Marking new territory for books

October 4, 2020

Kiran Aman, founder of the award winning publishing house Markings, talks about its 10-year evolution.

Clockwise from top-left: Markings founder Kiran Aman; the illustrative Ismail Ka Urdu Sheher by Zohaib Kazi; Hum Nay Suna Hum Nay Dekha Volume I, a part of Markings Khudi division and Hindi-Urdu cookbook, Zaiqay Frontier Kay (which won The International Gourmand Award in the ‘Cookbook for Peace’ category in 2015). 

Kiran Aman is back from London and yet she shows no sign of jetlag, nor does she complain once about the interview being conducted barely a day after her return. A jeweler with terrific aesthetic, Kiran is candid throughout the interview and her passion for Markings and its many facets feel clear as day.

She is the founder of Markings, the independent publishing house, which was started in 2010. At present, it is celebrating a decade in the business, aptly so, as the collective body of work by Markings is not just stunning and wide-ranging but also a first for Pakistan. More than 50 titles and three international awards later, Kiran is just as excited as she was when it all began.

Talking to Instep over Zoom (the new normal), it’s evident that it is her love for this business that is talking. For someone who doesn’t give interviews, Kiran puts me at ease and it almost feels like conversing with an old friend you’re hearing from after a long time.

Something from Nothing

Kiran’s foray into publishing first began in 2008 when she wanted to publish a photographic book with text and a certain aesthetic on Kiran Fine Jewellery (KFJ). During the process, she was given the feedback that “publishing coffee table books in Pakistan was not a profitable business.”

Kiran self-published at the time but the larger question bothered her and stayed with her. Irrespective of the success of her self-published coffee table book, she wondered why there isn’t a market for coffee table books in Pakistan.

Fast forward to 2010 and Kiran founded Markings, an independent publishing house that publishes coffee table books and has an aesthetic that Kiran grew organically. Their first book was BHV Zoo by photographer Amean J.

Markings began its outing with photographic book(s) with text, which to be fair is much more difficult than taking on a book minus photographs and background texture. In fact, coffee table books tend to require designers, illustrators, photographers and a unique characteristic per project. It is not just the writer/editor/publisher that is involved. Plus, publishing in itself is a cutthroat business. But Kiran Aman is passionate about the things she takes on. The rest, as they say, is history.

Why get into publishing? “To create a culture of buying coffee table book; it was self-publishing that converted into a company,” she recalls.

She further notes, “There are so many artists who deserve to get their work archived and with no one publishing such books, the work of talented artists will never get documented.”

As someone who is spearheading Markings, how much input does Kiran have in projects, I probe further.

“My contribution to every arm of Markings – Publishing, Khudi, Private and Corporate – is the last word because we have an aligned company. We have people in graphics, content team… We have grown over the last 10 years. So, my contribution is different in each arm.”

Markings comprises of four arms: Publishing, Private, Corporate and Khudi. It is primarily a photographic publishing house and not an atypical literary house. The text is accompanied by illustrations, images as well as text. And the content can vary from Ismail Ka Urdu Sheher by Zohaib Kazi to cookbooks that have fetched the company three global awards. As for how they choose to decide on a project, when they receive a photo-documented manuscript (for lack of a better term), Kiran and her team get together and decide what the market would be like and whether they should take it on.

The reticence to not say yes to every proposal that comes their way also comes from years of understanding the evolution of the market. “When someone comes to us and we love their work, the financing comes from Markings. Like all other companies, they get royalty from the sales.

“If we’re interested, we reach out to them and tell them we will publish,” she continues. “That’s Markings Publishing. The second arm (corporate) comes to us via a PR company or directly and the idea is brand development. A corporate book is not for sale. It is a giveaway. We develop a book for them.

“As for Khudi, we’re very excited about it because it was an experiment to step into a market. Coffee table books are expensive but Choti Choti Khushiyan or Hum Nay Suna Hum Nay Dekha (Volume I) are not. People are buying them because even when they can’t understand Urdu, they can read Roman Urdu.

“Markings Private was not something we were doing until recently because we realized that we have had so many inquires over the years. We, as a company, don’t have the finances to publish everyone; we even said no to a lot of people. Markings Private is done at a minimal cost by providing ready, laid-out design book to people and they pay us per book and they can go on to sell it at a profit. We are teaching people how to invest in themselves.”

What is true for music is true for the rest of Pakistan’s cultural heritage. It is underdeveloped and archiving it is something that is important yet it never happens. Kiran aims to change that, one book at a time.

“Documentation of this country is very undeveloped. There is so much that needs to be done. I think 90 per cent of my work is still left. I have done 50 plus titles over the past decade. But I feel there are things left unsaid, untouched and I alone cannot take that responsibility.”

Among Markings’ many accomplishments are three International Gourmand Awards: they won for cookbooks Deliciously Yours: Chocolates and Desserts by Lal Majid, (2014), Flavours of the Frontier (2015) and Pakistan Heritage Cuisine – A Food Story (2018).

“I had heard about the International Gourmand Awards as the Oscars of the food world but never had I imagined that we would get nominated, much less win, ahead of countries like Italy and France. Gourmand is not Master Chef; they don’t try your recipes. For them, it’s about collective presentation of the book and we were over the moon. The edge we had was that the books were coming from this particular region.

“The ways cultures emerge is through food. We did a Hindi-Urdu cookbook which won a peace award – something that previously had been won by Turkey-Greece and Israel-Palestine. I didn’t even know such an award existed. But food connects people. We may not have gone to China but we know Chinese food and other cultures through their food,” elaborates Kiran, adding that Markings has published 10 cookbooks in 10 years.

All Markings books are available on Amazon and as Kiran notes, “One of our best sellers is Coke Studio – Sound of the Nation. It is my baby. The response to the book was overwhelming. In that book, the backdrop was the mountains, children playing in the streets as the texture of Pakistan. It has been one of the ground-breaking books that we’ve published.”

The celebration of 10 years of Markings will come in the form of ‘The Markings of Pakistan Series’ with six books, each dedicated to various provinces and territories of Pakistan such as Balochistan, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP), Punjab, Sindh, Azad Jammu and Kashmir and Gilgit-Baltistan.

“We wanted to celebrate our 10 years by celebrating the nation. We have never done a book that has divided the country regionally. Everything has been inclusive. Taking out six books means that those six books will eventually come as a series box. You will see Pakistan collectively. For this, we will commission famous people who have the expertise because we’re including everything from textile to music to food to photography and we will also do an all-Pakistan call for every region. People can send recipes even if they are not chefs; we will credit them. It will include famous and non-famous people. It is a cultural adventure. We will also put language in these books so every territory will have its language, the Balochi poetry, Punjabi proverbs and so on.”

Marking new territory for books