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In black and white

May 19, 2013

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Many believe that Pakistan’s publishing industry is in the death throes but Sa’adia Reza discovers that the case may not be desperate.

In the 1990s, when computers were making themselves comfortable in our homes, a debate had ensued that the printed word would die soon. Twenty years down, the publishing industry continues to thrive the world over despite strong competition from its virtual counterpart.

Unfortunately, in Pakistan the business of book publishing is not regarded viable due to limited readership and outlets for books with publishing houses reluctant to take risks in terms of content, and few willing to invest in the industry. The fact that there’s no organised data on the publishing houses itself speaks of the level of neglect the industry has suffered from.

Yet, chairman Pakistan Publishers and Booksellers Association, Aziz Khalid, is hopeful that the industry is growing and will continue to evolve.

“When I see the ever-growing turnout at the Karachi International Book Fair, which we organise annually, I feel optimistic that readership will increase despite our limitations,” he insists, “A majority of the attendees are young mothers, which shows that another generation of readers is in the making.”

However, book fairs are few and far between, and one of the major issues troubling the industry is the absence of a distribution system, that is, too few bookstores and outlets,  the negligible presence of libraries coupled with high prices of books. In a country where people are unwilling to invest in one-time reading, libraries would be instrumental in not just raising literacy levels, but also providing the publishing sector with a platform to further expand.

“In Japan, for example, when a book is published it’s generally available everywhere, even at bookstalls at stations. In Pakistan, there are a handful of bookstores which stock literary titles, and even within that, there’s a very small segment of our population that has purchasing power.”

The cycle is vicious. Since the production cost of a book is pretty high, the retail price reflects that. A major reading population then resorts to pirated copies, which further hits the publishing industry which loses profit. This again leads to price escalation. Within this scenario, first-time writers suffer the most, since few are willing to open doors to them fearing that they would not garner returns.

“Earlier, new writers found a platform in periodicals where they could get their work published and establish themselves,” says noted writer and literary critic, Asif Farrukhi, “unfortunately, we have few literary magazines left now, which leaves a very small base for these writers to launch themselves.”

Ironically, the dearth of good writers is the main problem a publisher faces in selecting manuscripts, according to the managing director of Oxford University Press, Karachi, Ameena Saiyid. While noting that Pakistan is a cornucopia of ideas for writers, she says most unsolicited manuscripts are not of the required quality and need heavy editing “which is a challenge” since there are few good editors. Saiyid says that many new authors expect their manuscript to be published in a month or two which is the time taken to just print it. “They do not understand that publishers have to review manuscripts, edit and proofread them, and design them before sending them to the printers.”

Saiyid concurs with Khalid that a limited market serves as a deterrent, and stresses that efforts should be made to make the market grow and lead “the horse to water and make the water irresistible.

“If publishers have imagination and persevere, the field is wide open for them,” she asserts, “We need a vast network of libraries so people don’t have to buy every book they read and publishers can have an assured library market, adequate supply of paper, board and other raw material at reasonable prices and a network of reliable and professional distribution outlets and bookshops. We also need a widespread, high quality system of education where the reading habit and a love for books are inculcated.”

If one is to go by Khalid’s word, there’s little documentation on the number of publishing houses in the country. However, according to Saiyid there are around 30 bona fide publishers who publish 10 or more new titles annually. Global Publishers puts the number of publishers active in the field at 27.

Broadly, Pakistan’s publishing content can be divided into academic (which includes books by provincial textbook boards and those printed by private sector education), literary and religious. According to Khalid, the textbook boards outsource the printing responsibility to around 1,000 registered publishers, the majority of which belong to Punjab.

In terms of literary books, non-fiction in Urdu sells more, whereas in English both fiction and non-fiction are equally popular and growing, mainly because its readers can afford to buy original books as opposed to pirated copies. Unfortunately, in regional languages, except for the government funded projects and those by sponsored organisations, the picture is quite dismal, both in the case of fiction and non-fiction. However, there is some activity in the publishing of Sindhi language books.