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Why Pakistan Must Rely On India: The Many Implications of Book Trade Ban Between the Two South Asian Countries

Why Pakistan Must Rely On India: The Many Implications of Book Trade Ban Between the Two South Asian Countries

  • Indian literature and the subsequent publishing landscape seem immensely stronger than in Pakistan. The reason for powerful Indian fiction and non-fiction works is because the Indian economy is thriving as the third largest economy in Asia producing excellent literary work.

Having worked at an esteemed local publishing house in Pakistan, leading the publishing department, it dawned upon me that, as compared to Pakistan, Indian literature boasts an extremely powerful economic wave, regardless of the trade ban. It makes sense then, that a powerful economy brings a strong pinnacle of cultural and social discourse. Because in the end, publishing is a business. It’s about the numbers. If publishers are not able to sell books profitably, they would most likely not invest in them. It is the most basic rule of thumb for conducting business anywhere. In Pakistan, the situation is aggravated. As much as economics may dictate most of what is produced in terms of arts, culture, and literature, there is also a school of thought that favors the fact that prose, poetry, and art tend to become more communicative in fraught circumstances of desolation, paucity, vehemence, and revolt.

And so this paucity led to Pakistan looking for novel ways to keep the ball rolling in the publishing and printing circuit. It brought the benefits of publishing blossom. As Pakistan has heavily relied on India for books for a long time, so when the trade ceased the exchange of books, it gave rise to many independent publishing houses that are still in their infant stage. Not only has Pakistan relied upon, but also invested significantly, in India. Owing to the trade ban between both countries, which disabled the import and export of books, among everything else, Pakistan suffered heavily in terms of literature and economics. Earlier, India made substantial exports, and at knock-out prices at that, to Pakistan largely due to the abundantly innovative literary works produced by Indian authors in English. Their works questioned and reflected on a diverse range of issues like nationalism, freedom struggle, social realism, individual consciousness, and the like. These works were appreciated and remained distinguished in the literary world of Pakistan.

Indians have mastered the complexities of the alien English language, which remains the language of ‘the elite’ as both the states have only just recovered from the colonial hangover and adapted in it the shades and hints of themselves. There are numerous books being imported from the UK and USA to Pakistan. However, the loss as a result of the trade ban, has translated into a body of work that is in demand but unavailable. For instance, there are various genres that can only be understood by or resonate with the subcontinent, such as the partition literature that entails the emotional pungency of the freedom struggle and the fight for independence. This is not to demerit the works from other authors, but the elevated impact on the national consciousness among the Pakistani readership, gives India leverage in the literary fraternity by producing works of authors such as Anum Zakaria, given the lack of the same in Pakistan. It also enabled both countries to recognize and comprehend each other’s literary sensibilities to explore the other’s world.

Kamila Shamsie

Hoori Noorani, the owner of Maktaba-e-Danyal, a well-established publishing house in Karachi, opines, “The trade ban on Indian books has mostly affected English language book trade. Most of the Pakistani authors writing in English were published in India by big names such as Penguin, HarperCollins, etc. This made their books accessible to a much larger market (India, Pakistan as well as the rest of South Asia). However, publishers in Pakistan are now picking up these books for the local market and getting exclusive rights for the local market. Increasingly, authors from both sides of the border are now being published in both countries by local publishers of Urdu books. However, it is frustrating that one has no access to Urdu literary journals, etc. as postal service between the two countries is also suspended.”

Publishing business in India, though, is millennial ahead of Pakistan. This is exactly why Pakistan, despite nesting successful authors in English and Urdu, are published abroad, either in the UK or India, whereas Indian authors are mostly published in their own country, contributing not only to literature and the economy at large but also raising the bar while they are at it, achieving benchmarks and breaking their own records, such as the recent release, “Tomb of Sand” by Geetanjali Shree that made to the Booker Prize cut and won.

Speaking about similar issues, Kanishka Gupta, Founder of Writer’s Side, one of the largest literary agencies in South Asia, said, “Before the trade ban, I used to be the go-to agent for Pakistani authors who wished to publish with Indian publishers, primarily because most of the MNC publishers have publishing divisions in India. However, since the ban, hardly anyone is willing to take the risk of publishing Pakistani authors unless they carry names with a global presence such as Kamila Shamsie, Mohsin Hamid, or Mohammad Hanif. These are big names and can easily drive sales because of their fan following. Having said that, this has led to the rise of various independent publishers in Pakistan, such as Liberty, Reverie, Lightstone, etc. 

There are also Zuka Books and Vanguard that have been around for a while now. Having said that, Indian publishers experience its woes too. We are losing out on a lion’s share of the Pakistani English readers’ market, which makes up for close to 50% of our market share of Pakistani authors published in India. If the ban continues, Pakistan will have to up its publishing game. It needs to uplift the areas of editing, marketing, distribution, etc. Secondly, the margins are low in the publishing business, so the quantities need to be higher to achieve cost efficiencies and benefit from economies of scale. 

Mohsin Hamid

On the other hand, India is not placing bets on acquiring rights either unless: a) the book is exceptional and has made the right noises internationally b) the book has a pan-South Asian appeal. So we, here in India, have to let go of Pakistani rights. For example, “Unveiling Jazba: A History of Pakistan Women’s Cricket” by Aayush Puthran, couldn’t find an Indian publisher, primarily because of the above reasons. However, I finally managed to strike a deal with Polaris, a renowned UK publisher, with Kamila Shamsie’s endorsement. 

Polaris UK has World English rights, for which I am the agent, and then I am also their sub-agent for the same book in the subcontinent.” He also mentioned the case of Whispering Chinar by Ali Rohila going through a similar path, and the recent “Jinnah: A Life” by Yasser Latif Hamdani, published by Pan Macmillan. “So I really hope that even though all of us are losing out, Pakistan develops a strong ecosystem of literary agents, influencers and scouts to up their game. And for that to become a viable option, Pakistan must increase its advances, and print runs, and all of that boils down to improving the reading culture. To sell more books, people must read more books. It also requires influential people to support and institute short courses now and then, send employees on fellowships to further their skills and experience, and have literature festivals more frequently to acknowledge and appreciate literary works.”    

Gupta’s comments force us to wonder about the same. India’s numbers are huge. Their readership is much larger. Their technical talent in editorial, creatives, execution, marketing, literary agencies, and distribution is at par with international standards. And because all of the numbers make a lot more fiscal sense in India, it also houses the big five publishers, along with many others, that allow Pakistani authors to have a global presence and a definite structure and form to follow through.

Talking about sharing literature between Pakistan and India, Shubhi Surana, Editor at Penguin Random House India, says, “Pakistan and India share countless cultural values and so it is understandable that literature would flow between the two nations with great porosity. Trade restrictions have unfortunately shrunk the book market for both nations. This is a loss for Indian and Pakistani publishers, authors and readers alike, and hence for literature as a whole. In price-sensitive markets such as ours, the logistical costs of procuring books from farther territories make imports unviable. 

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At the same time, rising production costs and an increasingly distracted readership could make many a manuscript prohibitively expensive for any publisher who is not in a position to benefit from economies of scale. This means that no matter how badly they might want to bring a certain voice to their readers, they simply cannot. The internet, be it through audiobook platforms or virtual reader communities, certainly helps cushion the blow. But even then, big digital retailers are yet to symmetrically offer their full services across our developing markets. This is why we haven’t seen e-books even partially bridge the gap left by these restrictions. It seems implausibly anachronistic but is a sad reality. Till things improve, the only silver lining seems to be seeing new Pakistani publishers mushroom and flourish.”

Mohammad Hanif

Elaborating on the same tangent, let’s shed some light on the technical side, the input requirements. Pakistan is known to import its paper, the price of which is so volatile in the market with few options in terms of quality and grammage, that the aesthetics of the publication is almost always compromised. We have limited options for cover design and colors that can be practically used, and cover treatments to bring out the best product. And while few authors and publishers are exploring e-platforms, such as Maniza Naqvi’s The Little Book Company, most of what is produced is physical books – so it must look and feel good. Especially for those who love to hold and smell books!

So what all of this means is that Pakistan is still heavily reliant on India, regardless of the ban – be it for the numbers its economy represents, the expert skills of design, editorial, production and marketing, or the global presence and outreach it offers. Then there is the ban and one would think that with the mushrooming of publishing houses, we must’ve uplifted our game. Yet we find ourselves relying on India, acquiring rights of books from them to make those available to the Pakistani readers, no matter how costly it may be. Quite a dilemma.

The fact that Pakistani authors must rely heavily on India, regardless of the ban, to have their works published excellently is tragic and discouraging for budding Pakistani authors, even though these may have the potential of becoming popular with South Asian readers, as compelling and fascinating as their works may be. Of course, all of these add to the many costs and concerns about the dwindling state of our publishing industry, and the economy at large. But that is another song for another time.

Sara Danial is a mother of two. A Pakistani writer/editor, born, raised and survived in Karachi, though to be precise, reared in the dunes of Dubai, she was corrupted by English and a voracious appetite for books. She’s certain to die in the present century as she was born in the last. Stained by several vices, like reading and writing and with a Master’s degree, she thought the world should be at her feet, but she was wrong. She took up her old vice to land up in the world of literature, through which she shares her love for all things sacred to the English language. Her writing has been published in Dawn, The News on Sunday, The Friday Times, Pakistan and Gulf Economist, South Asia, BOL, The Friday Times, The Nation and The Express Tribune. She can usually be found musing about over a cup of coffee or occasionally ranting. You may vent out at [email protected].

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The viewpoints expressed by the authors do not necessarily reflect the opinions, viewpoints and editorial policies of American Kahani.
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