‘Do the economies of scale justify the energy, electricity, carbon footprint, paper waste, plastic packaging in the mass production of books?’ asks Mehr Husain, founder of Zuka Books, as she explores how sustainable publishing tailored to its local context could hold the answers to the future of publishing in Pakistan.

Commissioned for the International Literature Showcase.

Ask a Pakistani publisher what their problems are and you will get a unified, weary answer: Piracy. No distribution channels. Lack of libraries. No regulation of stockists. Low literacy. 

Ask if their business is eco-friendly and this time, you’ll get a unified, tired laugh. They’re hardly able to keep the lights on, who worries about the trees? 

Asad Niaz is a publisher based in Karachi. He has been in the trade for about 40 years. During this time, he has published 15 to 20 books in English. “Ninety to ninety five percent of the books have been in Urdu and other local languages.” The journey has not been easy due to socio-political and economic factors damaging the industry. 

Pakistan is vulnerable to climate change. Over the years there has been a rise of freak weather – disrupted rain cycles, melting glaciers, ‘smog’ as a fifth season. State policies which never supported publishing have also fallen short of any effective change concerning the environment. So what is the future of publishing and can it be environmentally sustainable?

Off set printing is the mode of production which means, that even with a distributor’s commission added and cheap plastic packaging, a book is able to sell and earn a bit of profit. But books are not sold in huge quantities. A couple of hundred copies is considered a resounding success. And even then, an author almost never receives a royalty.

The excess books that come with off set printing face a sad and lonely fate of being relegated to a warehouse. Or if extra money is needed, they are sold off to a ‘raddi-wallah’. At best he is the community based paper recycler, at the grittiest, he’s the garbage dealer. And there are only so many books a ragman can buy. 

Do the economies of scale justify the energy, electricity, carbon footprint, paper waste, plastic packaging in the mass production of books? The straight answer is No. The model that is adopted here may be applicable in the West where readership, especially for English readers, is higher and there are proper recycling mechanisms in place.

So then what is an environmentally and economically sustainable answer for Pakistan’s publishing industry? Wasio Abbas in Karachi tried to set up an e-book platform but that failed too due to lack of a digital framework and no means of protecting copyright due to lack of legislation enforcement.  

If publishing in Pakistan is to be economically viable and environmentally friendly, then the publisher role morphs into one of a social entrepreneur. For ZUKA BOOKS, established in 2020 focusing on English books, the market in Pakistan is small. 

Print on demand with biodegradable packaging is our solution, a tailored model for our market with negligible paper waste, digital marketing with zero paper printing and no-plastic packaging. Added to the saving of paper, energy and electricity, the elimination of a stockist means a lower price which ensures that the author gets a royalty and the publisher, a profit. By establishing a direct reader-publisher relationship, precious research regarding preferences is also gained and those books can be commissioned.

The sustainable element really kicks in when the packaging has a social element to it. Book covers made of jute and recycled cotton and hand stitched by underprivileged artisans creates a cycle of economic empowerment and reduction of plastic.

Our logo of Earth wrapped in a muslin scarf isn’t just a gimmick. We need to tailor our work for Pakistan so everyone associated with it benefits. Especially the planet.

Mehr is a British Pakistani writer based in Pakistan. Born in London she has worked in the media industry as Features Editor (The Friday Times), Assistant Editor (GT Magazine) and columnist (for India’s Mail Today and Britain’s MailOnline). Her commentary has appeared in The Economist’s 1843, Newsweek, The Hindu, The Times of London, The Diplomat, Libas, The Friday Times, Dawn, Herald, The News, Pakistan Today and more. In 2013 Mehr was the editor for the book Multan A Spiritual Legacy which was then presented to HM Queen Elizabeth. In 2018 she founded ZUKA, a social enterprise advocating for sustainable practice in fashion and publishing. In 2020 her book, Pakistan: A Fashionable History was released and received much critical acclaim. In 2021 the book was a nominee for an ADA Award and received an honorary mention. In 2020 Mehr also set up ZUKA BOOKS, a publishing platform that acts as a cultural resistance as it revolutionises the current publishing industry. To date she has commissioned and published Pakistan’s first pop culture book, Pakistan’s first non-fiction poetry book about mental health and Pakistan’s first graphic novel about marriage. She is due to release Pakistan’s first book about its history of graffiti. She has also been a part of Pakistan’s first Saraiki language podcast and digital archive. In 2021 she co-organised South Asia and MENA’s first Women’s Literature Festival which featured leading female academics, authors, journalists, publishers and more from all over the world.