ARTICLE: Books are for ever

By Zubeida Mustafa

“Predicting the death of the book industry since the invention of the gramophone has not been something unusual. Every time a new invention comes along like the gramophone, the radio, film, television and, of course lately, the computer, the pundits of doom predict the death of the book. And what happens? I can’t speak for every country of the world, but, certainly as an English language publisher I see the number of books sold every year growing spectacularly. The number goes up and up. Look at the Harry Potter phenomenon. I mean it is just incredible. Who could have predicted that this children’s book about sorcerers and wizards would have sold in huge quantities in the most unlikely places,” observes Simon Bell.

Bell, the international director of the Publishers’ Association, UK, was on his first trip to Pakistan recently. He spoke enthusiastically about the book trade in not just Britain but also in Pakistan.

“I feel there is an enormous potential in the book trade here. You have so many elements that are essential for a thriving book market: a very sizable population, tremendous growth, a growing middle class, extensive use of the English language in the education system. Of course we know, it is never going to be the size of India because India has a huge population but Pakistan has the potential to be a real power house. In addition to that, in many ways, I think the trade in Pakistan is very well developed. We have some excellent distributors and some excellent potential partners here. Some excellent publishing is taking place in Pakistan in all languages spoken here.”

Simon Bell’s impressions should be seen against the backdrop of the Association he works for. The Publishers’ Association is the trade body which represents the interests of 180 British publishers at home and overseas. It includes the giants like Penguin Books and Random House and the small ones with barely 10-15 people on their staff. An important service that Bell provides is giving market intelligence service to the members of the Association. He attends major book fairs abroad and gives his partners information on books that are selling around the world.

For British publishers the foreign book trade is very important, given the small size of their own market. The Association sends its representatives to different countries to speak to local publishers, local booksellers, the trade bodies, the publisher’s associations, the booksellers association, people in the government, people in education to get a picture of what the market is like and will be in the future. The fact is that the spread of the English language has opened new opportunities to publishers in Britain.

In that respect the British publishing industry is quite unique. Unlike in other parts of the world, British publishers have great scope because they are publishing in a language which many people are learning and using as their second or third language worldwide. It means that their export markets are really big.

“If you look at the worldwide picture, British book exports are a very valuable sector of the book industry as a whole. They account for at least 30 or 35 per cent of our overall book sales. The exports market is worth about 1.3 billion pounds of the total market of about three billion pounds, at least,” Bell remarks.

Classified in three categories, the British publications are doing well. One third are academic books (scientific, technical, medical, business and computer books), one third are school books (including English language teaching books) and the remaining third are trade/consumer books that is fiction and books for the general reader.

American publishers also bring out books in English but with their huge market they do not have to depend on exports as much as the British. According to Bell, the American school books are not exported in such large numbers as the British books. Their trade books, that are dominated by publications on business, computer science and psychology, are sold abroad in comparable numbers but their market is different. British publishers focus on India and Pakistan, countries in English-speaking Africa and the Commonwealth. The Americans turn to East Asia, Korea, Taiwan and the Philippines.

A marked difference between the American and the British book trade is in the number of titles published in a year. The Americans publish considerably fewer titles but get greater sales out of those titles whereas in the UK the publishers seem to spread themselves rather thin and publish a greater number of titles.

Another interesting feature which should perhaps be instructive for Pakistani and Indian publishers is that of co-production. If a British publisher has the copyright to a book which he is going to publish in Britain and his established markets overseas but is not strong in the American market, he would look for a co-publisher in America. If it is a particularly attractive title he may even approach a number of publishers and get them to bid as one does in an auction. The deal will be struck with the one offering the best bargain.

Then the two publishers will divide their territorial rights, with the Americans typically marketing the book in America and East Asia. The British publisher would have territorial rights in the Commonwealth countries, while the two may accept other parts of the world as an open market.

Simon Bell identifies piracy as the biggest problem the book trade faces anywhere. Two factors fundamental to piracy are availability and price. If it is not even possible to get hold of a book in Pakistan and it is badly needed the pirates will step in to fill the vacuum and describe it as a service they are rendering society. Price is another key issue. If books are made available at a high price beyond the reach of the local pockets, it is inevitable that a low cost pirated copy will be made available.

Now this is a problem which publishers have been struggling to resolve for quite a number of years. Recently, there have been some very serious efforts to reduce the prices of books to make them much more affordable. Instead of having a single edition of a book, a number of cheaper editions will be produced for certain parts of the world at lower production costs.

Bell believes this is only the beginning of the war against piracy. “Piracy undoubtedly has an opportunity to show its head when books are overpriced in the market. So I think this is the responsibility of the copyright holder/publisher to come up with solutions which in a large market like Pakistan enable it to be priced appropriately for that market, so the people can afford it. It’s no good having a campaign in which the emphasis is simply on enforcement of law. Sending people out to the booksellers and the bazars to raid premises to recover pirated books is only one part of the picture. After all the problem of affordability still remains. Raising public awareness of piracy again, I think, is a partial solution. Any campaign to combat piracy needs a multiple approach and price is certainly one of the social elements in that.”

He says that Pakistan is probably one of the countries which has the most piracy. “I think in Pakistan there is a problem of the representatives of the foreign book trade not coming here frequently enough to visit the market and discuss the needs of the booksellers, the distributors and the buyers. We need to increase our visits to Pakistan. I mean, after all, a lot of publishers visit India. And it’s not so too far away. Ideally I think that as the market in Pakistan grows what should happen is that they should have a proper local presence on the spot. If you look at the market in India, for example, the major publishers have proper operations in India. In Pakistan, I think there is only one significant British publisher with a very significance presence in this part of the world,” says Bell.

“It is our estimate that in Pakistan the loss to piracy of English language books is between 80 and 90 per cent. That is one reason why the legal sale is fairly small in this part of the world. We take the problem seriously because Pakistan is a member of the WTO. Actually the situation in Pakistan is not irretrievable. The legal framework is in reasonable shape, unlike other parts of the world where there is anarchy. Besides Pakistan is a signatory to the copyright conventions,” Bell observes.

He feels that piracy is undermining the trade and if the publishing industry is to grow, it is piracy that must be first addressed.

Source: Dawn