The Little Book Company and Beyond
An Interview with publisher and writer Maniza Naqvi
Please tell us about your journey as an author.
I’ve been writing since I’ve literally been on a journey, whether it was leaving Pakistan, returning to Pakistan, traveling within Pakistan, or traveling elsewhere in Eastern Europe, Central Asia or East Africa. It makes me wonder whether all authors are always in this kind of transition – after all the whole tradition of storytelling and writing, the qissa kahani, Tilism-e-Hoshruba, Dastaan-e-Amir Hamza, all of these narratives are about travelers. Maybe the question asked of them was ‘Who are you and where do you come from?’ and then trying to make sense of this displacement produced masterpieces, explaining why you are no longer where people didn’t need to ask you such questions. One can put that quite literally and metaphorically, into a book.
If I were to put my journey into a spectrum, I clearly remember that moment when it happened. One is always writing, even as a child, as a diary, etc. That is a really good place to start. Mass Transit, my first novel. I know exactly how it started, with this absolute need to sit down and pen my thoughts—that moment is even know almost tangible. The mixture of feelings that I was experiencing, whatever I was trying to express – happened when I was abroad and I was walking down a sidewalk. Then I crossed the then Prime Minister of Pakistan, who had been chosen by the military dictator of the time. As the entourage passed by me, I thought, ‘oh my goodness, abroad, these beings are so benign, and a transformation takes place when they pass by just like civilians, like you and I’. Yet back home, they are anything but benign. They are powerful landlords and bureaucrats. They exude power in a way that they don’t —they can’t exude here. Here, they are just affable, kindly, old gentlemen, nodding in the direction of the ladies, in a chivalrous fashion. In Pakistan, one wouldn’t be anywhere near them, because there is security around them, or the roads would be blocked. So that shift – from who are these people and where do they come from, and who am I in relation to them and why are they this way and the perceptions around it– in that moment, I wrote this first piece, that became a part of ‘Mass Transit’. Between one’s narrative of these answers and the perceptions of it, therein lies the complexities and confusions, which builds this whole colorful space of contradictions, desire, and longing, a need to connect (or disconnect). In these imaginary homelands and no-man’s-lands, one feels the urge to write.
So I didn’t go home to write a novel immediately. I merely went home and expressed my feelings in a small piece, that was only a mixture of thoughts, to set down the political history of Pakistan. But the novel itself really got started when I left Pakistan in 1990. And it was started with the sensibility of connecting to Karachi in that emotional space in that moment as I was leaving. With this the prologue to Mass Transit happened, where I tried to capture ‘why I was leaving, what was the context, and what was going on in this city. From then onwards, I tried to pen down the whole political history of Pakistan through telling of a story of a family that is dislocated, trying to find itself and maneuver through life. From then onwards, I think all the novels I wrote were in the same frame of mind.
Perhaps it is best to answer this question as my being more than an author. The Little Book Company has put up a one-page e-short story to raise funds for flood relief for victims in Pakistan. This short story, ‘Driftwood’, which is written anonymously, and has been translated into Sindhi and Urdu by the acclaimed poet, author, and journalist, Hasan Mujtaba. It is available as an e-book on our digital platform, The Little Book Company. All of the sales from this book will go for flood relief. We have already managed to raise and transfer over 1 million rupees. Hopefully, by the time, this interview is published, it will have much more, of course. We have transferred funds to Al-Khidmat, Edhi, Saylani Welfare, Trust, Sindh Rural Support Organization, Sindh Graduate Association Ghotki, Helping Hands Student Organization Hyderabad, Women’s Democratic Funds Sindh. Huqooq Khulq Party, HANDS, Saharoo. In this way, we are trying to raise funds, in a unique and innovative way for maximum benefit to the flood victims.
And because I am an author above all, I find this a liberating way to support relief work. I have spent 30 years of my life in development, particularly in disaster management, emergencies, and working on productive and adaptive social safety nets. So I have had a long career thinking-through – how to help people, what works, what doesn’t work, both in relief and reconstruction, and in building strategies for longer-term thinking that is socially and environmentally cognizant and based on economic justice, something that is completely absent from our economy and social structure. And most of these ideas also take form in my fiction writing. It also comes from my entire work experience—what I’ve learned works and doesn’t work. Going forward, this is also my flow for The Little Book Company as well.
You are more than just an author. You contribute to local literature in a much broader sense. How does The Little Book Company fit into this puzzle?
I’ve had a career in adaptive productive safety nets, for the last 3 decades of my life. Alongside that, I’ve been an author, with five novels that have been published, starting from Mass Transit, On Air, Stay With Me, A Matter of Detail, to The Inn, to a book of short stories, Sarajevo Saturdays. So I have a pretty long history working in development and poverty reduction. I hope my novels contribute to the literature. I’ve now started The Little Book Company. But before that, since 2017, I’ve been involved with this bookshop in Karachi called The Pioneer Book House, which was about to close down in December 2016. Now we have entered 2022. The bookshop is open and alive and has in many ways become an icon in Karachi, especially since my involvement for the past five and a half years. My book ‘A Guest in the House’, is about this and is more of a memoir, and it chronicles my times at The Pioneer Book House. It is about Karachi and it is about trying to keep a book shop from closing down.
These experiences of development, combined with being hands-on, and trying to keep a bookshop alive, led me to The Little Book Company if that somehow explains the puzzle. The pandemic happened, and while working at the bookshop, I realized that the main input, paper, is imported to Pakistan. The cost of having a book published and printed is quite high. The publishing process moves slowly so by the time the book comes out, the price of paper has become so volatile, it becomes impossible for the publisher/printer to bear the increased cost. So most people who love to read, who are the most avid readers, don’t have much to spend on other than rent or groceries, and transportation and education and they can’t purchase these books even if they want to. Books have to be, affordable for the younger readers especially. When the pandemic happened all my experience seemed to come together. These dots got connected and it seemed like the perfect time to start TLBC, and to begin an e-book company that would focus on literature from Pakistan in every language, including English, to allow publishers and authors to bring their books to the platform, and earn an income worldwide. This will also allow them to finance their writings through yet another avenue. There are few bookshops in Pakistan. The reach of Pakistani publishers to the outside world is limited, even to the diaspora. So why not have an e-book company that takes their publications immediately to the diaspora? It enables a revenue stream that ensures income for publishers and writers and allows both to continue to flourish. Publishers can increase their earnings and finance more books. We have now been in the business for more than 19 months and we are still of course trying to iron out a few bugs and glitches. TLBC is getting better every day and it’s functioning quite well.
What made TLBC successful and how do you intend to carve a niche for your initiative?
TLBC is Pakistan’s first and only e-book company. It is the one Urdu e-book company out there, and therefore, it is also the largest Urdu e-book company. It also carries English and Sindhi books, we intend to carry other languages as well, as authors and publishers realize the usefulness of this platform. And that’s how we have carved out our niche. It may be a momentary niche. If other players come into this arena, we will of course have to come up with something more to make us unique but whatever we add on it will be to benefit the industry at large. More than being successful, what makes us really vital for publishers, authors, and readers is that we are keeping our prices low for the reader, and we are keeping our returns high for the publisher and the author. Regardless on who approaches us (publishers or authors), they receive 70% of sales revenues for each sale, while TLBC retains 30% for overheads, etc. so this business model is quite unique and sustainable, as well as encouraging the growth of the business in the industry at large, which seems to have been dwindling in the past decades. What we are doing with TLBC can been seen as ‘creating a safety net’, which is based on the collective mindset of sharing and cooperation. It allows me to focus on building something that transcends the idea of only ‘profit-making’. Profit making is a fraction of the model, but there’s a lot more playing around it – our idea right now is to assist, by showcasing authors and publishers and giving them another avenue to bring their books to readers in a novel way. Hence, the ‘Little’ Book Company emphasizes humility and not forgetting what we are trying to do here. I must give credit to the wonderful technical team of TLBC, which designed the platform together that works well. We are trying to make it more user-friendly. It resembles an art gallery, really, because the book covers give it a beautiful sight to look at, an intellectual treasure to relish that belongs to Pakistan. As we grow, we will not only limit ourselves to Pakistan. We intend to approach authors that are not from Pakistan.
We plan to be a business, but our model is built on the preamble of sharing, doing good, helping authors and publishers, bringing their works to readers, all at a price that is affordable (reasonable and fair) for the end consumer. We also bring extraordinary experience – a team that has over two decades of experience in printing and publishing, like Farrukh Iqbal, our CTO with IT experience who is quite young and developing apps for us Saad Iqbal, myself as someone who has conceptualized this whole business model for TLBC. I am a writer myself. I have also brought the experience of keeping a bookshop open under difficult circumstances. Combined with it is also 30 years of experience in ‘adaptive productive social safety nets and community development so my whole mindset and model is one of protecting space and helping and benefiting people around me. So all of these put together creates a niche for us that is in many ways unique. And I’m hoping that would stand us in good stead.
Going forward, do you think e-books will become a necessary evil? Doesn’t that take away from the joy of a physical book, especially for bookworms like you and me?
My whole idea was to support authors, and particularly publishers so that they are able to continue doing what they do – publishing physical books, which is getting more difficult to do, owing to price volatility and paper unavailability. Being an author, writer, and reader, I would love to see bookshops flourish. I love bookshops. I think they are indispensable. They are more of a community center if they work properly. And more importantly, they are essential. But in the absence of a plethora of bookshops, and also the costs and terms of distribution for publishers, and availability for readers, the e-book is a good alternative. It also allows yet another channel for the book to be consumed. Books in all their formats and possibilities are a thing of beauty. And we should take advantage of the forms we can get, to keep the tradition of publishing, storytelling, writing, and reading alive. So TLBC represents every part of me – the development side, the author side, the entrepreneurial side. I know how things grow and how long it takes, what works and what doesn’t. I left the development sector behind to be able to experiment with things. TLBC is my belief for the way forward. We do things because we are chasing beauty. And when you come from that place, then you are able to do things that uplift all voices and people. It also allows me to find purpose and figuring out how to meet that purpose through action and supporting others.
All of us know that the world of books is not a money-minting business. How do you see the future of the publishing landscape in Pakistan? And on what fronts do you think we need more focus to make it commercially viable, or as lucrative as our Indian counterparts?
Yes, publishing has never been a money-minting business, unless one has a huge government contract, for printing textbooks, or similar material. And that contract continues year on year, which then becomes your bread and butter. But yes, speaking of literary fiction or creative nonfiction, I don’t see how one can mint money unless you have an incredible bestseller on your hands. And it is definitely not happening in the publishing landscape of Pakistan, be it Urdu, English, or Sindhi. The number of people that can buy a book and then read it themselves is so limited. And then piracy also plays its role. So, on what fronts can it become commercially viable? I believe in government subsidies for education, art, culture, books. For something as vital and necessary as books, the government must support publishers, authors, bookshops. These are a public good. Governments all over the world, especially the socialist ones in Eastern Europe, and some in Western Europe as well have subsidized books. They assist authors; they provide grants; they help publishers by placing large orders for public libraries and schools. This is how the publishing business abroad manages to get through. Without any state support, it is hard for a publisher to thrive and flourish. Independent publishers do come to the forefront, and they can’t sustain themselves and they have to close down. So if you look at the landscape at large, it is full of entries and exits with small mushrooms in the arena. TLBC hopefully is here to stay because we have taken care of the logistical issues, and administrative and input costs. And in turn, we are able to help brick-and-mortar publishers.
What hurdles have you come across as a publisher, and generally as an entrepreneur?
Part of the definition of being an entrepreneur, if you may call me that, is to be able to overcome hurdles that seem to appear, because one is constantly finding solutions. The hurdle I faced as a publisher and as an author too, was: the books are too expensive. They are expensive because there are costly logistics involved in producing a book. So I responded by creating an e-book company. I have been long enough in this industry to have made the kind of networks and relationships, which connected me with the right people, the publishers, and the IT professionals. So when I put those elements together, TLBC took birth. Then I lay out how I wanted it to function and what would be its values, who will be my inputs (authors and publishers), and who will be the target audience (readers). Another huge hurdle in Pakistan is that the online payments are not really working well. I’ve had a very difficult time with these institutions that claim to have online payment systems, but interfacing with them has been hugely problematic The Little Book Company. And owing to these difficulties we have lost quite a few transactions, because the online payment systems do not complete the transactions properly. We now have more reliable online payment methods that work perfectly fine with our system.
The cost of publishing and the cost of distribution of paper books are the main reason for the e-book. It creates a pricing situation that isn’t conducive to selling to a large market. And then, of course, there is the question of what you CAN publish and what you CANNOT (because it will close the publishing house down). That pretty much remains on top of my mind, when I am making a decision on which books to take on board. We have an unspoken contract clause, which we call ‘Marwa na dena, Bhai’. That’s the kind of authorizing environment in which we function. But I think, within that realm, we can still do a lot. That is the point. As an entrepreneur, one has to continuously finding new ways to solve problems and make everyone better in the process. I love being in the world of books, surrounded by books, learning and living with books, people working with books, and the business of books.