In a telephonic interview with The News on Sunday (TNS), Hoori Noorani, the artiste and managing director of the Karachi-based publishing house, Maktaba-e-Danyal, discusses niche publishing, changing narratives, translation ventures and more
The News on Sunday (TNS): As a publisher, what do you see as some of the challenges and possibilities around publishing niche literature, targetting a specific readership, knowing full well that as a society, we are still a long way from accepting all kinds of writings, particularly works of criticism?
Hoori Noorani (HN): My publishing house has always been a niche, independent publisher – that’s what I inherited, and have continued doing. Obviously, as an independent publisher, if you don’t build textbooks and popular literature, you face problems in marketing and selling, especially in a country where the government is not very publishing- or book-friendly. None of the governments has ever really supported indie publishers.
There are many problems that we, the niche publishers, and others face. The first is the rising cost of publishing. The print runs are small and the principal raw material needed for publishing, i.e., paper has become quite expensive after the loss of East Pakistan. We hardly produce any paper locally, and the little that we do is low quality. The quality paper produced locally is almost as costly as the imported commodity. The main problem is undoubtedly the cost. With the rupee slipping against the dollar, it is touching unimagined heights. The print runs remain small unless you publish textbooks or religious literature. If you publish niche, general, especially Urdu books then you’re bound to face these problems. Some publishers in these fields are only printing 500 copies of new titles or even reprints. If the print run of a title is going to be limited to a few hundreds, the unit cost is bound to be high. In a society where the general public doesn’t have purchasing power to buy expensive books — books become a luxury item.
TNS: Stories are transformative, but not everyone can afford to buy books these days due to high prices. A significant chunk of potential readership is thus deprived of a chance at educating themselves. What do you feel is needed to get books to readers who cannot afford these?
HN: Any reading-friendly government will subsidise paper and other printing materials to lower the cost of books so that they can be purchased and read. E-books can also play a huge part in bringing cheaper and affordable literature to the public. We have recently started converting our books to E-books and making them available at very low prices on an online platform called The Little Book Company.
TNS: The small readership associated with niche publishing has not proved a decisive deterrent for your publishing house. What factors have helped you continue?
HN: When I came into this business, Maktaba-e-Danyal had been around for a while. My father, who started the business, was well respected. On his deathbed, I made him the promise that I would never let it go. So it began with that promise, but then my belief in the books I was publishing and the reason I was publishing a certain kind of literature became a factor too. There is a need to educate people and popularise literature that promotes pluralistic, progressive and liberal thinking in society. You can say that it is my faith in what I have been doing, despite all the difficulties we have faced, that has kept me going.
TNS: At a dialogue session a couple of years ago, you talked about self-censorship. Maktaba-e-Danyal has been around since 1967. State-imposed censorship is known to have been blatant around the time it was launched. Why do you think our publishers and most writers are forced to censor themselves in 2021?
HN: With time, they say, the situation should have improved. In the case of our country, it has only worsened. Even in the darkest days of Zia era, we didn’t face the difficulties we are facing today. The issues are multifaceted. You have to deal with the establishment, and then there is religious intolerance, so you’re always conscious of what you’re writing and publishing. At the same time, you have to keep pushing at the limits of intolerance and make space for progressive thoughts. You keep doing what you’re doing and find ways and means to play your part. Even though the path is getting narrower, you keep moving forward because not fighting means dying out. Moreover, the thought of giving up is unimaginable. We self-censor, but even so we try to discover little pockets of freedom, a bit of leeway here and there that you can push through.
TNS: From you observation of trends as far as indigenous writings are concerned, would you say that we have evolved as readers and become more accepting of the changing narratives?
HN: This is a difficult question because things are happening on multiple levels. There is the reader that has evolved, and then there is the reader that has regressed because the society as a whole has somewhat regressed. A whole new generation, born after the Zia era, sees things differently. The society has changed and there is so much intolerance. With globalisation and the world becoming more accessible due to internet and the social media etc., a part of society is opening up to new thoughts and becoming more tolerant. But then, there are those going backwards. And there is a constant struggle between the two. It isn’t as if there is no market for niche literature; that’s why I publish Sibte Hasan and many others. Of course, I can’t compete with the publishers who only publish popular books.
TNS: The last year-and-a-half has been challenging for everyone, but the pandemic also provided most of us a chance to look inwards, dig up old tales and even write new ones. Have you been receiving manuscripts from writers, especially the Pakistani diaspora?
HN: This pandemic started on a very depressing note. There was a complete lockdown for the first few months, and we had to rethink our marketing strategy. As with everything, book publishing and selling has moved online. More and more books are being sold online rather than at bookshops. Bookshops have really suffered during the pandemic, but publishers and booksellers with previously established online businesses have done well. We have had to learn and rethink to get in touch with the online trend.
With manuscripts, I have been very lucky. I have received more manuscripts during this time than ever before. The interest was generated by what my publishing house went through due to the confiscation of one of my books in January 2020. We came into the limelight because of this incident and were also nominated for the prestigious Prix Voltaire. The International Publisher’s Association created this prize to honour a person or organisation adjudged to have made a significant contribution to the defence and promotion of freedom to publish in the world. This made people realise that there is a need to support a publishing house that is doing the kind of work we do, so a lot of people came up with manuscripts. Many were willing to help finance the publications. Some organisations came forward to show support during this time. Going into 2022 and even through 2023, I have many wonderful manuscripts to work on, including some from the diaspora.
TNS: Maktaba-e-Danyal is known also for taking up translation ventures. In the past, you have talked about publishing translations of Russian literature. Do you feel that the translator should have the same linguistic background as the original story to pick on the cultural nuances and deep symbolism?
HN: It is always desirable that a translator knows well the language they are translating from. However, many wonderful translations of world literature have been done from a third language. As far as Russian literature goes, I feel that somehow people from the subcontinent translate it much better, irrespective of their knowledge of the language. If they know the language well, that’s wonderful. There have been translators from India and Pakistan who have translated directly from the Russian language. I feel that the nuances, especially as far as poetry goes, are easier to capture while translating from Urdu to Russian and vice versa compared to some other languages. This maybe a very subjective view, but I believe that the two literatures are close as far as symbolism is concerned. It is obviously always good to know the language you’re translating from.
The interviewer is a staff member