Local publishers, sales, and the 2023 Dhaka Lit Fest
The leafy Bangla Academy compound teems with Bangladeshis and foreigners throughout the duration of Dhaka Lit Fest every year. Book stalls, pop-up artisan stores, and food stands line the periphery. Such an arrangement seems favourable for business owners to attract customers. In this light, how did local publishers fare at the 2023 Dhaka Lit Fest?
The event has been a resounding success for some publishers like Cosmos Books. They usually specialise in coffee table books that are of visual interest and pertinent to areas of arts, archaeology, architecture, travel, and photography, among others. Ali Sina, in-charge of Business Development at Cosmos, says, "We gather a decent number of customers through such events; our target audience is typically found among the crowds there because our books tend to be quite expensive. Not everyone is interested in spending on such books with the exception of some passionate customers."
The same observation holds true for Nymphaea Publication, a publishing house that has been working for the past 23 years to showcase Bangladesh to an international audience. The publisher's 2021 hit title, a collection of 50 Bangladeshi short stories, When The Mango Tree Blossomed (edited by Niaz Zaman), is a glaring testament in this regard. Karunangshu Barua, the publisher, says, "This was our first time at Dhaka Lit Fest. We saw that foreigners have an immense interest to learn about Bangladesh. The sales we achieve at Ekushey Boi Mela throughout a month, we almost achieved the same figures at Dhaka Lit Fest in only 4 days. Our sales were lower than expected at Boi Mela because our target audience was absent. Our collection of coffee table books interests foreigners a lot. We are trying to build a platform to showcase the Bangladeshi success story via various angles—economists, historians, journalists, archaeologists, and other specialists are our primary authors."
For some publishers, the scenario hadn't been as rosy.
Zakir Hossen, Manager at Prothoma, says, "Other years, it was open for all. This year a ticketing system was imposed. As such, sales were lower than expected."
The dismay is shared by Journeyman Books, Writers.ink, ULAB Press, and Agami Prokashoni.
Nazneen Haque Mimi from Journeyman says, "We didn't sell much even though we publish books in the English language. I think one significant reason was the introduction of fees. However, we were able to showcase our work to many people."
The complaint about fees was also evident in Agami Prokashoni's experience. Jannat, assistant publication officer, said, "We publish books by prominent intellectuals of the country, and yet, we couldn't gather customers due to the fees."
Niaz Zaman from Writers.ink, who is a renowned professor, author, and editor, gives a different perspective regarding the lukewarm response some publishers received. "People mostly flock to stores that sell prominent, especially international, books, like Bookworm Bangladesh. They don't have the same level of interest in buying from local publishers", she stated.
As for how the festival could accommodate some low-budget local publishers with ease, Nazneen Haque says, "Paying 30,000 BDT for a stall for 4 days wasn't feasible for us. It would have been understandable if the program was held at a five-star hotel like the Radisson. But Bangla Academy is public property, and charging so much slows us down. Moreover, we have four-five teams dedicated to producing and selling each book. From editing to designing to printing, the investment is already high."
This perspective strikes a chord with the dilemma surrounding the idea of monetising literature in a country like Bangladesh, where the financially well-off have relatively more avenues to enjoy the arts industry. On one hand, small local publishers find themselves in financial constraints owing to the fees. On the other hand, a high-profile literature festival cannot sustain itself financially without commercialising certain aspects in the face of a global economic crisis.
Shah Tazrian Ashrafi is a contributor.