Culture
6 November 2022

Ink, Paper, Alchemy

Saira Ansari

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In an era of digital publishing, working with ink, paper, and print is a daunting art form that requires pluck, business acumen, resilience and constant funding. Small-to-medium publishers often face rising odds in curating, creating and distributing beautifully produced works of text, photography and illustration on paper. The results, however, are often breathtaking, made all the more desirable by small print runs, lack of reprints, or modest distribution channels. With a number of small publishers still holding steady against digital publishing’s onslaught in South West Asia, Africa and South Asia, Saira Ansari goes in search of the remaining alchemists of print.

Blaft Publications

Chennai, India

If ever there was a stage imagined for brainstorming about niche publishing, it would be the tea dhaba in Chennai where Rakesh Khanna found himself admiring the Tamil pulp fiction digests hanging on display. The volumes contained everything from gore and romance to crime thrillers, each with a cover more spectacular than the last. With Tamil literary street culture so visually and linguistically rich, what if more people could access it, he thought. And so, partnering with his wife Rashmi Ruth Devadasan, Khanna co-founded Blaft Publications from a spare bedroom in their home.

Blaft content is distinctively weird. Its element is translating Tamil, Urdu and Hindi crime fiction in English, featuring graphic novels, unusual maths stories, and local mythology and folklore with bawdy illustrations and cover art made in collaboration with local artists. Each book seems like an art project, evident in their last publication, Ghosts, Monsters, and Demons of India (2020), which is an illustrated ‘encyclopaedia of evil entities and folkloric fiends from across the country.’

Khanna and Devadasan had imagined they would find a wider audience internationally, especially with the Indian diaspora. However, it turned out to be the opposite, with their audience mostly spread locally. The publishers tell me that their online sales have made outreach in India a viability, no longer pushing them to seek international distribution beyond one-time consignments with specialist booksellers.

Khanna and Devadasan divide creative pursuits, operations, and future projects between themselves, though it is a balancing act between creative ideas and feasibility. Khanna tells me that, for some of their publications, Blaft is turning to print-on-demand. But doesn’t this affect printing quality? Might individual design elements be lost to favour commercially viable blandness? Khanna assures me that improved tech now produces high-quality products, though they still have to be creative with the limitations such formats present with specialised detailing or customisation. With their print runs, varying from a few dozen to several hundred at a time, he’s not too worried that this will be a problem for every volume.

Given such variable production, is Blaft sustainable? It would seem that this full-time, round-the-clock enterprise may have its highs and lows, but not only has it managed to survive, it has built a growing fan base well into its 24th year!

Instagram: @blaftpublications
Twitter: @blaftness
Website: blaft.com

What is Print-on-Demand (POD)

This is the process by which a book is printed and bound at an external digital printing facility only after a purchase order for it is received. There is no required minimum for printing copies, which has always been a barrier-to-entry and a cost consideration for indie artists and writers. POD eliminates the need for a large publisher, estimating order demands or holding authors and artists to minimum quantities for production and sale. Traditionally, POD has been favoured by academic presses and indie authors, who focused on creating text-heavy books. Digital printers would churn out books on relatively standard specs, using readily-available paper and inks, and there wasn’t much room to customise design. Although it is more expensive than traditional printing and there is a waiting period between purchase and shipment, it works out cheaper in the long run for indie bookmakers as there are no storage fees or requirements for unsold inventory. In the past few years, the quality of POD has improved vastly with more colour options, binding (and cover) types, crisp graphics, and a wide array of trim sizes.

Zuka Books

Lahore, Pakistan

Mehr Husain found herself in a tough situation after her book Pakistan: A Fashionable History (2020) co-authored with Saad Sarfraz met with a unique hurdle. If it was published in India, it couldn’t be sold in Pakistan.

India is a commercial publishing hub in the region. Pakistani authors writing in English often turn to publishing houses in India to find editorial support, avoid issues of censorship, and take advantage of large distribution networks. Similarly, most booksellers in Pakistan import a significant chunk of English language recreational and educational books from India, including books by Pakistani authors published across the border. Yet, the worsening political situation between India and Pakistan in the last decade has bled into cultural institutions (previously impervious to inter-governmental sulks) and has included embargos on the trading of books. These circumstances directly affected Husain’s book, prompting her to pull the plug on a lucrative contract with a major Indian publisher and find an alternative solution back home. Thus, in 2020, Zuka Books was born.

From a self-publishing initiative to launch one halted project, Zuka is now a full-service independent publishing, advisory and advocacy platform which has already published five books – including a poetry book, a graphic novel, an anthology collaboration with The Desi Collective (a quarterly magazine for young writers in South Asia) and a fresh-off-the-press children’s book Wolfie (2022) – with two more works in the pipeline.

Zuka pushes for greater representation of women, freedom of speech, sustainable practices in publishing, and fair pay. In Pakistan, this means: publishing difficult or taboo topics; giving due space to content by women that isn’t within the romance genre; and offering full financial transparency, allowing the author to start making a cut from the very first sale. Zuka offers a 10 percent royalty, which Husain tells me is far higher than the 3-5 percent industry standard in the country. Authors are also not held responsible for sales and marketing; a discipline few understand.

Surprisingly, Zuka is already making a profit. Husain says they follow an economies-of-scale model with their print run, which is usually 1000 copies or less, and costs are calculated on survey-based estimations. They also look at the POD model for some books, while limiting the rest to a single-edition run. All rights are signed over to the author at the outset and after a book launch, they are encouraged to seek whatever printing pattern suits them, allowing them to self-publish the same title or seek bigger contracts with other publishers.

Husain would love to take Zuka international, but so far that has been neither financially nor logistically viable. However, she has experienced a remarkable change in attitude with Indian publishers who have begun sending her manuscripts to publish for the Pakistani market! Watch this space.

Instagram: @zuka.books

Maamoul Press

Detroit, Michigan

Aya Krisht, designer and co-founder of Maamoul Press, has just returned from an art fair. This is the life of indie publishers: after designing and printing publications, they move from fair to fair, setting up tables and speaking tirelessly to hundreds of people, promoting artists, writers, collective practices, and their proprietary platform.

Founded by Leila Abdelrazzaq and Krisht in 2019, Maamoul is a small press that prints and binds most of its publications in-house. The duo are interested in bookmaking and printmaking practices and look towards the DIY culture as an alternative for conventional structures of art pedagogy, practice and knowledge-building – a system especially inaccessible to minority communities. Considering that the print run is several hundred for each title, this is a lot to do between the two. I ask where they store their wares – books, zines, posters – and Krisht tells me that there is no office and the stock is divided between their homes!

Maamoul provides a platform to creatives from Arab and marginalised communities in the US to reclaim their stories and histories. While this means they primarily publish and promote content from diasporic creatives, they also feature works from home ground in the Middle East, shipping external projects to distribute to audiences in the US. One such partnership includes distributing Deena Mohamed’s critically successful three-part graphic novel Shubeik Lubeik (2017 - 2019), in the manner of an indie bookseller, via their e-shop and participation at fairs.

With the tenets of the press set firmly in respecting artistic value, Maamoul shares a 60 percent royalty with the artists and authors they publish, something uncommon even in a field that does its best to mobilise and incentivise indie creatives. This practice is virtually unheard of in a commercial infrastructure where many middlemen leave a pittance for artists and authors.

Maamoul makes ends meet through online sales, fairs, and donations that sustain operations and workshops. This helped especially during the COVID-19 pandemic. Currently, Krisht and Abdelrazaq are working on two upcoming publications, made possible through the Detroit City Arts Grant that they received in 2019. COVID-19 delayed the project, but work is ongoing and the books will be printed and bound externally, at a professional facility. What’s next? Krisht says production slows from time-to-time, but that won’t stop them from continuing operations.

Instagram: @maamoulpress
Twitter: @maamoulpress
Website: maamoulpress.com

Saira Ansari is a writer and researcher. This story was inspired by her years-long work with Sharjah Art Foundation’s Focal Point book fair.

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An Artistic Meditation
On Mohamed Ahmed Ibrahim’s practice, about the mind, its subconscious and space.