it will give the piracy industry a boost, which ultimately damages the authors — in this case, Pakistani authors.

There are multiple reasons for Pakistan’s English-language writers to go to India for publishing their work. “India has an established book industry,” says novelist and translator Musharraf Ali Farooqi, who has had a number of books published from India. “It has benefited greatly from international publishing giants setting up offices there which has allowed a network of editors, book designers and associated editorial, marketing and distribution professionals to emerge and learn their trade in an internationally standardised industry.

“India has a large paper-making industry that allows it to publish books more cheaply and, therefore, profitably. All these factors allow Indian publishing houses to publish in a more professional way.” Farooqi says a number of his books have been first published in India and he has benefited from the work of his editors and publishing teams for whom he has a lot of regard and respect.

Compared to the situation in India, Pakistan, sadly, does not have an established publishing industry, especially for English-language books. Urdu-language books are also mostly self-published and, even if not, don’t bring in any money for the writers. Hence, we don’t have professional writers who can depend solely on writing as a livelihood. Farooqi says, “We do not have this culture. Not even in Urdu publishing anymore, unfortunately. So it is no wonder that Pakistani writers writing in English find it convenient to get published from India. Interestingly, Urdu-language bodies working on language and literature in India publish Urdu-language writers from Pakistan, and the same is true of Urdu-language writers from India published by Pakistan’s organisations. It is a very old tradition.”

Talking about what could be the lure for writers, Naveed agrees with Farooqi. “Penguin India took care of [everything], from editing to proofreading, designing the book cover, social media marketing, traditional marketing, global distribution etc,” she says. “Their book quality is excellent. On the other hand, for my first book, I had to do pretty much everything on my own when I got it published from a private company in Lahore.”

Compared to India, Naveed says there are only a limited number of publishers in Pakistan and its publishing industry needs a major boost so that emerging writers can reach out to them for getting their work published.

There is a market for the new fiction writers such as Naveed in India, too. These writers have evolved a significant fan following there too, with many writers as popular in India as they are in Pakistan. “I received immense love and appreciation from readers across the border,” says Naveed. “They reach out to me every now and then and tell me how much they have enjoyed reading my books. So, I would say the Indian market is extremely important for Pakistani authors as it broadens their fan base.”

On the subject of how writers can minimise the effect of the book import ban, Farooqi says publishing rights are territory specific and a writer could sell “South Asia English-language rights” to an outside publisher, whether in India or anywhere else, and retain the rights to publish the work in Pakistan through a local publisher. “If a writer has not pledged Pakistan rights to an outside publisher, then this restriction does not affect them. But most writers do not know this, or their agents see Pakistani territory as too insignificant in terms of book sales to separate Pakistan rights from South Asia English-language rights.” Given the publishing scenario described above, who could blame them?

Farooqi himself is doing the same. His new book, The Merman and the Book of Power: A Qissa, has already been published in India. He is publishing an edition for local readers from Pakistan so he would not have to depend on imports from India.

He has some more suggestions for Pakistani authors already published or being published from India, saying, “Publishing is a gentleman’s trade, mostly. If an author writes to a publisher to release the rights for a territory because of some restriction or distribution issue [such as] the present situation, the publishers would, in most cases, indulge the request. A good publisher will never deny its author an opportunity to find a readership if the request is reasonable. But the author will then have to do the legwork to get the book published here.”

Expressing her concern about the ban on book imports, Naveed says, “The ban terrifies me because, if it does not get lifted in time, my readers in Pakistan won’t be able to get their hands on [my] book. It’s a scary thought and I’m still hoping for some miracle to happen by the time my book comes out.

“We can only request our government to lift the ban on book imports so we can save our book industry from dying. We want our readers to read our books. Books should not be taken as any other commodity. Pakistan’s ban on importing books from India will not only hurt readers and authors, but the overall literacy rate, cultural exchange and students as well as small businesses.”

Hussain of Liberty Books says that the government has relaxed restrictions on medicines, allowing some medicines to be imported from India. He suggests the government should consider book imports on the same level, especially as purely academic books are also imported from India and the current ban is affecting students and the academia. Farooqi, however, sees a silver lining for local publishers. “All I know is that it is an opportunity for publishers in Pakistan,” he says.

The writer is a member of staff

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, November 17th, 2019