Is the pandemic bringing down the curtains on independent bookstores and publishers? | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, August 07, 2020 / LAST MODIFIED: 02:32 AM, August 07, 2020

Is the pandemic bringing down the curtains on independent bookstores and publishers?

Redwanur Rahman Jewel's dreams had come true when he opened his bookstore in May last year as it soon turned into a veritable hub for readers and writers alike.

However, little more than a year after the library was opened, Jewel's dreams were shattered.

On 27 July, Jewel closed down his bookstore 'Nalonda' after failing to sustain the business following a nosedive in sales during the recently concluded nationwide shutdown of all economic activities that began on 26 March to flatten the curve on coronavirus.

While the curve was not flattened, the livelihoods of many like Jewel's were snuffed out for good.

"Not one book enthusiast showed up and so, we could not make a single penny during the lockdown while the situation was similar in June. So, we decided to shut down the business as it not possible to carry on while incurring heavy losses every month," he added.

Operating the 900 square-foot shop located at the capital's Elephant Road near the Kataban intersection required Tk 100,000 in monthly expenses, including Tk 55,000 as rent.

On normal business days, the owner could make up the expenses from his sales, leading Jewel to believe that they would be able to make some margin in the July-August period were things going well. 

"Our store had begun to become popular," said Jewel, who is also a publisher.

Nalonda perhaps best exemplifies how Bangladesh's creative publishing sector has so far coped with the ongoing crisis thrown up by the rogue pathogen originating from Wuhan, China.

The pandemic has put the existence of the large number of small publishers and bookstores in Bangladesh into question.

Bangladesh has nearly 250 regular publishers of creative books that publish nearly 5,000 titles annually, mainly to mark the month-long annual book fair, the Ekushey Boi Mela.

The fair offers publishers with the scope to display and sell new books and reprints. Nearly Tk 100 crore worth of books are sold during the exposition each year.

However, there is no proper estimate of book sales for the rest of the year.

The amount is likely to be about Tk 400 crore, said Farid Ahmed, president of the Academic and Creative Publishers Association of Bangladesh (ACPAB), while sharing his guesstimate.  

After the event concludes at the end of February, publishers engage in marketing and distributing books to retailers in March and April.

However, the coronavirus outbreak and the subsequent shutdown has seriously hampered that regular tradition. Not only have stores been shut, but purchases from educational institutions have also been affected by the closure.

"Books that were supposed to be distributed have remained in stock," said Ahmed, also the proprietor of Somoy Prakashan.

Sales tumbled amid shutdown but demand began to recover in June after the country reopened. However, overall sales remained lower than what it was a year earlier, according to various publishers.

The ratio of sales to losses varies from publisher to publisher with some calculating the slump in turnover to be as much as 60 per cent year-on-year.

The ACPAB president estimated that overall, businesses lost about Tk 200 crore to Tk 250 crore in creative book sales in the April-July period.

If the drop in sales for all books, including creative, academic and other related books are taken into consideration, the total value lost to pandemic would be between Tk 2,500 to Tk 3,000 crore, said Shamal Paul, vice-president of the Bangladesh Publishers & Book Sellers Association (BPBSA).

Meanwhile, the publishing sector's annual turnover would be about Tk 10,000 to Tk 12,000 crore, he said.

Many publishers and booksellers are facing difficulties in paying their employees regularly while about 10 per cent of the country's libraries have closed their doors for good as a result of the situation, Paul added.

ACPAB President Ahmed said that educational institutions and cultural events generate a good amount of revenue for publishers.

"However, all educational and cultural activities have been shut due to the pandemic," he said.

Private schools usually buy a good number of books but this year, there is no demand from them, said Md Alauddin Sarker, the publication officer of Bishwa Sahitya Kendra (BSK).

The popular institution marked a 39 per cent drop in sales year-on-year to about Tk 140,000 in the January-June period of this year, according to Sarker.

Numerous publishers said they printed an increased number of books in expectation of higher demand from readers and various institutions this year owing to celebration of birth centenary of Father of the Nation, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman.

The pandemic has affected that celebration to a large extent, to say the least.

"It was a potential year for us. Various events would have taken place had things been normal," Ahmed said.

DESPERATE ATTEMPTS TO KEEP SALES UP: ONLINE EMERGES AS HUGE SUPPORT

To recover from the lack of receipts, many retailers are now seeking to boost their online sales, although most publishers are ill-prepared in regards to the online market.

As a result, online bookstores such as Rokomari have emerged as a great support as many readers chose to buy digitally from marketplaces to prevent infection by maintaining social distancing.

Overall sales through the digital platforms have surged 30 per cent in June-July when compared with the figures from a year earlier, said Mahmudul Hasan Sohag, chairman of Rokomari.

However, online sales account for just 10-20 per cent of the overall book market, he said.

Therefore, the increased demand for home deliveries through e-commerce platforms did not translate into providing enough revenue for publishers to narrow their losses from offline sales.

So, if online sales are combined with offline sales, book sales have dropped significantly, he said.

"Online platforms usher hope. But it appears that the demand for creative books will remain low unless the overall economy sees a boost," he added.

Jakir Hossain, deputy manager of Prothoma Prokashan, said his company is exploring all the possible ways to reach out to readers and increase sales.

Mahrukh Mohiuddin, managing director of University Press, said publishers in India switched to the e-book and audiobook formats quickly to adapt to the situation.

"But we could not do that at a fast pace," she said, adding that University Press has increased its focus on making books available in electronic formats.

Since profits have declined, publishers will have to accept the reality of how low the revenue is and pay attention to minimising the costs for the next couple of months and stay afloat, Mohiuddin said.

"However, it will be really tough for many publishers who genuinely work with small capital," she said, adding that the pandemic is yet to cost many more jobs.

Md Afzal Hossain, the proprietor of Anindya Prokash, said the publisher could not pay their employees' salaries for March and April.

"A lot of our funds have been stuck at book shops," he said, adding that he is owed Tk 10 lakh in arrears by various book stores in certain markets of Dhaka.

"On the one hand, no one is paying our dues. On the other, we cannot deliver books outside Dhaka," he added.

GOVT AGENCIES NEED TO BUY BOOKS

The publishing sector's troubles are not going to go away any time soon, according to Mazharul Islam, chief executive of Anyaprokash.

"Because, the middle-class people are the main readers and they have been seriously affected by the pandemic."

Various countries, including neighbouring India, provide a lot of support for Bangladesh's publishing industry.

Italy has declared the creative sector as essential while Indonesia provides a lot of government support.

"But we do not get any support from our government," said Islam, now the president of the capital branch of the Bangladesh Publishers & Book Sellers Association (BPBSA).  

In an appeal to the prime minister in April, the 26,000-member association demanded that the budget for book purchases for libraries under the cultural affairs ministry be increased 20-fold from its present value.

The BPBSA had also said the budget for book purchases by the state government of West Bengal has is 10 times higher than Bangladesh's budget.

The government's annual budget to buy books for two agencies -- the Public Library and Jatiy Grantha Kendra -- is about Tk 3 crore, which is a very negligible amount, according to ACPAB President Ahmed.

The publishing sector will be able to withstand the crisis if the government buys books from mainstream publishers. In which case, no grant is needed, he added.

M Badrul Arefin, secretary of the ministry of cultural affairs, said the ministry would look into the plight of the country's publishers and booksellers.

YET, THE FIGHT CONTINUES

With store sales declining and many readers preferring to get books delivered to their doorsteps, several sellers have shifted their focus to online sales and home delivery.

Batighar, a chain book shop, is working to open an online retail platform for its products, said the company's proprietor, Dipankar Das.

"We would have established an online store two years later but now, we are doing this as fast as possible because of the current circumstances."

Das also informed that the company's sales began to pick up back in June. 

However, those who operate on a small scale are in serious trouble. A number of them are on the verge of closure.

"Many things would become clear when the pandemic is over. I am afraid we may not see many publishers at next year's Boi Mela," Das added.

The downturn in sales forced them to consider shutting down for good, said Razia Rahman, chief executive of another book shop named Dipanpur.

The organisation pulled back from its decision though following requests from well-wishers. The company also received some grants from the government and the International Publishers Association to try and sail through the bad weather.

However, she is uncertain how far the business can continue.

"Expenses cannot be managed without book sales. The business of books is challenging and coronavirus has made things worse," said the chief executive of Dipanpur, named in memory of slain publisher Faisal Arefin Dipan.

As the book store was closed until the nationwide lockdown had ended, Dipanpur tried to manage its expenses by catering food for doctors.

Nalonda's Jewel said he wants to continue as a publisher and is trying to establish an online portal.

He also said he wanted to keep his physical store and requested the space owner to cut the monthly rent by nearly half. However, the owner did not pay heed to the request, forcing Nalonda to close down permanently.

On 5 August, a 'To-Let' sign was seen hanging over gates to the place that was known as Nalonda just until last month.

Just beside this location sits Kabita Café, a book store-cum-coffee shop. The Kabita Cafe reopened on 5 August after more than four months in the hope that readers and literature enthusiasts will soon return. But that now seems unlikely.

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