Who says books don't sell in Pakistan?

March 11, 2008: A seemingly unimportant event in 1981 made me realise that books do sell in Pakistan. A small advertisement appeared in a leading Urdu newspaper informing the readers that Mukhtar Masood's new book, "Safar Naseeb", had come out. I went to Urdu Bazaar the following day and, entering Punjab Book Agency, which sold literary titles, asked for the book.

Nazeer Sahib, the shopkeeper with whom I had struck an acquaintance over the years, smiled and informed me that the new arrival had already sold out. When I pointed out that the advertisement about the book had appeared only the previous day, he laughed heartily and, looking at his fellow shopkeeper who stood nearby and was equally amused, said: "Mukhtar Masood ki nai kitab itni tezi se biki hai, kamal ho gaya (It is great that Mukhtar Masood's new book has sold so fast)."

"Books do sell here," I thought and left for the other bookshop. Mukhtar Masood's first book, "Awaz-e-Dost", had won accolades from readers and critics alike for its elegant prose, literary style and musings on history. It had established its author as a successful man of letters. So, his second book's brisk sale was not surprising, yet it was a literary travel account and its astonishingly quick sale stood at odd variance with the oft-repeated lament that literary books only gather dust at bookshops.

Afterwards, I got hold of some surveys on the reading habits of Pakistanis. The surveys were published by some government institutions. They told me that books did sell in Pakistan, though not as much as they should, or at least not in proportion to the country's huge population. But keeping in view Pakistan's low literacy rate, the sale of books was not too bad. Religion and fiction sold well, followed by humour, history and poetry. "These government statistics are not meant to be believed," I told myself.

But then there were books like those of Shafeeq-ur Rehman that sold steadily and were printed over and over again. Looking at the list of best-selling titles, you would agree with me that even today books sell well and people read a lot. "Khuda Ki Basti", Shaukat Siddiqui's novel that earned him name all over the world and was translated into more than 25 languages, is a case in point. Its Urdu version has run into 50 editions, though most of them were unauthorized and even the original publisher printed several editions without the author knowing it. The author later sued the publisher and that's one reason why publishers don't speak about huge book sales. Then there is "Shahab Nama", the ever-green memoirs of President Ayub Khan's secretary and writer Qudrat-ul-lah Shahab. The 1994 edition that I possess is its 13th and a lot of water has passed under the bridge since then.

To meet their ever-rising demand, Ibn-e-Insha's books were recently reprinted umpteenth time. Though most of the Pakistani editions of Qurat-ul-Ain Hyder's books have been unauthorized, they have been a source of great joy and money for publishers. Apart from these modern writers, masters like Ghalib have never been out of print. Urdu's classical works too attract a lot of readers and are printed over and over again.

When Harry Potter took the reading world by storm, the local market was also flooded with its sequels, although only a few hundred copies were imported and the widening gap between supply and demand was filled by ever-so-creative and ingenuous local publishers with pirated editions.

People associated with bookselling for long would tell you several rags-to-riches stories of book importers. One of the largest importers of books used to have a kiosk-like bookstall in a narrow lane in Karachi's Saddar area where once stood a cinema called Capitol. There are numerous publishers of Urdu books who started from scratch and are doing a roaring business these days.

So, what about all the fuss created by publishers and booksellers? "Books don't sell, people don't read anymore, the electronic media and the Internet have made books irrelevant, all people want are fast food and DVDs." This is the stock reply you receive when you discuss the issue with publishers and booksellers. "So why don't you wind up and do something else instead, selling burgers for instance," ask them and they will be more evasive, conveniently forgetting that it is their second or in some cases third generation that is involved in publishing or bookselling or both.

The recent international book fair in Karachi saw an overwhelming public response. On the very first day of the fair, I entered the hall at about 11 in the morning and headed straight to the stall that sold Indian books, looking especially for Urdu books published in India and patting myself on the back for being an early bird. I was dismayed and overjoyed in equal measure when I realised that bibliophiles like Prof Rafeeq Ahmed Naqsh had already helped themselves to the fare available at the bookstall. By 1pm, about half the books on that stall were gone and book lovers like Prof Sahar Ansari, Asif Farrukhi, Prof Dr Zafar Iqbal, Aqeel Abbas Jafri, and Mubin Mirza were seen triumphantly carrying away their prized buys.

Where are people who say books don't sell in Pakistan? But, yes, if by books they mean some wretched poetry collections by equally wretched poets who know nothing either about poetry or about language, then they are right: books don't sell in Pakistan. But, then, we should not worry about such books.

By Rauf Parekh (Dawn)

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