One step forward, two steps back
BANGLADESH'S vision of a knowledge-based society is shackled in the vicious cycle of falling readership and substandard publishing sector infested countless problems.
Every year, the spring festival gives Shahbagh, the intellectual heart of Dhaka, a dazzling appearance. The overflowing milieu of the Ekushey book fair with hundreds and thousands of visitors of all ages loitering around the bookstalls, the premises crowded with renowned and promising writers, poets and their fans will make anyone to think that Bangladesh must be the Promised Land for the publishers and booksellers.
With such abundance of potential readers it could have been the reality, however it is actually not. Rather, poor readerships, scarcity of resources and high production cost and due to utter negligence from the state, today, most of the book publishers in Bangladesh have been pushed to the edge of existence. Many age-old, renowned publishing houses have been closed, a few survivors can only make their ends meet and young, budding publishers are struggling hard for survival.
The first fully-fledged literary book published from Dhaka was Nil Darpan (The Indigo Mirror), a Bangla play by Dinbondhu Mitra published on 1882. However, book publishing as a business started to thrive in Bangladesh after 1947. While book publishing at that time was limited to publish textbooks and related guide books only, some of the pioneering publishers like Nawroze Kitabistan, Ahmod Publishing House, and Maola Brothers began publishing creative literature.
In 1954, the United Front (Jukta Front) achieved landslide victory in the elections to the then East Bengal Legislative Assembly with a pledge to recognise Bengal as one of the state languages of Pakistan. According to the promise, Central Board for the Development of Bengali was established and under its patronisation renowned scholar Munir Chowdhury developed a Bengali keyboard called Munir Keyboard for typewriter. It was a groundbreaking progress for book publishing industry in Dhaka especially for publishing Bengali books which got a new pace after this development. Besides, the continuous politico-cultural movement against the West Pakistani rulers in the late 50's and 60's gave birth to some of the significant literary creations by the Bangali poets and authors which also encouraged some of the notable publishing houses to emerge and flourish for instance Ahmod Publishing House (1954), Beauty Book House (1962), Khan Brothers (1966), Muktadhara etc.
The development of Bangladesh's publishing industry in the post independent era is highly indebted to the introduction of Amor Ekushey Book Fair. On February 8, 1972 the legendary publisher and founder of Muktadhara, Chittaranjan Saha arranged a simple exhibition of 32 books at the Bangla Academy premises that he published from Kolkata under the banner of Shadhin Bangla Shahitto Porishod (Free Bengal Literary Council) during the nine months of liberation war. This remarkable initiative is considered as the first stepping stone of today's festive Amor Ekushey Book Fair.
In the same year, from 20th to 26th December, Bangla Academy organised a book fair to commemorate the UNESCO's declaration of International Book Year. Afterwards, till 1976 dedicated publishers like Chittaranjan Saha, Mohiuddin Ahmed of University Press Limited (UPL), and Ruhul Amin Nizami of Standard Publishers continued to run the book fair on their own. Finally, in 1978 Bangla Academy officially took the responsibility of organising the book fair every year and in 1984 it was renamed as Amor Ekushey Gronthomela which has now become the lifeline for Bangladeshi book publishers.
However, such dedication and hard work of those pioneering publishers, scholars and book lovers has not come into fruition yet. Publishers have been demanding for decades to recognise book publishing as an industry. Despite of repeated promise, government could not make it due to lack of proper planning and poor coordination between the related offices.
Khan Mahbub a researcher and owner of Palal Prokashoni (Palal Publisher) says, “Government has patronised every sector of art and culture except the publishing sector. For the filmmakers, state has granted loan up to five million Taka on a very small interest, however, there is no such provision for the book publishers.
“If this sector can be recognised as an industry, publishers will get such facilities and meritorious young entrepreneurs will be interested to taste this profession which is imperative for the development of this sector,” he adds.
According to Mohiuddin Ahmed, veteran author, editor and founder of UPL, Bangladesh's leading publication house dedicated to publish educational, academic and scholarly books, “Compared to the increasing rate of population, readership is not at all growing. If we cannot create readers, there is no future for publishing industry.”
“For a developed publishing industry we need coordinated effort. Writers should come up with quality writings, publishers must have skilled editors to edit the manuscripts, pressmen have to ensure beautiful, flawless print and the book binders have to ensure a quality bookbinding service. If quality writings can be brought out with quality publishing features then number of readers will definitely increase and only then our publishing industry can dream of a prosperous future. Unfortunately, there is no such coordinated effort in Bangladesh at this moment,” he adds.
As a matter of fact, very few publishers in Bangladesh have adequate editing facility. Scarcity of skilled book editors and lack of awareness in this regard among publishers are some of the significant reasons behind Bangladesh's week publishing industry. Rakhal Raha, editor in chief of Shompadona, a manuscript editing and indexing house, has been training editors for six years. He shares his experience, “Unfortunately there is no sense of editing among most of the Bangladeshi publishers. To publish books, they solely depend on the writers' popularity and they just print their manuscript after a bit of proof reading.”
“In many countries universities and institutions offer different levels of courses on publishing and editing. However, despite of having such huge market, there is no such facility in Bangladesh,” he adds.
Besides, marketing and distribution of books is also a major challenge for the book publishers. The problem starts from setting the price of the book and royalty of the author. There is no regulatory policy from the government in this regard, therefore, contract between authors and publishers are made in a very unprofessional way. As a result, in most of the cases publishers and authors cannot make expected profit out of their products.
Khan Mahbub says, “I think the biggest obstacle for the development of Bangladesh's publishing industry is the absence of marketing policy and facilities. We don't know how to store books, how to distribute books and how to use the existing facilities to sell books.”
“Online book selling portals like rokomari.com should be encouraged to flourish and more institutions should be established which will buy quality books,” he adds.
Library based reading movement can contribute a lot to improve the current situation. Rakhal says, “Public libraries used to buy quality books from the market which was an encouragement for the publishers who publish quality, scholarly books. However, recently public libraries have started to select books randomly and it seems that they are distributing their budget equally among all types of publishers.”
“It has affected many renowned publishers like Muktadhara and on the other hand cheap, commercial publishers started to thrive without improving quality of their publications,” adds Rakhal.
There is another challenge for Bangladeshi book publishers which will gradually become bigger and bigger. While they are still lagging far behind the rest of the world on maintaining quality in book publication, the world has advanced to the age of e-books. Although these books in digital form are becoming very popular day by day, still no Bangladeshi publishing house has come up with e-book purchase facility yet. Even, many of the leading publishers have no official website. According to many publishers, increasing popularity of e-book is not at all a challenge for them so far as most of the Bangladeshi readers still love to read the printed books. However, in this age of World Wide Web, it is evident that slowly but surely these unprepared Bangladeshi publishers will face the challenge of publishing, marketing and distribution of digital books in the coming days.
Despite of such sorry state of Bangladesh's publishing sector, it is very positive that still we are arranging Amor Ekushey Book fair in such a massive scale and it is growing every year. However, now it is the time to think about qualitative development. We need to ensure excellence in book writing and publishing. And to do so, readership has to be developed in every part, in every institution of our society. Families and educational institutions should create such a society of readers that will make the publishers to maintain quality in book publishing. Without simultaneous effort from the society to develop readers and from the state to patronise the publishing sector, our dream of a knowledge-based society will always remain a dream.
The writer is a feature writer of the Star Weekend and can be contacted at email@example.com
Bangla Academir Hirok Joyonti: Amor Ekushey Gronthomelar Otit theke Bortoman (Diamond Jubilee of Bangla Academy: Past and Present of Amor Ekushey Book Fair) by Bodiuddin Nazir
Mohiuddin, A, (1993). Bangladeshe Pustak Prokashona. The University Press Limited, Dhaka, Bangladesh