Saturday 6 January 2024

Publishing in Pakistan

Safinah Danish Elahi talks to Devika Misra about the pitfalls and possibilities of publishing in Pakistan.

English readership in Pakistan is relatively small; none of the big five publishing houses has a significant base in the country. But Pakistani writer and independent publishing house owner Safinah Danish Elahi argues that English fiction by Pakistani writers deserves more attention. She contends that readership patterns are slowly evolving. Although Pakistani fiction publishing is still very much in its infancy, she believes that the role of independent publishers is more crucial than ever before. She spoke to Devika Misra on the occasion of the launch of her most recent novel, The Idle Stance of the Tippler Pigeon.

I began by asking her why she felt the need to set up her own publishing house despite being a published novelist and poet. Danish Elahi says it all began as a personal quest. She had no literary connections and “no clue” about how to get her first novel published.

SDE: “When I took my novel around, I realized that not many publishers are doing fiction at all. Two, three names that have been around in Pakistan weren't doing fiction, they mostly did text books. Liberty Publishing signed me for my first novel. And at the time I felt that maybe they didn't have enough resources to properly deliver a book. For example, the kind of editing that I was expecting wasn't there because they were kind of new.”

One route that many Pakistani writers have taken, is to use established Indian publishing houses. However, relations between the two South Asian countries have always  been fraught. Since their inception in 1947, they have been bitter rivals and  any kind of collaboration is subject to the vagaries of politics. Writing, on both sides of the fence, often finds itself collateral damage.

SDE: “I do remember there was a publishing house in India at the time who was interested in my first novel. When I asked how things would work, they asked me if I could visit. By that time there were visa issues and there was this ban on books from India to Pakistan. We call it the ‘book ban’ because we cannot make any payments directly to our neighbours in India, and we can also not receive packages directly. When you publish in India; writers who began their journey before me, they couldn't do it. Books would either have to come through the UAE or the UK. So it just becomes not feasible for you to get copies of your books. So you either have to republish it in Pakistan or have a UK publisher do it and then sell rights to Pakistan. As a writer you want your book in your hand and you do want your country people to read the book.”

But it wasn’t just push factors that prompted Danish Elahi  to set up shop. She describes positive trends that also served as the impetus. 

SDE: “Reading in the 1990s was all about what America is like, or what the United Kingdom is like, and then reading about the diaspora; people who are out of Pakistan. That made a big chunk of Pakistani readership so they weren't reading  Pakistani writers talking about Pakistani stories, but white writers or Pakistani writers outside of Pakistan.” 

This, she says, is what has changed and convinced her of the potential value of setting up a publishing house.

SDE: “This wave of new writers, in which I'd like to include myself, have been about mostly local stories. The publishing world has also changed in the past maybe five, six years where you see more diverse writing, you see people interested in stories that are coming from the global south. So I see a shift there. In terms of readership,  I don’t think the number has increased per se but with the population increase there has been an increase in digital consumption. So there's a lot of (consumption) of Netflix and dramas on iPads…. also audiobooks, e-books. My children's generation is mostly hooked on the digital end of things.” 

Certainly, some Pakistani literary fiction is being turned digital. Danish Elahi’s own debut work Eye on the Prize, has been translated into Urdu and adapted into a television series.

Danish Elahi established her independent publishing house, Reverie, about three years ago. It serves as a platform for local writers like herself. She wanted to break what she saw as the dependence of Pakistani writers on British and American publishers.

SDE: “The idea for Reverie was not to pick up well-known authors because they already have their agents and publishers and popularity. So I wanted to bring new voices and people who are struggling with the process of publishing, who weren't able to get the mainstream recognition that the more famous authors have already received. But I had to take on some of the more popular writers as well so that I sell.”

Reverie has a sister label which consists of self-published books for which a management and print fee are charged. Hard to believe now, she says, that it all started as a dream.

SDE: A reverie is a day dream. My publishing house, Reverie, initially felt like a daydream to me because a person who's been reading all her life, not writing for enough time, kind of clueless about how writing and publishing works, it just felt like a daydream to me.”

Despite its playful name, Reverie is not simply a passion project for Danish Elahi. In terms of profitability, 2021 and 2022 were good enough to justify maintaining the business. Danish Elahi  hopes it will be more than just self-sustaining, even profitable in the long term.

Details: Safinah Danish Elahi’s The Idle Stance of the Tippler Pigeon is published by Neem Tree Press (UK) and is available in paperback.