CONVERSATION: WRITERS’ BLOCKS – Newspaper

Pre-writing: Imagine collecting pieces of a puzzle with no accompanying picture to help you navigate. A solitary journey in the dark, feeling, touching, hoping to find a piece, any piece. The only thing guiding you is a concept of what the final image should look like — but there is no certainty if it will. This uncertainty only guarantees further instability.

Then, a realization occurs that each piece itself is an individual puzzle that needs to be put together before the bigger image can form.

Welcome to non-fiction writing in Pakistan. Where the final product does not quite resemble the originally conceptualized image, simply because it is marred with the experiences of collecting bits and pieces, each piece shaped by the battle fought over it, the finished work emerging from the dust that settles after the final war .

In 2020, I brought out a book titled Pakistan: A Fashionable History. Since then, I’ve been asked if I was qualified to write it. This question was asked more out of a need to make one feel awkward than a genuine desire to hear my answer. The irony was that it was asked by those who could have written similar books, but failed to do so.

This was not the first non-fiction book I had worked on, although admittedly it is the first one I have written. Previously, I’d spent four years editing a mammoth book called Multan: A Spiritual Legacy, authored by Fauzia Husain Qureshi, president of the International Council of Monuments and Sites (Icomos), Pakistan. The book was presented to the United Kingdom’s Queen Elizabeth in 2014.

Two journalist-authors discuss the roadblocks for new talent in Pakistan’s publishing industry

It seemed like a natural transition to go from being an editor at a newspaper to working on non-fiction. The dream has always been fiction, but that is more of a romantic escape.

Years later, it was a morning of exasperation that led me to dive back into non-fiction to write Pakistan: A Fashionable History. I started with a question: who was telling me, as a woman, how to dress in Pakistan? It was initiated from a gender lens and then took on a cultural lens. My academic training kicked in and I began to think of a theoretical framework.

The problem was, I had no research. No empirical data. Nothing to apply, nothing with which to dress the framework. Not exactly the best start to a book on cultural history and that too through the lens of fashion. So I dropped the theoretical framework and began the hunt for the pieces of the puzzle.

Where would I begin? Where could I find files? Who could I speak to? Why don’t we have access to public information? Why was this so difficult? A country whose own history has been documented only through either a political or strategic lens desperately needed to expand its own knowledge. But I stood in a wasteland.

Pakistan has a crisis in publishing. There is very little understanding of consumer patterns, author royalties, copyrights and printing models. From the author’s side, research is problematic. Either we are rapidly losing precious archives right now, or those who have access to or possession of them, jealously guard them.

The tragedy is that there are no winners in this situation. The nation will remain ignorant of its own history, never to understand it in its entirety. In such a case, please refrain from haww-ing over the dark present and darker future looming ahead. The people cannot be blamed.

For those who possess archives and are reluctant to share, they too are the losers. Instead of being credited for sharing resources and emerging as the true heroes of society who can actually enlighten a lost nation, they remain in their ivory towers, a dying breed whose names history will forget.

Welcome to non-fiction writing in Pakistan. Where the final product does not quite resemble the originally conceptualized image. There is very little understanding of consumer patterns, author royalties, copyrights and printing models. Creative work continues to be republished without credits, plagiarized, chopped and changed without the creator’s consent, etc.

I mean, if the founder of the country, Quaid-i-Azam Mohammad Ali Jinnah, can be repackaged from an Anglophile to a conservative Muslim, then what of ordinary civilians, regardless of the noble role they may have played otherwise?

Then why go through with such a difficult project? Because it had to be done. Was it thankless? And it is. But it was the right thing to do. And, given where we are today, it is apparent we need to write more books than ever if we are to survive.

Post writing: Echoing Mehr’s sentiment, it is true — putting together a non-fiction book in Pakistan is an uphill battle that requires one to expertly dive through flaming hoops from the get-go.

And while there are a number of roadblocks (to put it mildly) that one encounters, this ‘rite of passage’ that authors have to endure in getting their work to see the light of day should simply not be part of their publishing journey.

For instance, a writer who decides to document a piece of heritage and history — an essential piece of work that goes towards the preservation of their country’s national identity — should not have to struggle to get their work protected by way of an air-tight contract that is protected by law.

It’s a pity, but undertaking a creative project on home turf always comes with high stakes. For one, the scarcity of experienced editors hired to work with authors on a publication. Whether in-house or out-sourced, these ‘editors’ not only wind up derailing — and delaying — a project thanks to zero understanding of the editing process and what it truly entails, but some of them also resort to manipulative power games with the writer, hence restricting the latter’s creative flow.

In such a case, the writer then doesn’t just have to complete a mammoth project — a well-researched book — but is also lumped with having to assuage the editor’s ego and envy. It’s a toxic situation and, if it reaches that particular point, the whole project can go belly up.

I write this from experience and have oftentimes wished that I did a background check and sought advice from peers in my field before signing on the dotted line. But you live and you learn.

In this specific scenario, though, it is imperative that the project’s deliverables are outlined from the very beginning — right down to the number of drafts expected by the writer as well as clearly defined roles of both the editor and the writer.

Also, most importantly, the publishing contract simply must stipulate that the writer’s work will be protected at all costs and that future editions of the publication will continue to carry forth the author’s name.

These are the basics, really. However, in Pakistan, creative work continues to be republished without credits, plagiarized, chopped and changed without the creator’s consent, etc. The tide is shifting, ever so slightly, but I personally feel that writers still don’t have the courage — and the confidence — to make their rightful demands.

Is it the fear of coming across as too demanding? Is it the need to hunker down and just accept what’s dished out to them because they’re finally going to be published (and paid)? Does standing up for themselves in the midst of a project make them apprehensive because they’re worried about upsetting the apple cart and soiling their reputation in the market?

While these concerns are valid, staying mum while being exploited is far worse for the writer in the long-run than burning a bridge. Or two.

Another glaring issue in the local publishing sphere is the absence of a well-thought out public relations (PR) and media plan for newly published authors. Now that the writer’s labor of love is printed and ready to be stocked at bookshops or sold via online platforms, what’s the best way to market the author and his/her book de ella?

To what media houses, journalists and bloggers — local and international — must one reach out for potential coverage and a book review? Does the PR plan incorporate social media too, and include book signing sessions at local bookshops, apart from a book launch?

Local publishing houses must realize that the marketing of a book can make or break sales. It’s obvious, isn’t it, but for some reason, very little thought is given to the second leg of the journey (post-publishing): the selling of the product. And selling it well.

Besides, a solid, carefully mapped out PR plan always fares well for both the publishing house and the author. It’s a win-win situation. For the author to take on the lion’s share of the marketing of his / her de ella own book is not only grossly unfair, but also reinforces the belief in local writers that their publishing journey remains an isolated, solitary experience, even with the backing of to publisher.

Mehr F. ​​Husain is a Lahore-based writer. she tweets @mfhusayn
Sonya Rehman is a writer. She tweets @gigglypundit

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, EOS, April 3rd, 2022

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