Publishing is a business. It’s all about numbers and if publishers can’t sell books, why would they invest in them? That is the story very briefly of publishing anywhere.
In Pakistan, it gets worse.
People who read in English for pleasure are snidely called ‘the elite’ because their numbers are abysmally low, not because everyone who reads in English is powerful and rich. English reading is distanced from the majority of readership culturally.
Publishing in Urdu and regional languages is the only viable source for literary publishers because reading for pleasure constitutes a rather small section of the population and even smaller for books in English. Literary publishing in India, though, is leaps and bounds ahead of Pakistan, but encounters similar issues as far as distribution and reliable data gathering are concerned.
Pakistan and India both have successful writers in English both homegrown and living in the UK or the US but most Pakistani writers are published abroad—in the UK and India and then the US and other English speaking countries—but Indian authors are being published in their own country as well as abroad. Their readership is much larger.
The fact that Pakistani writers are not being published at home whereas Indian writers are, is often questioned and with the current mood of overt nationalism, it becomes a question of India versus Pakistan. Why did you publish in India? A question that seems absurd to Pakistani writers because there is hardly anyone to publish fiction written in English in Pakistan.
Looking closer at Pakistan and India's literary linkages
Maniza Naqvi’s books written in English were published by the Oxford University Press Pakistan in 1998 and then in 2000, two of her novels were published by SAMA Press "which was started by the editors at OUP for my first and second novels," according to Naqvi. However, all four are now out of print.
Pakistan was an ‘obvious choice’ for Naqvi but there was no marketing by her publishers, books were not made widely available and were not reprinted once the stock ran out. When asked if anything had changed in the publishing industry of Pakistan, she said, "It hasn’t really changed much. But there are a lot of writers who should be published and are mostly getting published out of India with big publishing houses. And that’s a huge change."
With the current mood of overt nationalism, Pakistani writers are often asked: Why did you publish in India? A question that seems absurd to Pakistani writers because there is hardly anyone to publish fiction written in English in Pakistan.
Indeed, it is, for writers who can now hope to be published and readers have access to more Pakistani writers in various genres. Mita Kapur, the CEO of Siyahi, one of the oldest and best-known literary agencies in India, suggests that the Indian publishing industry is so popular with South Asian writers because it is connected to mainstream publishing globally and because it is well-structured. But why is Indian publishing attracted to Pakistani writers? Kapur says, "The voice and the multi-nuanced narratives are striking and compelling and are also representative of the concerns of the sub-continent."
Is Pakistan game for genre writing?
So far so good. But there are other concerns as well. Genre writing is still not something that is widely accepted for publishing because readership is so small or these genres. Graphic novels, comics, science-fiction, fantasy and romance are not genres one expects to read from South Asian writers. "Marketability," says Kapur, "counts when decision making happens. If we have signed on a narrative and another book in the same sub-genre comes along, we do step back because we are careful about the commitments we make to our authors."
However, things are changing in Pakistani publishing. Sidra Sheikh was recently published by Mongrel Books, an indie publishing house started by Shandana Minhas, which publishes three books a year. Sheikh is very happy with her experience. "Mongrel publishing will change the face of Pakistani publishing and writing." Her book The Light Blue Jumper is a sci-fi novel and has been warmly received by readers. "The entire editing team spent months working on the edits with me," says Sheikh. "That kind of time and attention, I feel, is a blessing for any debut author."
Mongrel Books isn’t the only one treating their authors well. Penguin India has published two books by Sara Naveed. It’s romantic fiction, something no one in Pakistan was willing to even look at. Talking of the difficulties she faced in getting published in her own country, Naveed admitted, "There were some who did not respond to my query while others were not interested in publishing a romantic novel in English." Both her books are doing very well in India. "The kind of love and appreciation you receive from readers across the border is overwhelming."
Of stats, laws and everything in between
While Indian publishing also faces issues like reliable statistics, Pakistan, unfortunately lacks even the most basic support to record sales, and there is no way of knowing how many books are selling. Bookstore keepers are reluctant to share numbers, according to industry insiders. Getting published by big publishing houses like Penguin means "From editing to copy-editing to designing the book cover to executing the marketing plan everything is well-sorted," adds Naveed.
"Being in publishing in Pakistan, the challenges are multiplied. For example, the options for paper are limited. Finding the right printer is challenging. And let’s not talk about the patronage politics entwined with every branch of the local publishing tree," believes Shandana Minhas of Mongrel Books.
Sarah Naveed says of her difficulty in getting published in Pakistan, "There were some who did not respond to my query while others were not interested in publishing a romantic novel in English." Both her books are doing very well in India. "The kind of love and appreciation you receive from readers across the border is overwhelming."
According to Caludia Kaiser, vice-president of business development for Frankfurt Book Fair, distribution is another factor in slowing the Pakistan publishing industry, because there are very few bookshops and fewer still that will sell fiction in English.
Enforcement of copyright and other laws is not as stringent as it should be, she posits, in her feature on publishing in Pakistan, for Publishing Perspectives in January, 2017. Her report says, that the average print run in Pakistan is 1,000 to 2,000 copies and that too usually of textbooks, poetry, cookbooks, religion, politics and children’s books. The good news is that there is no state censorship. That might not be the only reason writers in Pakistan can get away with dissent; the reason may be that depressingly, books are not so widely read.
Another problem the publishing industry faces is piracy. Pirated books are a norm and fiction that will sell—bestsellers and award-winning books are usually pirated because there is a demand for them and affordability is key.
Literary festival and book fairs, though, are thriving in Pakistan. The Karachi literary festival has as many as 200,000 attendees on average. But somehow this number does not translate into people buying books. Lovers of literature might like to be seen as such, and the act of reading is a lonely one much like the act of writing. Regardless, the literary festivals in Karachi, Islamabad and Lahore have done much to encourage a conducive environment for literature and the arts.
The Frankfurt Bookfair has also helped publishing in South Asia. Although Pakistani government has done nothing to help its publishing industry and the only time Pakistan had a stall at the fair was in 2009, according to Publishing Perspectives.
Minhas says, "Our press is the realisation of an ambition to promote original fiction and non-fiction in Pakistan. Without wishing to scare you away with some Marxism, there’s simply more control and freedom when you own and manage the means of production."
Sounds promising, and one hopes that this publishing house will take off and inspire others. As Naqvi pointed out about the lack of publishing options for Pakistani writers, "It’s a loss for Pakistan because this means Pakistan loses out on a great opportunity to publish fiction and non-fiction."
Meanwhile, in India, Pakistani writers are welcome. Mita Kapur says, "Creativity is subjective. Each author is special for us. Which country they come from is not our focus."