Urdu publishers struggle to stay afloat as readership bottoms

Updated on Nov 22, 2022 06:09 PM IST

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 barely 20 have survived

Nasir Khan, owner of Farid Book Depot, at Daryaganj in New Delhi on Saturday. (Sanchit Khanna/HT Photo)
Nasir Khan, owner of Farid Book Depot, at Daryaganj in New Delhi on Saturday. (Sanchit Khanna/HT Photo)

It is late in the evening and Nasir Khan is sitting in his teak-panelled office in Daryaganj, its shelves crammed with 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 to stay afloat due to declining Urdu readership.​​

“No matter how good a book and who the writer is, it is hard to sell even 100 copies. Last year, I published the work of a well-known poet and invested 3 lakh in printing 500 copies. I lost 2 lakh – the copies are just not moving. We invariably lose money on any book. 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. The print runs are as low as 100 copies, often digitally produced. And like Farid Book Depot, most of the reputed publishers ask writers to pay to publish their works.

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. It takes two years to sell even a hundred copies. 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.​​

Iqbal Ali, who runs Kitabai Duniya, which publishes fiction and poetry, says until two decades ago his publishing firm used to bring out at least 200 titles every year. Now, there are hardly 30 titles published in a year and most of them are reprints of 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. Most book shops here that used to sell the best of Urdu fiction and poetry have given way to eateries and garment shops. “Urdu Bazaar was once the heart of Delhi’s fledgling Urdu poetry scene. Until the 1970s, this was the best place to buy Urdu books. 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 well-known 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 recovered only half my investment. As a writer, it does not feel nice to have to pay to get your books published. 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. Organisations such as The National Council for the Promotion of Urdu Language also provide grants to writers to publish their books. “However, most writers have to pay at least​ part of the publishing cost from their pocket. The reason for the dwindling readership is that Urdu is no longer taught in schools. 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.

With few shops selling Urdu fiction and general interest books, publishers sell 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 among the few publishers who have resisted publishing religious books and mostly publishes fiction, poetry, essays and travelogues. The wall of his small office in Daryaganj is adorned with certificates for ‘best publisher award’ from various government organisations such as Urdu Academy. ​So far, he has published more than 700 titles, including, Aur Phir Ek Din, the Urdu translation of And Then One Day: A Memoir by Naseeruddin Shah. “Urdu is too sweet a language, it cannot die. Of late, a lot of youngsters are showing interest in Urdu poetry. I am hoping for the revival of Urdu in the near future,” he says.


    Manoj Sharma is Metro Features Editor at Hindustan Times. He likes to pursue stories that otherwise fall through the cracks.

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