It is late in evening, and Nasir Kahn is sitting in Daryaganj in his teak-panelled desk. His shelves are crammed with hundreds upon hundreds of books. “Most of these are religious books published by us,” says Khan, the managing director of Farid Book Depot, one of the country’s better-known Urdu publishers. “But 15 years ago, we published lots of novels, poetry, and other general interest books in Urdu. These days, there are no takers for Urdu fiction and non-fiction – readership is at an all-time low,” he adds.
Khan is not exaggerating.
Till the late 1990s, there were more than 100 Urdu publishers in Delhi, most based in the walled city, bringing out hundreds of titles every year – fiction, non-fiction, biographies and children’s books. However, most of them have shut shop along with Urdu printing presses, and the few that have survived – around 20 – such as Khan’s, are struggling for survival due to declining Urdu readership.
“No matter how good a book and who the writer is, it is hard to sell even 100 copies. I published the work last year of a well-known poet, and made investments. ₹I printed 500 copies of 3 lakh. I lost ₹2 lakh – the copies are just not moving. Any book will always cost us money. So now, we ask the writer to invest in his or her book,” says Khan, who has also published Mera Watan Meri Zindagi, the Urdu edition of My Country My Life, the autobiography of LK Advani, as well as the Urdu translation of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Exam Warriors. “These books sold relatively well due to institutional purchases. However, institutional purchases, which helped us a lot, have also been dropping over the past few years. ”
Dwindling sales means the economics of Urdu book publishing has changed completely in the past two decades. Print runs can be as low as 100 copies and are often produced digitally. Farid Book Depot is another example of a publisher that requires writers to pay money to publish their work.
It was not always so.
“There was a time when like any other publisher, we invested our own money and gave royalties to writers. But now, most copies we publish are bought by the writer’s friends and extended family. Selling even 100 copies takes at least two years. So, we do not invest in new writers anymore and mostly focus on academic and reference books,” says MM Khan (84), founder of Educational Publishing House, one of the biggest Urdu publishers.
Kitabai Duniya, owned by Iqbal Ali who publishes poetry and fiction, claims that up to 20 years ago, his publishing house produced at least 200 titles each year. There are only 30 titles that are published each year, and many of them are reprints or reprints from old bestsellers. Women, he says, constituted a major part of his readership. “A lot of them were bestselling writers, too. But things have changed now,” says Ali.
Nowhere is the fall in Urdu readership more starkly evident than at the Urdu Bazaar near Delhi’s Jama Masjid, once the hub of Urdu publishers and booksellers. Many of the book shops that used to carry Urdu fiction and poetry are now converted into eateries or clothing shops. “Urdu Bazaar was once the heart of Delhi’s fledgling Urdu poetry scene. This was the best spot to buy Urdu literature until the 1970s. Some of the country’s biggest publishers had their offices and shops here. Most of them have shut shop,” says Masoom Moradabadi, a writer, publisher and translator. “The walled city was also home to more than 100 Urdu printing presses, but most have shut down due to poor business,” he adds.
Moradabadi started his publication house, Khabardar Publications, in 2003 when one of his writer friends, who was finding it difficult to get his novels published in Urdu, approached him for help. Among the first books he published was retired IPS officer Vibhutai Narain Rai’s novella Shahar Mein Curfew — a story about families caught in the middle of a curfew imposed in the aftermath of communal riots.
Writers — most of them Urdu school teachers, professors, scholars and journalists — say they have no choice but to pay publishers to get their books published. Shabnam sehar recently paid a respected Urdu publisher ₹40,000 to bring out 200 copies of each of her two novels — Aangare, and Dard Ki Dehleez. “So far, 150 copies of both books have been sold, most bought by my extended family. I have only recouped half of my investment. Writing is hard work. It’s not nice to have your book published for a fee. It makes writing a book a vanity project, but unfortunately, self-publishing is the only option before a Urdu writer today,” she says.
Dr Khawar Hashmi, a well-known Urdu writer who has more than 18 books to his credit, says that publishers started turning to the self-publishing model 20 years ago. Authors can also be paid by organisations like The National Council for the Promotion of Urdu Language. “However, most writers have to pay at least part of the publishing cost from their pocket. Urdu is not taught in schools, which is why there is a declining readership. Parents do not encourage their children to study Urdu as they know that Urdu is not going to help them in their career,” says Hashmi.
Ali Khusro (68), who has been working at the Urdu Bazaar branch of Maktaba Jamia, a publisher and bookseller, says Urdu suffered because it was branded as the language of Muslims after Independence. “But the fact is that we have published Urdu books by at least 50 Hindu writers,” Khusro says. Maktaba still has a good collection of fiction, poetry, essays and travelogues, and stocks the work of Urdu writers such as Som Anand, Rajendra Singh Bedi and Krishan Chand.
Publishers sell books and fiction in Urdu through e-commerce websites. Many also receive orders through social media websites, which are also their favourite medium for marketing, and directly courier books to customers. “Maximum orders come from the Marathwada region in Maharashtra, which still has Urdu medium schools,” says Abdul Samad, who runs MR Publications.
Samad is one of the few publishers that has resisted publishing religious books. He mostly publishes fiction and poetry. The wall of his small office in Daryaganj is adorned with certificates for ‘best publisher award’ from various government organisations such as Urdy Academy. He has published over 700 titles to date, including Aur Phir Ek Din which is the Urdu translation for And Then One Day: A Memoir, by Naseeruddin Khan. “Urdu is too sweet a language, it cannot die. A lot of young people are interested in Urdu poetry. I am hoping for the revival of Urdu in the near future,” he says.