Pakistan's publishing industry, battered by coronavirus lockdown, charts a new course for a post-pandemic future
The coronavirus pandemic and related lockdown may well be among the Pakistani publishing industry’s toughest setbacks yet.
In August this year, AFP reported that Pakistan’s Punjab province — the country’s most populous — had approved a bill requiring publishers to seek government approval before printing or importing books, pamphlets and other written works. “If implemented, the Bill could gut the publishing industry in regional capital Lahore and divide Pakistan’s literary world, leaving books available in one part of the country but banned in another,” the report noted.
The contentious bill, which many in the publishing industry in Pakistan see as adding to an already censorious environment, comes at a time when the books business in the country is reeling under the effects of the COVID-19 crisis.
“The lockdowns in which schools and bookshops remained closed has caused an enormous loss to publishers from which they will not recover easily or quickly. Textbook publishers have missed out on the Pakistan peak-selling season of March and April when schools and bookshops were closed,” says Ameena Saiyid, one of the key figures in scripting the story of publishing in modern Pakistan. Saiyid, who has led Oxford University Press’ arm in the country, has also helmed the popular Karachi Literature Festival. “I think we will not return to the days before COVID and the change could be considered permanent... However, I feel we will return to smaller events with SOPs so things will be different in future,” she says.
The Pakistan Publishers and Booksellers Association is closely monitoring the coronavirus situation over October-November to take a call on whether or not its annually organised Karachi International Book Fair (KIBF) can be held this year. While the Karachi Expo Center, the venue for the fair, has been booked by the association from 5-9 December, the chairman Khalid Aziz told the press that the event would be cancelled if the situation isn’t favourable.
Saiyid observes that “online forums are at best a poor substitute for literary festivals as we know them”. “An online litfest can never replace the buzz and excitement of the real thing. I will never forget the hushed silence followed by the faint sound of excited breathing when Vikram Seth entered the hall to speak at one of my literature festivals,” she says.
Even as publishing houses and bodies consider their alternatives in a post-pandemic world, for bookstores, it’s a choice between bad and worse. “I think whether it is publishing or any other business, once your cash flows are affected, it becomes extremely difficult to sustain anything. Also what we've seen a big increase in pirated booksellers and this continues to impact the industry and eat into our margins,” says Sameer Saleem of Liberty Books, one of Pakistan’s oldest and biggest bookstore chains. Liberty, which opened in 1952, had rapidly expanded to cover major cities of the country.
While the lockdown hit retailers hard, Saleem believes the government’s nimbleness and understanding of essentials has saved most from being wiped out. What will eventually sustain bookstores through this crisis, however, is their relationship with the customer, he adds. “With the expansion of our physical store network in the last decade, it is not easy to maintain inventory according to customer feedback as each of our bookshops contains a minimum of 5,000 titles. But we are using technology to help us understand our readers more deeply,” Saleem says of how Liberty puts this philosophy into practice. “Hopefully this strategy will pay off. Understanding your customers is pandemic-proof and pays off in the long-term.”
Just as bookstores in India have turned to home deliveries in the time of the lockdown, Saleem says those in Pakistan too are figuring out new ways of selling. “If we expect to import and publish books and for them to sit on the shelf and sell on their own, it would be extremely naïve,” he says, bluntly. “Newer and more creative ways of reaching customers must be sought. Bookselling has always resolved to conventional selling and this is the time to raise the bar and test new ideas.”
The history of publishing in Pakistan can perhaps be viewed as two distinct timelines. Pre-Partition Lahore was the publishing centre of undivided India. Post-Partition, the departure of the major Hindi publishing houses created a gap that took time to fill. This ruptured beginning, and the effects of living under an imposing military regime aside, the pandemic and related lockdown may well be among the publishing industry’s toughest setbacks yet. Its effects have been felt by Ameena Saiyid’s publishing venture Lightstone, which was to be launched this year. Everything was in place, including a catalogue. “The only decisions we took were to lie low and not invest in any growth plans, such as more staff or projects. We decided to hold all our plans and minimise expenses on travel, promotional events,” she says.
The impact of the crisis hasn't bypassed Pakistani writers. Before 2019, authors from across the border were regularly commissioned and published by Indian publishing houses. Political estrangement and growing bilateral tensions led to a trade ban last year. This has severely curtailed access to writers and their books, on both sides of the border.
Saiyid observes that “while a large number of Pakistani writers, mainly [of] fiction, were published in India as there was no world class publisher of novels in Pakistan then, their base market and readership remained in Pakistan, and their books used to be exported to Pakistan”. “Now, since that can no longer be done, I wonder if Pakistanis will still go to Indian publishers or whether Indian publishers would still be interested in publishing Pakistani fiction,” she asks. “I have seen instances of Indian publishers passing reprint rights to publishers here, albeit reluctantly, which was not the case when trade was intact.”
Liberty’s Sameer Saleem is trying to create some positive opportunities even amid the crisis. Liberty, which also runs a publishing branch, is now focused on promoting local voices. “Although the trade ban with India has deprived readers of books by Indian and Pakistani authors, we see it as an opportunity to provide readers here with quality content at affordable prices and hope to someday be able to promote our authors from Pakistan in India as well,” Saleem says.
For now, survival is key and the only way to a chart a return to better times. While Saleem is figuring out selling and distributing in a new world order, Saiyid is gradually building her list, which already includes the well-timed anthology Making Sense of Post- COVID-19 Politics.
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