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November 28, 2021

Pakistan discontinued all imports from India in 2019 after New Delhi revoked the special status of Jammu and Kashmir. This stopped the book trade between the two countries

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Anjum Altaf’s third book, More Transgressions: Poems Inspired by Faiz Ahmed Faiz, has just been published in India. The author has been unable so far to get hold of a copy because he lives in Pakistan. This may seem odd to the uninitiated, but is already old news for those abreast of Pakistan’s publishing industry.

In August 2019, Pakistan discontinued all imports from India, after New Delhi revoked the special status of Jammu and Kashmir. The book trade between the two countries, which was flourishing at the time, stopped abruptly, making things difficult for Pakistani authors being published in India. “I could not receive the complimentary copies of my second book, Thinking with Ghalib: Poetry for a New Generation because of the ban on mail/ courier service,” says Altaf, a former dean of the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at the Lahore University of Management Sciences. “I had them mailed to another country from where they will now get to me.” As for his third book, Altaf says, he will have to find a local publisher to get it printed in Pakistan.

The ban hit every author from Pakistan in one way or the other, says Osman Haneef, author of Blasphemy: The Trial of Danesh Masih. “When the ban first occurred, Indian publishers became much less interested in my novel. Even the publisher I eventually signed with, Readomania, became unsure if they could support a print release,” he says. With the ban in place, there can be no sales in Pakistan and publishers have to rely on sales in India and other South Asian countries to recover their costs. “This is further complicated by the fact that authors can’t visit India to attend book events that allow them to find their first readers who then advocate for the novel,” says Haneef, whose novel was also shortlisted for the PFC-VoW award.

The publishing industry never really developed in Pakistan the way it did in India. This made many Pakistani authors to seek Indian publishers. Muneeza Shamsie, the literary critic and author of Hybrid Tapestries: The Development of Pakistani Literature in English, explains how this happened. “It was perhaps in the 1980s that the price of paper began rising, making things difficult for the publishing industry in the region.” She says that Indian publishers received subsidies and other facilitation that helped them survive but there was no such support mechanism for Pakistani publishers who were mainly left on their own. The result was a thriving industry in India that attracted Pakistani authors deprived of a mature industry in their own country.

Most Pakistani authors prefer being published in India rather than look for other international publishing houses. Haneef explains why: “The challenge is that when we, as Pakistanis, submit our stories in the US or UK, agents and publishers often evaluate them to fill their single slot of South Asian fiction.” He says the books have to meet their expectations of the region and the audience is presumed to be limited to people who like to read about the region. “For books on Pakistan, publishers and agents expect that it will have terrorists and mangoes and large dynastic families. In India, we are not competing for the single slot available on agents’ or publishers’ list for a South Asian author. Pakistani authors have produced everything from sci-fi and crime to literary and historical fiction in India.”

“No international publisher will come to a country where hardly anyone reads, and print runs are of the order of 500 copies,” says Anjum Altaf.

It has been two years since the ban was first imposed. The impact on Pakistan’s relatively young publishing industry can still be felt. “Since we cannot get our copies from India any longer, books have become more expensive as the US/UK editions of a book are almost double the price of an Indian edition,” says Sameer Hussain, director of strategy and business development at Liberty Books. “This has resulted in an alarming increase in piracy.”

A number of local publishing houses have also emerged since the ban but according to Hussain, the new publishers are not getting much traction from international authors as international publishing houses don’t consider Pakistan a sizeable market for English books. “They don’t give us [local publishers] rights for their bestseller authors like John Grisham and Danielle Steele.” Hussain is also concerned about the fact that not many publishers are transparent about the royalties they pay their authors. Shamsie agrees that the upcoming local publishers need to work on the development of their infrastructure. “They must have proper editorial teams etc. This is almost imperative for the local industry to thrive.”

Mehr F Husain, writer and founder of ZUKA Books, says that though the ban appeared to be an opportunity for new publishers to cultivate something in what was now a wasteland, “the impact in terms of creating a healthy literary market remains to be seen”. Husain is excited about the new houses popping up on the publishing scene, mostly headed by women. “There is Ala Books by Taiba Abbas, Reverie Books by Safinah Danish Elahi and ZUKA Books by me.”

Even if the ban is lifted in the near future, things will not be the way they were once, says Sameer Hussain. “With the emergence of new publishing houses, things have changed. We don’t know how many of these houses will survive, but some kind of a hybrid publishing model seems likely in the future. We’ll be publishing some books locally and buying some from the international market.”

Mehr F Husain sounds hopeful too. “I fully commend the publishing houses for doing the best they can with their limited means.” She says that the local market is hostile and unsupportive, and publishers face steep commission cuts at the hands of booksellers resulting in losses, but efforts are being made, and that she’s “proud to see women at the helm of this new chapter in publishing”.

It is incredibly important, she says, for new publishers to understand that Pakistan has limited resources and so Western model of mass printing of books for the sake of economies of scale cannot work here. “It is environmentally unfriendly, economically unsustainable and it eats away at the author’s royalties, which is their right. Pakistan is in a unique position. It can create a tailor-made publishing industry. But the market needs to be supportive as well.”

The book trade ban has hurt authors, publishers and booksellers alike, not to mention readers who are left with only two options now: to invest in expensive international editions in an inflation-ridden economy or to settle for cheap, pirated copies. Altaf says that the ban is a sad commentary on the intellectual calibre of the rulers and an indication of how much they care for the nourishment of intellect in the country. “Authors and publishers should raise their voices and protest against these kinds of unacceptable actions. No one is going to give them anything as a favour. No international publisher will come to a country where hardly anyone reads and print runs are of the order of 500 copies.”

It is often said that art and culture are powerful enough to change lives. Literary cultures allow us to access perspectives that are both new and unique. “Why must culture be hostage to politics?” Husain sees a silver lining: “This has pushed us to roll our sleeves up and create a literary space for ourselves, here.”

The writer is a staff member

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