Although local publishing houses in Pakistan are in a dismal state, budding writers in the country now have a fair chance of landing a book deal across the border.
There seems to be an emerging crop of new, young Pakistani authors, all of whom have been published in India. For Shazaf Fatima Haider, Saba Imtiaz, Bilal Tanweer, Haroon Khalid and others, tapping into the Indian market seems to be a viable option for aspiring Pakistani writers.
For Khalid – whose first book (non-fiction), A White Trail (published by Westland in 2013) – books stand as “the only avenue for Indians to understand Pakistan better.”
But what sells? What kinds of stories are Indian publishers looking for these days? “With Pakistan, I think globally it is the same stereotype that sells or the exact opposite of which, in its own way, reinforces the stereotype by presenting a complex society into simplistic duality,” observes the young author, “It is terrorism, Islamization…topics like these that reinforce the biases of the Indian audience, and that sells. A book doesn’t need to tackle these issues head-on to generate interest. It could also talk about certain topics with these things in the background. You can notice [this] in Bilal Tanweer’s The Scatter Here Is Too Great and also in Saba Imtiaz’s Karachi, You’re Killing Me!“
Shazaf Fatima Haider, another young Pakistani author whose debut novel, How It Happened was published by Penguin India in 2013, states that currently, Pakistani writers now have insight into the mechanics of book publishing.
“When I wrote [How It Happened], I didn’t have any literary festival where the process of getting published was discussed, either in a panel or with another writer,” Haider states. “The publishing industry in India and across the world is restructuring itself and in many ways is being [pickier] in what is selected for publishing. Still, I think it’s still a time of tremendous hope and optimism for Pakistani writers, and justifiably so, just because they know what the process is like beforehand. They don’t have to grope in the dark.”
Like Khalid, Haider feels that “tales of suffering and oppression seem to have more of a market abroad.”
“International readers want to know what it’s like being a Pakistani – how much prejudice, danger does one face as a minority, as a woman, as a citizen of a metropolis that has been the subject of many a bomb attack,” she states, “Stories in those sensational contexts do tend to find an eager market. Oh, and put a woman with a veil on the cover – that’s key to selling a book.”
According to Kanishka Gupta, a well-known book agent across the border who runs Writer’s Side, having a middleman – an agent – isn’t as important as it is in the West.
Gupta is right: a majority of the publishing houses in India – Penguin India and HarperCollins India are two examples – clearly list submission guidelines, inviting writers to submit their work directly. There is no middleman involved.
Yet Gupta adds: “What agents can do is get an author a better deal, shorten the agonizing waiting period considerably and also provide editorial support. In my five years as a literary agent a lot of manuscripts that were successfully placed by me wouldn’t have found a publisher had the authors pitched them directly. There are many commissioning agents in a publishing house each with a distinct taste. A good agent knows which editor has to be approached for a particular book. This helps in lowering the rejection rates.”
Mita Kapur, another leading literary agent in India, who runs a literary consultancy company called Siyahi, states that while work from Pakistan does make publishers and agents sit up and take notice, for her, each book is approached with “a blank mind.”
“I want to feel the desire to buy it from a book store,” she states, “I read it like a reader first.”
However, Kapur stresses the need for refreshing plots and stories. “I am fed up of reading [rubbish].” Nevertheless, Kapur agrees that luck does have a hand to play in the publishing world. “I hate to sound like this, but we see a lot of cases of mediocre writing selling enormously just because the author was luckily at the right place at the right time – I guess it does play a role.”
For aspiring Pakistani writers hoping to cash in on the world’s (particularly India’s) interest in Pakistan by way of fiction/non-fiction works, the time would seem to be right to send manuscripts to agents and publishing houses in India. But being of Pakistani origin alone will not clinch a book deal. For that, a good story and, yes, luck both play a vital role.
Sonya Rehman is a journalist based in Lahore, Pakistan. She can be reached at: sonjarehman [at] gmail.com