A few months ago, I came across a publishing house that had just released ephemera by Peerzada Salman as an e-book. I got interested since the idea of e-books in Pakistan was so new and I wanted to read this particular collection of stories. As I researched about this publishing platform, I got thinking about my own collection of poems that had been ready for a while, but I had not found someone I could trust it with. Hesitating at first, I finally approached Maniza Naqvi, the CEO of this publishing platform, and pitched my work to her.
A famous writer in her own right, I found her approachable – in fact, she gave me a fair response and asked to see my work. The conversations that followed were handled most delicately by her. After taking me on board, she suggested certain edits, but never did I feel anything intrinsic was altered in my book.
I have known editors who can be ruthless, and by the end of it all, it isn’t even your own writing but rather an insertion of their style in your work! Maniza, however, was gentle yet straightforward in the way she offered practical and insightful advice.
I thought of interviewing her, because I think more should be known about the platform that she is bringing to the table and her philosophy behind it.
Fatima Ijaz: When someone hears of “The Little Book Company,” what should they expect?
Maniza Naqvi: They should expect to click on www.littlebookcompany.net and be immediately delighted by the sight of so many wonderful books whose covers collectively appear like an exhibit of art. They should find it easy to register so that they can read, purchase, or publish e-books on this beautiful platform. They should expect that the book cannot be copied, printed or forwarded. They should expect an e-book and not a PDF file. If they are authors or publishers, they should expect to have agency and for the problems that they now face in publishing to disappear. These are problems of logistics including of high prices and costs, the unavailability of their books and the non-transparency of earnings from books.
Could you talk about the story behind The Little Book Company – how it came to be and what it stands for?
MN: The Little Book Company connects readers, authors, publishers and bookselling. It solves the problems of access, costs and earnings for all of them. It amplifies, elevates and supports stories and storytellers’ voices. I’ve spent 30 years of my life thinking through and developing Social Safety Nets platforms in different parts of the world including Pakistan. In 2017 I shifted my focus to an endangered bookshop, and with a hands-on involvement stopped it from closing down. Today more than five years later, Pioneer Book House is well and remains one of the oldest bookshops in Karachi. All of these processes taught me quite a bit about the struggle and costs involved in selling books, and in printing and publishing them.
Then the pandemic happened, and I could no longer be at Pioneer Book House. I felt cut off from a source of great joy for me. I could see that publishers and authors in Pakistan who were already under tremendous stress were struggling even more than before. Then Asif Farrukhi’s passing came as a shock and a huge loss to the literary community. Asif was a vital part of the literary architecture in Pakistan who did so much for supporting authors and for the conversation of literature. I felt I had to do something now to contribute somehow to help keep things going. And this is what I did. I created The Little Book Company with my business partner Farrukh Iqbal who has a lot of experience in printing and publishing. We have a development team which manages the technical aspects of the digital platform.
The Little Book Company is an e-book platform which elevates authors and publishers and their voices and seeks to support both in many ways. It gives voice to a myriad of stories, fiction and non-fiction. It has a global reach so people all over the world can purchase the e-book.
FI: Why do you think an e-book platform is important in Pakistan?
MN: I think books need to be available in all the forms available to us for getting them to the readers and listeners. I think we need to treat education, reading, writing and the telling of stories as one of our greatest challenges and if we succeed then as our greatest achievements. In order to succeed we need books in every form and available on websites and in bookshops. We need to use technology to work for us—for telling and teaching stories.
The Little Book Company is important in Pakistan because it solves the problem of sales, costs, earnings and access in the book industry for readers, authors and publishers. It has the potential to contribute to solving the problem of making textbooks available to all for free.
The Little Book Company is a solution to the problem of cost and availability of books for the reader and the cost of publishing and carrying books for the publishers. And it solves the problem of transparency in costs and earnings for the author and publisher. And the problem for writers of not being published in all the languages, Urdu, English, Balochi, Sindhi, Punjabi and Pashto. It solves the problem of high costs plus the lack of bookshops.
FI: What have been some high points of your journey with TLBC?
MN: It gives me tremendous pleasure to help people develop and realize their stories and bring out the best in their work. I want to spend my days and my life amplifying and elevating the good works of others in the ways that I can. I’m getting to meet new authors from age 15 to 92 and helping them realize their voices and find their voices and I’m bringing their books to light.
Our very first publisher on our site was Asif Farrukhi’s Scheherazade. We have brought all or most of Scheherazade‘s books to our platform including all the issues of the venerable literary magazine that Asif Farrukhi edited, dunyazad. These are all available at very affordable prices on our site. The price of one or two cups of tea in the bazaar! This is very gratifying for me. It gives me comfort, it consoles me and gives me great joy and contentment.
FI: What are your insights about the publishing industry in Pakistan? How do you plan to contribute to it?
MN: The costs of producing a book are high – from editing to printing. Publishers can only print a maximum of 1,000 copies. Most books have only 500 copies printed. Then there are the logistical costs of getting books to be placed in bookshops. Also, publishers wait for months on end to be paid by booksellers.
In all of this, the author barely sees anything coming to them in terms of earnings. There appears to be a huge problem of transparency for all concerned. The majority of readers and lovers of books in Pakistan cannot afford them easily. And the diaspora which wants to read Urdu books, which can afford the books, does not have immediate access to them. We have solved all this with The Little Book Company.
FI: I notice that you have e-books by different publishers available on your platform, as well as your own published titles – how does that work?
MN: We are a platform for authors and publishers to sell their own books. We also publish books under our own imprint. The books we publish under our own imprint are the ones we find compelling for us—and are those which we’ve worked with the author to get into shape. The books under our own imprint are also the books that we are able to print in paper form on demand by the author for a minimum of 100 copies.
FI: What kind of books do you seek to publish from TLBC?
MN: Interesting books in all languages, fiction, non-fiction and poetry. Books that tell all our stories in all our voices.
FI: What are your future aims for TLBC?
MN: We already are Pakistan’s first e-book platform. We plan to become Pakistan’s most eclectic and lovable e-book platform. This year at the KLF we plan to have our first literature awards: The Little Book Company-KLF Awards for Urdu, Pashto, Balochi, Sindhi and Punjabi fiction or Non Fiction for 2021.
I would love to add a podcast to The Little Book Company—and audio to our books. We’ll get there. We don’t have much money and whatever we make goes back to our authors and publishers. And that’s fine.
FI: I recently purchased Thinking with Ghalib by Anjum Altaf as an e-book at TLBC and found it within my reach in seconds without stepping out of the door –
MN: Oh good!!
FI: Do you think e-books are a step ahead of even ordering books online?
MN: Yes-I do think so. And paper will not get cheaper. But I believe in books in all forms. There is no comparison to holding a paper book in your hands. I know that. A book is a thing of beauty and perhaps the first most wonderful and magical thing ever created by humankind after the art of storytelling and the wheel. The e-book is just another way to read, and it is cheaper. Just read, read, read—in any way you can and support authors and books!
FI: Could you tell us a little bit about yourself? Would love to know the founder and CEO of TLBC a little better.
MN: I am a writer and a development specialist in social protection and community development. I think I have a really strong mothering instinct—though I am not a mother. I believe in protecting, nurturing and elevating people—their voices, their incomes, and their actions for good.
The Little Book Company has made me an editor and a publisher too. And a psychoanalyst of sorts because I listen to authors and together we’re in search of beauty. I help them divine and express these stories in the best way they can. I’m involved with doing this from morning till late night. My latest novel The Innwas published in October 2021 by Maktaba and Danyal.