The News on Sunday (TNS): Was there a watershed moment when you decided you wanted a publishing business?
I have never wanted any kind of business, but I’ve experienced the need for quality local publishers myself. Publishing is ruthlessly competitive and writers who swim against market currents need champions. We have to tell our own stories instead of whining that other people are not telling them. We need diversity in the people who are deciding what is published.
Shandana Minhas (SM): Is Mongrel Books going to publish fiction that focuses on certain genres, or is it about publishing great stories?
We’re called Mongrel for a reason. We’re interested in good books, and don’t discriminate on the basis of genre, language, gender, class or publishing history. Volume 1 of The Mongrel Book of Voices featured prose, poetry and graphic panels by 21 writers from nine countries. Two of the pieces were translations. The Light Blue Jumper by Sidra F. Sheikh, is a comedy set in space. Saints and Charlatans by Sarim Baig, out in January 2018, will be a collection of short stories.
Baig’s work continues the emergence of a local literary idiom evident in my own work, as well as that of others. Pakistani English language writing can now be split into two distinct strands. There is a strand that comes directly from the colonial encounter, and now there is also a strand that is organically local, manifested in rhythms and tonal shifts and word choice. Please say Anglophone to a local teenager and asks him what he thinks it is. It is understandable that we have found readers in India, where that evolutionary leap happened some time ago.
We do, however, wish we could also find publishers in Europe and America. Because of the exchange rate.
TNS: Why do you think there are such few independent houses like yours that encourage local writers? Could it be the lack of English readerships in Pakistan, or something else?
SM: Kitab and City Press and others exist too. Writers need publishers and payment more than they need encouragement. Pakistan has self publishing platforms, creative writing courses at universities, amateur webzines, a pro literary journal, poetry slams, novel writing workshops and digital publishing start-ups. Everything from superlatives to guidance is available (some of it nakedly exploitative but woh alag behas hai [that’s a separate argument]). And then what? Who will buy your work? Everybody wants to be a writer, it seems, but hardly anybody is a reader. The circuit is broken.
Beyond the obvious solutions – libraries, independent bookstores, better parenting – one way to promote reading here is to replace what passes for review pages in newspapers with extracts. In real life, there is nobody between the reader and the page. Those pages came out of newspaper expansion in the 1960s and 1970s, but people are getting their recommendations online now, and it’s time to move beyond an outdated content generation model. Maybe it’ll even drive circulation back up, haina [am I right]?
TNS: Since launching Mongrel Books, what has been the most pleasant surprise you’ve experienced regarding the publishing circles of Pakistan?
SM: How generous people can be with their wisdom and time. Musharraf Ali Farooqi continues to be an invaluable resource. Kiran Aman shared her experiences before we started. And what a find Aziza Ahmad has been. Book design is one of the weakest aspects of local publishing, and it’s such a delight to watch her raise the bar, effortlessly.
TNS: Conversely, what’s one thing about the publishing in Pakistan that you learnt the hard way?
SM: That the printing industry is vast, and needs raw material, tariff rationalisation, modernisation and regulatory oversight.
TNS: Indian publishing houses have recently turned many Pakistanis into authors. Are our neighbour’s publishing houses proving to be healthy competition for Mongrel Books?
SM: In a healthy publishing ecosystem small presses can and do happily co-exist with big business. There are pros and cons attached to both and everything in between. Writers who are actually trying to earn a livelihood from their work cannot afford the mindless nationalism others want to foist on them. They should submit to everyone, everywhere, and I wish they all have fairy tale endings. For those who don’t – going back to swimming against the market currents – hum hain na [we are there].
TNS: Do you think Kindles and E-readers will drive physical books into obscurity? Are you accounting for that by publishing books physically as well as digitally?
SM: I don’t think there is any substitute for the feel of a book in your hands and I don’t expect that to change anytime soon. We do publish Kindle editions of our books, for international readers. Digital publishing in Pakistan is complicated by banking practices; unless HBL sets up an imprint.
The most relevant questions regarding physical books is that of distribution. This is where being a small press without an outlet or a bookstore willing to aggressively promote us is a real disadvantage, and what we need to work hardest on. Working on manuscripts is wonderful; negotiating with other people who have different priorities is not. Nothing in my life as a writer prepared me for this, but being a mother of three has helped. And with Aziza we have been able to build a quirky, distinctive online presence to promote ourselves.
TNS: All businesses set out goals: is the publishing business different or do you also have goals about the number of books and anthologies you would like to publish every year? What does the future hold for Mongrel books? What do readers have to look forward to?
SM: We had planned to do four books in our first year, and by January we will have published three. We’re happy with that. Our goals are to continue to publish good books as long as we can afford to, and work on building a sustainable model that somebody else can run one day soon.
Beyond that, we’d like to push for a collective effort to address printing, distribution and data collection issues. Publishers are taller when they stand on each other but stronger when they stand with each other. We’d also like to talk about how the funding, appointments and awards processes of federal arts bodies work, and the plots of recent self-published, bestselling, Pakistani English Romance novels.
In the long run, and I can’t speak for Imran [co-founder of Mongrel Books and Minhas’ husband] but I suspect he agrees, I hope that one day somebody will ask one of the writers we are publishing – by then published by a big publisher, with huge advances and royalties they can buy food for a week with – about their very first book. And that they will say it was published by a little indie in Karachi, Pakistan, run by other writers, who knew that “the real history of a society is its art”.