Books and publishing in Pakistan

Books and publishing in Pakistan

The publishing industry of any country is the representative of the level of literacy of its population. Books, newspapers, magazines etc. are the part and parcel of any civilized society. Pakistan is still struggling to catch up with the developed world where literacy is concerned. The literacy rate of the country is low; the majority of the literates only being able to sign their name. With the official literacy rates at 46 percent, it is no surprise then when one finds out that the book culture here is almost non-existent. And this is heightened more by the digital age and the onslaught of other media. However, Pakistan does have a culture of literature. Pakistan has had its share of excellent poetry and prose writers in Urdu, English and other regional languages. Altaf Hussain Hali, Mohammad Hussain Azad, Shibli Nomani, Molvi Nazir Ahmed, and Saadat Hasan Manto to name a few are those writers whom the majority can identify with. Having said that, we can move to explore a little about the background of book publishing in the subcontinent and what later became known as Pakistan.

A short history of books in Pakistan

Pre-partition era:

In a country like Pakistan which shared a literary and cultural heritage with India for hundreds of years, it’s hard to point out the exact point of origin of the book industry. Nonetheless, it can be said that the first book in Urdu was published in the early seventeenth century in this region.

In the early eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, poetry was the most popular form of all books in sub-continent. Mir Anis, Muhammad Hussein Azad, Altaf Hussain Hali, Shibli Nomani, Abdul Haleem Sharar and Akbar Allah Abadi were the names associated with the genre. These were the great names in early Urdu poetry who voiced the Muslim culture in the diverse climate of the sub-continent.

Prose writers of the time too, namely Sir Syed Ahmed Khan, Shibli Nomani, Abdul Haleem Sharar and Molvi Nazir Ahmed, took upon the task of educating and imparting values among the Muslims. It was feared that the Hindu majority will eventually overshadow the Muslim thought and belief. It were these literary pioneers who took upon the task to educate the millions of Muslims of the sub-continent who were already very rigid to study or go beyond their set religious books.

Post-partition era

It can be said that the efforts of the early poetry and prose writers bore fruit and the Muslims rose in their own defense against tyranny. Eventually Pakistan came into being in 1947.

The riots and the communal tension at the time of independence of Pakistan gave birth to a new genre of fiction in the region. A large number of prose writers and short story writers took upon the task of writing about the horror of riots and the politics of religion. This genre of fiction became to be generally known as Tales of the Riots and the writings represented the misery of human suffering at the time.A rich culture of short stories was born after independence and Pakistan saw some of the best prose writers in the era. Out of the many writers, Saadat Hasan Manto is one name which merits undisputed acclaims for his unbiased writings. His writings like "Thanda Gosht, Khol Do, Toba Tek Singh, Iss Manjdhar Mein, Mozalle, Babu Gopi Nath" etc became legendary.

Realism became the key word in the decade after independence. Writers explored the realms of social change and adjustment, human nature, class stratification etc. Qurat ul Ain Haider, Ibraheem Jalees, Ahmad Nadeem Qasmi, Intizar Hussain, Asad Mohammad Khan, Mansha Yaad, Rashid Amjad, Mohammad Hameed Shahid, Mubeen Mirza, Asif Farrukhi etc all wrote classic pieces of literature based on these issues.

Urdu books

The beginning

Urdu literature has a long and colorful history that is inextricably tied to the development of that very language, Urdu, in which it is written. While it tends to be heavily dominated by poetry, the range of expression achieved in the voluminous library of a few major verse forms, especially the ghazal and nazm, has led to its continued development and expansion into other styles of writing, including that of the short story, or afsana. It is today most popular in the countries of India and Pakistan and is finding interest in foreign countries primarily through South Asians.


We can trace back Urdu fiction from the pre-partition times when pioneers like Mirza Haadi Ruswa wrote classics like Umrao Jan Ada. These writers wrote not only to entertain but to educate the masses and to revive the culture in the Indo-Pak at a time when the society was greatly over shadowed by British values.

Coming to the present age, although the number of prose writers is increasing the quality of fiction being churned out is very low. The writers mainly focus on profit and thus give less preference to the quality. Trashy romance novels, low cost thrillers, formula books, television soaps turned into novels etc are abundant in the market.

That is not to say that we don’t have good quality writers. One recent name is that of Saadat Nasreen who published her first collection of short stories last year.

Humour too is a very popular form of fiction. Shafiq Ur Rehman is one of the names among loads of others who have contributed generously to this colorful genre of literature.

Apart from this, several successful attempts have been made at translating major works of English and other languages into Urdu, these range from popular titles like Shakespeare to present age fiction like Harry Potter.


Poetry is one of the richest and oldest forms of Urdu literature and famous names like Ghalib, Mir Allama Iqbal, Altaf Hussain Hali, Molalana Abul Kalam Azada, and etc had already created a name for themselves before partition. More recently there have been notable poets like Faiz Ahmed Faiz whom one can fondly remember as being the maestros of their time.Even at present there are a number of poetry collections being taken out every year.

Poets in the sub-continent and in Pakistan too, have focused on a wide range of topics from social awareness, to politics, to religion and even romance.

Children’s literature

A colorful bookshelf full of books is an ideal part of any child’s library. Urdu offers a beautiful range of books for children from folk tales to poetry to novels and short stories. Even religious books have been written keeping in mind the tender age of children. The low cost books like the popular thriller series also contributed a lot in developing the reading culture in children. Recently there has been a trend of writing awareness books of children on issues like health, environment and even child abuse. These have received wide appreciation due to their content and good quality printing with illustrations. One popular series is the Mina series initiated by the UNICEF. Other NGOs are also working on such books for children.


From non-existent to rapidly growing, the readership of Urdu books is now stagnant. The decline can be attributed to a number of factors. Television is one of the oft quoted culprits of declining reading habits but that is not the only one. The fact is that now people don’t give much importance to quality literature maybe because a dearth of writers.

Regional books


Sindhi is one of the most ancient languages among the regional languages of Pakistan and Sub-continent.It has a 5000 thousand years oldest one civilizational back ground. The first translation of the Quran was into Sindhi. It has a rich literature, there are thousand of books written in Sindhi from time to time on religion, philosophy, medicine, Sociology, Logic, literature, history, politics and culture.

Sindhi Language has a greatest poet of the world entitled [Shah Abdul Latif Bhittai] who is one of the most renowned name in the Sindhi poetry and he is widely read and understood by people all over the world. Shah jo Risalo is his Book of Bait and Vaiyes ( Verses ).Another name is that of Sachal Sarmast whose poetry is also very popular.Sindhi Language has a Greatest Web Portal about its Literature and Language entitled, it is first ever web portal of any language of Pakistan and India, which is in(RTF).

Sindhi Adabi Board has been involved in publishing many original and translated works into Sindhi. Amongst the works translated is "Dry Leaves from Young Egypt" by Eastwick in 1973.


Among Pakistan’s several regional languages, Punjabi is the closest to Urdu and the most colorful one too. And because of that, many singers have adopted Punjabi to add ‘spice’ to their songs. And this tradition is not new, poets like Waris Shah and Bulleh Shah etc contributed tremendously to the genre of Punjabi poetry and their poetry has been adopted by singers since very long.Punjabi literature however, was not as developed as the Sindhi literature. The roots of Punhabi prose can safely be traced back to Baba Nanak’s Janam Sakhis, but the lack of attention paid to the medium hampered its growth.

The literary scene was dominated by Urdu even until the 50s and no one paid a second thought to a group of people publishing Punjabi books and taking out a magazine.

But it was these people who took the initiative and can be termed as building the Punjabi literary scene from the scratch. And now, it’s obvious that their efforts did not go in vain. Last year the Lehran Adabi Board published a book Lehran Behran, which is a collection of critical articles on Punjabi language and literature.

Also an autobiography, Sahwan Da Visa, by Sharif Kureishi, a biography, Ahmad Rahi: Batan Mulaqatan by Ahmad Salim and a travelogue by Prof Asjiq Raheel were among the important books of prose published last year.Several notable poetry collections were also published along with two translated works.


Early pushto writers, after independence were ‘passive nationalists, progressive nationalists, radical nationalists and Marxists. Except the passive nationalists, almost all of them were politically motivated.’ (ref; Pashto Literature - A Quest for IdentityFazlur Rahim Marwat)

Pushto literature developed within the Pushto struggle for freedom from what they saw as oppression of the ruling class, and this was clearly reflected in their writings.Taking a look at last years Pushto literary pieces we can say that Pushto writing has moved towards objectivism to subjectivism. The quality of books has also improved considerably.


Poetry is the only form of literature in the language which has seen some activity lately. Poetry was and still is a considerably major part of Balochi literature, with a rich history of 600 years.Last year too was an important year for Balochi poetry and a number of noteworthy collections were published. Darya Chankey Housham Ent by Munir Momin is the most significant of them all.

English books


It is very difficult to categorize writers in this genre. There are a few very good novel and short story writers who have won accolades not only nationally but also internationally, but it seems hard to draw the line between Pakistani and non-Pakistani writers here. The main problem being the fact that most of these writers are although born in Pakistan but they never really lived here and hence have no contact with their origins.

Zulfikar Ghose’s "Murder of Aziz Khan" was the first cohesive modern English language novel published in 1967. The plot no doubt was purely a Pakistani theme but the fact remains that Ghose never really did live here and the rest of his novels were set in South America.

In 1980, renowned novelist, Bapsi Sidhwa published her first novel, "the Crow Eaters", from England. Ms. Sidhwa is thus far considered to be amongst the best known authors of Pakistani origin.

Some of the best English literature came from expatriate Pakistanis in the West. One such author, Hanif Kureishi, wrote a haunting memoir, "The Rainbow Sign" (1986), trying to bring together the two worlds he lived in. Another, Aamer Hussein, wrote a series of acclaimed short story collections.

English literature grew rapidly over the next few years and several writers came on the scene and won international awards.Adam ZameenZad, Hanif Kureishi, Nadeem Aslam and Bapsi Sidhwa all received several awards for their writings.

In recent years, there has been a crop of younger writers. Amongst them are Bina Shah, Kamila Shamsie, Uzma Aslam Khan and Sehba Sarwar, all who have proved to be authors extraordinary. Most of these writers, explore the issue of identity for expatriates, for Muslim women, and other social issues. Bina Shah’s "786 Cyber Café", for example delves into the lives of three young Pakistani men and a young women confused about her priorities. Then there’s Kamila Shamsie’s "Kartography", which details the life in Karachi with the protagonists belonging to the elite section of the society. Although it’s a riveting tale, it hardly depicts the life in Karachi. Or maybe it does, but then that only a very small faction of our society so full of other social evils.

Since 2000, Uzma Aslam Khan, Mohsin Hamid, Saad Ashraf, Sorayya Khan and Feryal Ali Gauhar have published several consummate new novels. Mohsin Hamid's "Moth Smoke" was a finalist for the PEN/Hemingway Award and won other awards.Coming to the present era, in 2004, novels of Nadeem Aslam and Suhyal Saadi, two Pakistani-British authors, were long listed for the 2006 IMPAC Dublin Award. They have also won several other prestigious awards. Kamila Shamsie’s "Broken Verses" has also been long listed for the 2006 Prince Maurice Award.

A number of poetry collections were also published last year. Pakistani- British, Moniza Ali published her fifth poetry collection How the Stone Found its Voice. The first part of her collection reflects the event after the 9/11 and its effects.

There was also a collection of Faiz’s poems published by OUP under the title of "Culture and Identity: Selected English Writings of Faiz." In 2007, Mohsin Hamid's The Reluctant Fundamentalist was also published, exploring the effects of 9/11 on a Pakistani man in New York.


Last year saw a number of good autpbiographies like Salma Ahmad’s Cutting Free, Rao Rashid’s Roller Coaster: My Early Years, Shaukat Mirza’s From Exxon to Engro and several others.Then there was a reprint of Tariq Ali’s Street Fighting Years: An Autobiography of the Sixties, Nehru and the Gandhis: An Indian Dynasty. Another exciting series is that of the historical reprints by Mohatta Palace on Karachi. In Travelogues there was Salman Rashid’s Jhelum: City of Visata.

Previously religious books were published only in Urdu, but in the last few years the trend has changed and now a number of publishers are taking up the task of either translating major works of religion from Urdu to English or are publishing original pieces. One such place is Darussalam which is quite well known for its excellent content and quality.

Children’s Books

Although there is a treasure trove of children’s books in Urdu, Pakistan fails to provide a good bookshelf of English fiction for children. There have been attempts, yes, but the market is full of international authors like Enid Blyton, Roald Dahl and the popular Sweet Valley, Famous Five, Hardy Boys etc series. Very recently, Mahnaz Malik, a Pakistani born British, published her first story book for children, which serves as a fund raiser project for The Citizen’s Foundation. Mo’s Star, illustrated by Cora Lynn Deibler and published by Oxford University Press, is the colorful story of a young penguin reaching out for the stars. The book was received with much appreciation from home and abroad, and was unveiled in a colorful launch ceremony held in a local hotel.

Printing and publishing industry

Very close to the literary scene is the printing and publishing industry as the books are nothing if they don’t get a publisher or a printer. Like every other thing in the region, the printing industry is with its own sets of problems the initial ones being the unfavorable socio-economic conditions, lack of mass education and the development of local languages. Given these conditions, the establishment of the publishing industry in present day Pakistan can be traced back to the 19th century. Still, the subject matter of the books dealt mainly with religious or philosophical themes and was also very restrained.

World War I bought newer printing methods, and with these improved printing methods the industry moved a step further towards development. Press now ventured into the realms of subjects as diverse as philosophy, Islamic thought and literary criticism. Even more encouraging was the fact that quality books were being translated from other languages into Urdu where we lacked the expertise. These included chemistry, physics, economics, and political science and commerce books.

Another important milestone was the introduction of the printing of modern novels and short stories. Russian, French and Bengali novels were also translated to add flavor to the local literature. The Second World War also bought a significant change in the industry. The printing methods were further improved and the publication industry saw a boost in sales and production with the rising literacy rates and the political awareness in the masses.

Since after the World War 2 the publishing industry has been steadily growing despite the many hurdles like the low purchasing power of the masses and the lack of facilities. The principle centers of publishing are Karachi, Lahore and Peshawar. Lahore stands out with its numerous publishing houses and has been the hub of the industry from the pre-partition era. Even now, getting a book published from Lahore is much easier than elsewhere.

Pakistan’s publishing industry also has a lucrative market for Urdu and religious books abroad. A considerable number of books and periodicals are exported to countries like Malaysia, East Africa and the Middle East. Also, a very large number of books is imported in Pakistan mainly from UK and USA. The Inter-Media Growth program of Pakistan and USA have signed an agreement whereby Pakistan can import books and still pay for them in its local currency.

Emerging trends

Munir Moosa is upcoming self publisher of PakistanTime and technological advancements play a pivotal role in shaping the trends over the passage of time. As Pakistan too enters the digital age, traditional distinctions in media become blurred. This can be negative as well as positive. It can be seen as furthering the book culture but it can also at the same time be seen as the force behind loosening the bond between the book and its reader.


The biggest contribution of the internet in the book industry would be to digitize books and grant them a wider readership. A number of online websites have sprung up in the last few decades. Quite a lot of these sites are free and others charge a very nominal fee and provide unlimited access to ebooks. They can either be downloaded or read on screen. These obviously have become popular because of easy accessibility and the low cost.In Pakistan where a huge majority of people cannot afford the expensive original foreign titles, websites like [ Project Gutenberg] provide a wonderful opportunity to familiarize with foreign literature. Even some Urdu websites have started to offer online versions of books for foreign readers. This helps in promoting one’s culture as well as to help the expatriate Pakistanis.

Online book stores

Closely related to e-books are the online book stores, another wonder of the internet. An extension of the traditional book stores, online book stores give the option to search and read reviews of books, browse through categories, view the covers, author information, reader ratings and then order these books online. Although they are not free and even charge a shipping fee, its very convenient to search and order books online saving the hassle. Critics however say that it deprives one of having the pleasure of going through new books at a store and discovering exciting new books. But whatever the case be, these book stores are gaining popularity especially in the fast paced lives of ours where we hardly have time to go and browse books at a book store. Some of the largest online books stores are, and

Reading Clubs

Though not a new phenomenon, reading clubs are a breath of fresh air into the dying book culture. There are a number of book clubs/reading clubs online and offline. People sit and discuss their favorite books or simply talk about what they are reading these days.

"Readers' Club"One of the exemplary example is of a "Readers'club" at the University of Karachi, which is moderated by a teacher who is Lecturer at the Department of the International Relations. There is also a community of this club on the Orkut with the name of "Readers' Club" and also a yahoo group "". Its sessions are held six days a week, only if there happens to be no hindrances. In this club one may find "Article of the week" and "Book Culture". Discussions are held on various topics from domestic issues to global trends.

An example of an online book club can be that of one managed by Saba Ali on [ Orkut] . Here people discuss their favourite or least favourite titles, recommend and ask for recommendations or simply put up what they loved or hated about a particular book. Then there’s also a [http://www.pkblogs/pakbookbloggers Pakistani Book Bloggers club] where one can share simply anything related to books whether it's reviews, likes, dislikes or any other comments

Book fairs

The first International Book Fair was held in Karachi and Lahore last year at the expo centre and it was well received by the public at large despite the fact that all the books were originals and were highly priced. People thronged the premises even if they didn’t really buy much. The sad thing to note was that the Indian publishers had a very impressive collection of reference books on various subjects, while one finds it very difficult to find books on those topics by Pakistani publishers.

Then there are also the annual book fairs held at various places especially in schools, colleges and universities.

Among weekly affairs, the Koocha-e-Saqafat and Frere Hall book fairs are worth a visit. They have a huge collection of books on a wide range of topics. They are usually second hand or reprinted, although it’s a clear violation of the copyright law but a large number of Karachiites gather at the spot for book hunting.

Mobile bookshops

The concept of a Mobile Bookshop was first used by the Welcome Book port some years back. Recently, Oxford started its own mobile book shop and it has been touring the city for quite some time now. Set on a truck, with the back converted into a small book shop with shelves and a counter set snugly at the end, the book shop attracted people outside various schools and universities.


Book piracy and copyright laws in Pakistan

The Copyright Ordinance of 1962 came into force in 1967 in Pakistan and has been in effect since then. A number of conditions are given in the ordinance which determines when a work is in violation of copyright.

Pakistan is also a member of Berne Convention on copyright as well as the Universal Copyright Convention.

The boom in the education industry created a vast market for text books, both for primary and professional levels. Where the primary sector is largely catered to by the local text book boards, there is a serious dearth for books on professional subjects like medical, engineering or business. Thus increased the demand for foreign books. Due to import limitations the prices of these books were totally out of reach of an average Pakistani student. The [ National Book Foundation] was set up to reprint and translate foreign titles with the permission of the original publisher. This was to make the prices affordable and within reach. But even this effort was not as successful as hoped because most of the reprinted titles were either obsolete or were very old editions.

The grave vacuum in the industry was sensed by the pirates and so began a very successful industry of pirated books. Almost all major tiles were reprinted illegally and were sold at a fraction of the original price. Not only were text books pirated but the recent years have seen a number of local and international fiction works being pirated even before the release of original tiles in paper back.

The release of the Harry Potter books can be taken as a classic example of this case. The book was all set to be released on 12th of August and there was a huge hype surrounding its release. Almost all major book stores throughout the world had millions of books booked prior to the release. Even in Pakistan, a couple of leading bookstores were providing the facility of pre-ordering the book and getting a nominal discount. The price of the book was 1450 Pak rupees. But what do the pirates offer? The pirated version was in market the very next morning on a shameful price of 300 Pak rupees! A huge difference of 1150 rupees between the prices! Of course people didn’t consider it to be a bad bargain.

The trend of illegally reproducing books is not limited to international bestsellers. Usually one doesn’t find the pirated version of books by Pakistani authors so easily but there is a market for such books as well. Tehmina Durrani’s "My Feudal Lord", Bapsi Sidhwa’s "An American Brat", are only but two examples.

When asked about the situation, Bapsi Sidhwa, a leading Pakistani English prose writer, says “Piracy is a problem because of the steep prices. However some pirates are developing a conscience and assigning my previously pirated books to publishers. They have made a packet off me, but so long as books are read, I don't mind as much as I should. If we have more publishers and a larger reading public, the prices could be better controlled.”

There have been numerous raids in the past and recently too at Urdu Bazaar for selling pirated books but all that is merely just a show and nothing has yet been done to seriously think of a solution. The piracy industry is deeply rooted and cannot be curbed with a few raids on shops which don’t even print those books


Another menace apart from piracy is the problem of plagiarizing stuff. That is, either simply copying out whole extracts or stealing the idea or characters.
Plagiarism is an old problem and a big worry for authors who spend time and money on writing a piece of good writing and then someone else copies it and sells it at a lower cost. Then there are one-time authors who just reproduce material from some international author and make money by claiming it as their own.If its any comfort, then we should know that Pakistanis are not the only ones in this practice. Recently a young Indian author was under fire for stealing material from famous American Best Sellers. And the young writer happens to be from Harvard!

Incentives for writers

Those who don’t reproduce work and are genuinely interested are hardly encouraged.How many good writers will actually venture into the field when the encouragement they get is only meager at best? The government, the NGOs and the intellectuals hardly ever take the initiative to encourage young and budding writers of the country. This results in most of the young authors getting their works published under foreign publishers. At least they get the recognition they warrant in foreign waters. Yet, there are a few committed souls who work tirelessly to make a place for themselves in the literature deprived country.

Khadija Hasan, a young Pakistani writer says, we should really laud the efforts of the Pakistani writers, they simply have no reason to work, and the government gives them no incentive at all. They are not facilitated in any way and rather find it difficult to work in such conditions.

Decline in reading habits

There has been a visible decline in reading habits in last few decades. This can be attributed to a number of factors like television, internet and other means of entertainment. And if we look around we’ll see that there is also a dearth of good authors, people simply don’t have time to write and go through the hassle of getting a book published.

Lack of libraries in the country

Public libraries used to be a lively place for one to sit down for a good read. Students and professionals used the libraries for study purposes. Ask an old timer and you’ll see how important those libraries were. That also includes the small one room libraries in every neighborhood. That trend sadly is no more. Partly because of the decline in reading habits and people just don’t find it lucrative enough to invest in. The lack of importance attached to this important institution can be gauged by the fact that recently an under construction women library complex has been decided to be turned into a hospital instead. Not only would it be a waste of resources but also it will deprive the female students of a very excellent opportunity.


Additional material

ee also

*Pakistani fiction in English
*Pakistani poetry
*Pakistani literature


* [ Prof Gillani Kamran, Pakistani literature-evolution and trends]
* [ Pakistani writers in English: A question of identity]
*Copyright and book piracy: A country report on Pakistan by M.H. Mirza
*Publishing Industry in Pakistan by Zafar Mansoor

External links

* [ Pakistani Urdu and English Books]
* [ Directory of Pakistani literature]
* [ Critical notes on Pakistani literature]

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