The year 2020 marked a pivotal moment for publishing in Pakistan. As a consequence of the 2019 Pulwama attack, all trade with India was banned, including the import of books. This was a big blow for Pakistani authors reliant on our neighbour’s well-established publishing industry, which not only includes big international names such as Penguin Random House and Simon and Schuster, but also a rising number of independent presses.
For writers such as Bilal Tanweer, Shazaf Fatima Haider, Bina Shah, Musharraf Ali Farooqi and others, Indian publishers had filled in for the dearth of opportunities in Pakistan, particularly for fiction. Post-ban, Pakistani writers had to contend with a very different landscape. London-based Osman Haneef succeeded in getting his debut novel, Blasphemy: The Trial of Danesh Masih, published by India’s Readomania in April 2020, but the book ban prevented its availability to Pakistani readers. Haneef set out to find a local publisher, but this proved difficult.
“In Pakistan, there aren’t many established publishers,” he says. “The ones that do exist, don’t offer the support and systems that publishers in India offer their authors.” This support includes essential services such as editing manuscripts, designing covers, printing and marketing.
Usman T. Malik, author of speculative fiction and co-founder of The Salam Award for Imaginative Fiction, feels that local publishing houses have a narrow vision. “They haven’t been very good at marketing their writers internationally and have relied on gargantuan efforts by the individual writer. Add to this the meagre advance or payments given to the writer and design artists, as well as lack of competition in the market, and you risk ending up with a less than perfect product. If a publisher doesn’t see their acquisition as a true piece of art, but rather as a consumable unit [such as] junk food, their lack of enthusiasm will inevitably show.”
This lack of enthusiasm translates into the kinds of books they’re willing to publish, and those they’re not. Haneef’s plight was exacerbated by his novel’s subject: a young Pakistani lawyer defending a Christian boy accused of blasphemy. “The bigger challenge [for me] was overcoming a publisher’s concerns with printing a novel that tackled sensitive topics in Pakistan.” This was intensified when the Punjab government introduced stricter censorship laws last year.
Can a new wave of independent publishers set off Pakistan’s English language publishing industry in fresh and exciting directions?
However, things seem to be changing as a new crop of young publishers has emerged to fill the vacuum left by the India book ban. Haneef’s book — retitled The Verdict — found a home at writer-turned-publisher Safinah Danish Elahi’s Reverie Publishers.
Elahi’s own Indian publishing deal fell through with the realisation that the books would never make it to Pakistan. “[After the ban], writers from Pakistan felt a bit homeless,” she says. “I was surprised at how many [local publishers] wouldn’t even look at fiction. Most responded by saying fiction is risky, as it doesn’t have any confirmed orders, while textbooks do.”
Eventually, Elahi’s debut novel Eye on the Prize was brought out by Liberty Publishing, a subsidiary of bookshop chain Liberty Books. While she was pleased to have been published, her journey revealed a gap in the industry that she decided to fill herself. “I was motivated to set up Reverie in 2020 so I could delve into the world of editing, designing and packaging a good book to the best of my ability.”
Another writer-turned-publisher is Taiba Abbas, a former teacher who views her venture, Àla Books (also established in 2020), as “a space where I could promote aspiring authors from Pakistan and play a role in regenerating interest and excitement in an industry that’s been neglected for decades.” Her first publication, The Night in Her Hair, is co-authored with her mother, the writer Huma Agha Abbas, and features fictionalised retellings of selected subcontinental legends and folktales. Her second is a collection of short stories by debut writer Nwa Rizvi.
While Abbas considers Àla a natural career progression, Mehr F. Husain never intended to be a publisher at all. “This role was forced on me and I’ve had to learn the business all by myself,” she says. Like Elahi, Husain was in talks with an Indian publisher when the ban hit, forcing her deal into limbo. After a series of disappointing encounters with Pakistani publishers, Husain established Zuka Books, essentially a one-woman operation that she calls a “publishing platform.” Her first release was her own book, Pakistan: A Fashionable Industry, a first-of-its-kind hardback, documenting the country’s history through the lens of fashion.
Husain doesn’t mince words in describing her experience with Pakistani publishers. While maintaining that those she approached were courteous, she laments the existence of “dinosaur-era houses” that “do not connect with Pakistan’s younger population.”
All three publishers I spoke to share the desire to publish new, young voices and subjects that escape the notice of more traditional publishers. Husain says she’s interested in work that’s “different”; she’s seeking out young people writing in a language that’s distinctly Pakistani, but telling stories that have universal appeal. So far, Husain has published the anthology Letters to My Inner Child in collaboration with Arslan Athar’s literary journal The Desi Collective, and a debut book of poetry by Zahra Hameed. A graphic novel and a children’s book are in the pipeline.
Musharraf Ali Farooqi — author, translator and former head of Urdu publishing at Oxford University Press (OUP) Pakistan — sees it as a positive development that, in the absence of viable options, young writers feel empowered to take matters into their own hands. But he has his reservations. “Book publishing is one of the most difficult businesses to get into and it won’t be so easy to replicate India’s model.”
How do we create an industry that could eventually catch up with India’s? “You have to have good knowledge of how the industry works around the world, know about distribution, accounts, sales and marketing strategy. If you want to continue as a publisher, then there has to be a long-term plan, and there has to be a publishing programme.”
Husain is aware of these challenges. “You cannot expect to become Penguin overnight. I don’t claim to have a magic wand to fix everything, but I am certainly doing things differently and trying my best to maintain a standard of quality.”
Farooqi founded Kitab in 2012 “to start a programme of Urdu classics and children’s literature.” His own novels have been published in India, but Kitab published the Pakistani edition of Farooqi’s latest book, The Merman and the Book of Power: A Qissa, as well as Usman T. Malik’s short story collection Midnight Doorways: Fables from Pakistan.
Malik is optimistic about these new publishers, who, in his opinion, “understand that to create a product that generates genuine excitement, you have to believe in that product. You have to provide opportunities to the best writers, not the most well-connected writers. With smart marketing, careful selection of books, and a focus on quality over quantity, they absolutely can create a viable industry.”
Not all new publishers were born out of necessity following the book ban. Lightstone Publishing was established in 2018 by former OUP managing director Ameena Saiyid. Nadia Ghani, a director at Lightstone, says they’re interested in publishing fiction by new writers, but their catalogue shows that their primary focus (similar to traditional houses such as OUP) is on producing high quality schoolbooks, followed by academic books. They do have two forthcoming novels, but both are written by older, more established writers: one is the popular crime author Omar Shahid Hamid, the other is Karachi-based author Irshad Abdulkadir.
One of the earliest of the new publishing houses is Folio Books. Bilal Zahoor, who started it in 2017, way before the book ban, says: “As a progressive thinker, I used to lament the lack of independent, radical voices in the publishing landscape of Pakistan, particularly its English wing.” He compares us to neighbouring countries such as Iran and India, who have a vast range of “publishers having diverse pivots”, while Pakistan’s industry is “more of a monolith, dominated heavily by textbooks and religious literature.”
Folio was born out of this commitment to advance the progressive political discourse through books. In the past few years, Folio has published books on “participatory democracy, Marxist feminism, anti-imperialism, revolutionary South Asian pasts, evolution of Pakistan’s political parties and resistance poetry.” Two of its most recent publications are Bacha Khan’s autobiography, translated from Pashto to English by Imtiaz Sahibzada, and Womensplaining: Navigating Activism, Politics and Modernity in Pakistan, a collection of essays on the women’s movement in Pakistan, edited by Sherry Rehman. Folio is also publishing work in Urdu: forthcoming in its line-up is an Urdu translation of Arundhati Roy’s Azadi.
What can these pioneers of publishing do to not only sustain their own operations, but create a thriving industry? Shandana Minhas, the original author-turned-publisher who started the small press Mongrel Books in early 2017 in Karachi, and was the only one putting out English fiction by young, debut writers, advises: “1) Push for printing industry reform and regulation. 2) Create an alternative distribution model — the margins big bookshops take make affordable price points impossible. 3) Push back against any legislation to further curb freedom of expression. 4) Unite to make all of the above possible.”
The challenges faced by Pakistan’s new entrants to the publishing landscape are real, but they remain undaunted. Whether they can create a vibrant, diverse and progressive publishing culture that is so badly needed in the country, remains to be seen. But from where I stand, the outlook looks promising.
The writer is the founder of The Writing Room and talks about books on Instagram @thewritingroom.co
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, May 2nd, 2021