The year 2020 marked a pivotal moment for publishing in Pakistan. Following the Pulwama attack in 2019, all trade with India was banned, including the importation of books. It was a blow to Pakistani authors dependent on our neighbor’s well-established publishing industry, which includes not only big international names such as Penguin Random House and Simon and Schuster, but also a growing number of independent presses. .

For writers such as Bilal Tanweer, Shazaf Fatima Haider, Bina Shah, Musharraf Ali Farooqi and others, Indian publishers had filled the lack of opportunities in Pakistan, especially for fiction. After the ban, Pakistani writers faced a very different landscape. London-based Osman Haneef managed to get his first novel, Blasphemy: The Trial of Danesh Masih, published by India’s Readomania magazine published in April 2020, but the book’s ban prevented its availability to Pakistani readers. Haneef set out to find a local publisher, but it proved difficult.

“In Pakistan there aren’t a lot of established publishers,” he says. “The ones that do exist do not offer the support and systems that publishers in India provide to their authors. This support includes essential services such as manuscript editing, cover design, printing and marketing.

Usman T. Malik, author of speculative fiction and co-founder of The Salam Award for Imaginative Fiction, believes local publishing houses have a narrow view. “They weren’t very good at marketing their writers internationally and relied on the gigantic efforts of the individual writer. Add to that the meager advance or payments made to the writer and design artists, along with the lack of competition in the market, and you may end up with a less than perfect product. If a publisher does not view their acquisition as a true work 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 what types of books they are willing to publish and which they are not. Haneef’s fate was exacerbated by the subject of his novel: a young Pakistani lawyer defending a Christian boy accused of blasphemy. “The biggest challenge [for me] overcame a publisher’s concerns with the printing of a novel that tackled sensitive topics in Pakistan. This intensified when the Punjab government introduced stricter censorship laws last year.

Can a new wave of independent publishers launch Pakistan’s English language publishing industry in new and exciting directions?

However, things appear to be changing with the emergence of a new generation of young publishers to fill the void left by India’s book ban. Haneef’s book – renamed The Verdict – found its way into writer-turned-publisher Safinah Danish Elahi’s Reverie Publishers.

Elahi’s Indian publishing deal fell through when he realized the books would never reach Pakistan. “[After the ban], Pakistani writers felt a bit homeless, ”she says. “I was surprised at the number [local publishers] wouldn’t even look at fiction. Most responded by saying that fiction is risky because it does not have confirmed orders, unlike textbooks.

Eventually, Elahi’s first novel, Eye on the Prize, was published by Liberty Publishing, a subsidiary of the Liberty Books chain of bookstores. While she was happy to have been published, her journey revealed a gap in the industry that she decided to fill on her own. “I was motivated to start Reverie in 2020 so that I could immerse myself in the world of editing, designing and packaging a good book to the best of my ability. “

Another writer turned editor is Taiba Abbas, a former teacher who sees her company, Àla Books (also established in 2020), as “a space where I can promote budding authors from Pakistan and play a role in the regeneration of the world. interest and enthusiasm in an industry neglected for decades. Her first publication, The Night in Her Hair, is co-written with her mother, writer Huma Agha Abbas, and features fictionalized accounts of legends and folk tales from the subcontinent. His second is a collection of short stories by the first writer Nwa Rizvi.

While Abbas sees Àla as a natural career progression, Mehr F. ​​Husain never intended to become an editor. “This role was imposed on me and I had to learn the trade on my own,” she says. Like Elahi, Husain was in talks with an Indian publisher when the ban hit, forcing his deal into limbo. After a series of disappointing encounters with Pakistani publishers, Husain created Zuka Books, essentially a one-man business she calls a “publishing platform”. Her first publication was her own book, Pakistan: A Fashionable Industry, a one-of-a-kind hardcover book documenting the country’s history through the lens of fashion.

Husain doesn’t mince words when describing his experience with Pakistani publishers. While claiming that those she approached were courteous, she bemoans the existence of “dinosaur-era homes” which “have no connection with the younger population of Pakistan”.

The three editors I spoke with share a desire to publish new voices and young topics that escape the attention of more traditional editors. Husain says she is interested in “different” work; she is looking for young people who write in a distinctly Pakistani language, but who tell stories that have universal appeal. So far, Husain has published the anthology Letters to My Inner Child in collaboration with Arslan Athar’s literary review, The Desi Collective, and a debut collection of poetry by Zahra Hameed. A graphic novel and a children’s book are in preparation.

Musharraf Ali Farooqi – author, translator and former Urdu editor 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 the lead. things in hand. But he has his reservations. “Book publishing is one of the most difficult businesses to integrate and it won’t be so easy to replicate the Indian model. ”

How to create an industry that could eventually catch up with that of India? “You have to have a good knowledge of how the industry works around the world, know the distribution, the accounts, the sales and the marketing strategy. If you want to continue as a publisher, then there has to be a long term plan, and there has to be an editing program.

Husain is aware of these challenges. “You can’t expect to become a Penguin overnight. I don’t claim to have a magic wand to fix everything, but I certainly do things differently and do my best to maintain a standard of quality.

Farooqi founded Kitab in 2012 “to start a program of Urdu classics and children’s literature”. His own novels have been published in India, but Kitab has 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 collection of short stories Midnight Doorways: Fables. from Pakistan.

Malik is optimistic about these new publishers who, he says, “understand that to create a product that generates real excitement, you have to believe in it. You need to provide opportunities for the best writers, not the most connected writers. With smart marketing, careful selection of books, and a focus on quality over quantity, they can absolutely create a viable industry. “

Not all new publishers were born out of necessity as a result of the book ban. Lightstone Publishing was established in 2018 by former OUP CEO Ameena Saiyid. Nadia Ghani, principal at Lightstone, says she is interested in publishing fictions by new writers, but their catalog shows that their main goal (similar to traditional houses such as OUP) is to produce high quality textbooks, followed by academic books. . They have two novels coming out, but both are written by older and more established writers: one is the author of detective novels Omar Shahid Hamid, the other is the author of Karachi Irshad Abdulkadir.

One of the first of the new publishing houses is Folio Books. Bilal Zahoor, who launched it in 2017, long before the book ban, says: “As a progressive thinker, I used to bemoan the lack of independent and radical voices in Pakistan’s editorial landscape, in particular its English wing. He compares us to neighboring countries such as Iran and India, which have a vast array of “publishers with various hubs,” while Pakistan’s industry is “more of a monolith, largely dominated by publishers. textbooks and religious literature ”.

Folio was born out of this commitment to advancing progressive political discourse through books. In recent years, Folio has published books on “participatory democracy, Marxist feminism, anti-imperialism, South Asian revolutionary pasts, the evolution of Pakistani political parties, and the poetry of resistance.” Two of her most recent publications are the Autobiography of Bacha Khan, translated from Pashto into 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 also publishes works in Urdu: Coming in its lineup is an Urdu translation of Azadi by Arundhati Roy.

What can these publishing pioneers do to not only support their own operations, but create a thriving industry? Shandana Minhas, the original author-turned-publisher who started the small Mongrel Books press in early 2017 in Karachi, and was the only one to publish English fiction by young, novice writers, advises:. 2) Create an alternative distribution model – the margins taken by large bookstores make affordable prices impossible. 3) Repel any legislation aimed at further restricting freedom of expression. 4) Unite to make all of the above possible.

The challenges facing Pakistani new entrants to the publishing landscape are real, but they remain unwavering. It remains to be seen whether they can create a vibrant, diverse and progressive editorial culture that the country so badly needs. But from my perspective, the outlook looks bright.

The writer is the founder of The Writing Room and talks about books on Instagram @

Posted in Dawn, Books & Authors, May 2, 2021


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