Page By Page, Women Are Shaping The Publishing Industry In Pakistan

Page By Page, Women Are Shaping The Publishing Industry In Pakistan
Every year, Pakistan hosts a number of literary festivals in cities like Lahore, Karachi and Quetta. Every year, hundreds of people line up to hear celebrated authors from around the world sit on platforms in large halls, discussing all things literature with their equally celebrated Pakistani hosts. There is conversation, there is a transfer of ideas and inspiration, and there is renewed hope and zeal for an industry that has never been fully allowed to stand up on its own feet. And then, there is silence.

For Pakistani authors, it can be challenging to get their work published in their own country. Despite the literature festivals branching out to other cities over time, there hasn't been a hugely significant increase in Pakistani authors, but more specifically, in locally published books authored by Pakistanis. Historically, authors here have had to approach India to get their books published. Not only is this a longer, more time consuming route, it is also more expensive not just for the authors but also for the readers who will inevitably buy the books at higher prices, because Pakistan will have to import them.

High production costs and a lack of infrastructure has resulted in a dearth of publishing houses, which is what ultimately leads authors to look across the border to get their work published. However, over the years, there have been attempts at remedying this, and the concept of boutique publishing houses has become more common. What's even more interesting is that in Pakistan, women have been at the helm of this change. The Friday Times spoke to four women changing the publishing game in Pakistan to find out what they had to say about the industry.

Safinah Danish Elahi runs a boutique publishing house called Reverie Publishers, that has been in business since January 2021. Since then, Reverie Publishers has published 8 titles, and has three more coming out soon. She told TFT that before the Pakistan's ban on importing books from India, the easiest avenue for publishing was through India, due to there being a similar culture, bigger audience, and presence of the big five publishers. "After the ban, we found ourselves somewhat homeless, because UK and USA is a long process and unless you have spent substantial amount of time there, you do not have the ‘right’ contacts, very few are able to secure contracts with such publishers," she said, asking what a Pakistani writer was supposed to do in that scenario. This is the reason, she says that some people in Pakistan have tried to open some doors for local publishing. "It isn’t much yet, but it’s something."

Safinah Danish Elahi of Reverie Books

She says the hardest part about being a publisher in Pakistan is not knowing if the book will sell. "We can try our best with our limited marketing budgets and low key distribution solutions, but at the end of the day, the market is so small, especially when it comes to people who want to read local stories, that it becomes very difficult to have any confirmed sales," she laments.

This thought is echoed by Mehr Husain of Zuka Books as well. "Publishing isn't easy here due to English readership being limited, high costs of production due to inflation, lack of protection for authors and their work and lack of a consumer base that can make publishing financially viable," she tells TFT. She got into publishing because she wanted to create a platform that advocates for sustainable publishing and pushes for creative freedom. "It is where I wish to set a new standard of publishing and for the literary industry at large."

Mehr Husain of Zuka Books

But not all independent publishing houses stem from purely space-making reasons. Taiba Abbas started Àla Books in December 2019 simply because as a long time lover of literature, she really loved the whole process of editing, designing and publishing a book. "It's been quite a strenuous process," she says, adding, "It took quite a long time because there was so much to learn as well, but it's been worth it. Every minute of it." Her first book, The Night In Her Hair, that she co-authored with her mother was also published through her own publishing house. 

She says the most challenging part about being a publisher, or even an author in Pakistan is generating interest. "It's the question of what to do after the book has been printed. Sadly in Pakistan we don't have a pre-existing system of marketing and publicity," she says, explaining that the media is not too interested in the literary arts. "Sure, we have a couple of literary festivals, but that's not enough. We need to have such events, such associations or such support groups putting something together every week," she says, adding that the one change she would like to see is more excitement being generated. 

Taiba Abbas of Àla Books

She acknowledges that there are a lot of barriers to production when it comes to publishing: the cost of high-quality paper, for starters, is really high. But she says there is also this idea that whatever we produce locally won't be as good quality as something produced abroad, or even across the border. The only way to counter that and move forward according to Taiba is to just keep on keeping on. "We have to do our thing, even dip into our own pockets if we have to. But we must produce something that can embody the kind of change we want to represent," she says. A book has to be more than just its content, which is important of course, but also important is the design of the book. "It's something you want to look at on your shelf everyday, something you want on your writing table," she tells TFT, adding that production, design and the entire art industry surrounding the process of printing a book is something that also has to be cultivated and strengthened.

At the end of the day, setting up an industry is all about the ripple effect. One person gets the dice rolling and it inspires others to follow suit. Following the shutting down of so many iconic old-age print publications, it seemed like print as a medium had finally breathed its last breathe. But publications like Mehwish Amin's The Aleph Review proved that to be false. In fact, a whole new slew of print publications, albeit smaller ones, have started popping up over the last few years. The newest addition to the group is Mina Malik-Hussain's Risala, which she is co-founding with Aleph Review managing editor Hassan Tahir Latif.

"Risala is a print magazine that, we hope, will serve as a platform to publish younger Pakistani writers and entertain curious kids, be a place of exposure to the arts, nature and culture and a point of connection to other Pakistanis doing amazing things in the world," Mina tells TFT. With the first edition set to release in September, one wonders why someone would willingly set up a print publication, but Mina says that anyone who buys books knows the experience of print is very special, and that seeing your name in print in a publication you can hold is a thrill like no other. She also mentions how print is more accessible for a larger audience: "Print is also convenient and permanent, and cheaper - if you don't have a tablet or phone with a big enough screen, you can still read Risala and have a great time."

Mina Malik-Husain of Risala Magazine

As a newcomer to the publishing world, she was thrilled to find that the relatively small industry is filled with a lot of women. However, Mina wants to see more respect for copyright and intellectual property. "Piracy is rampant, and the attitude to the arts is an oddly entitled one - the same people who would spend twice as much money on a meal or pair of shoes are oddly reluctant to buy your book/publication," she says.

Change doesn't happen overnight. But that doesn't mean you stop striving for it. Drop by drop, page by page, that's how you overhaul an industry that's in desperate need of an overhaul. And these women are doing everyone a service by doing just that.

Khadija Muzaffar is the culture editor at The Friday Times. Previously a Fulbright scholar at NYU, she enjoys writing about society, culture, music and food. She tweets at @khadijamuzaffar, but is far more interesting on Instagram.