Book industry in the throes

By Zubeida Mustafa

HOW would one describe the state of the publishing industry in Pakistan today? Some feel that it has picked up, with a variety of books seeing the light of day. But others, especially those in this trade, are not so optimistic about its prospects and say the future of books in the country continues to be as grim as before, suffering as the industry does from utter neglect at the hands of the government.

The answer to the question, thus, would depend on how you look at the matter and what yardstick you use to measure success or failure. But there are no two opinions about the fact that the political climate has never been so good for book publishing as it is today. The advent of democracy has made it easier for writers to express their opinions freely and many historical events have been recorded which was not possible when the country was under military rule or an ‘autocratic . democracy’. As a result there has been an upsurge in political writings which has been widely welcomed. But certain holy cows still have to be protected and publishers have to be wary about the sensitivity of different groups. Issues relating to religion, culture and even some historical personalities are deemed to be above criticism.

But if you were to evaluate the progress of the book industry in Pakistan in terms of the criteria generally employed, such as the number of titles published, the print run, the quality of the contents of publications and the affordability of books, a sorry picture emerges.

It is not any specific government which has hurt the publishing industry. Shams Quraeshi of Mackwin, the doyen of the book trade in Pakistan, has lamented the pathetic treatment traditionally meted out to his profession in this country since its inception. It is not just those striding in the corridors of power who do not care. This indifference permeates all levels. Recently, we had a painful demonstration of this lack of concern for the publishers. At the launching of a book on the Quaid-i-Azam where the prime minister was the chief guest, the publisher was pointedly ignored. The author did not even acknowledge his publisher’s (OUP) services. As for Ms Bhutto, she chose to take no notice of what the managing director of the OUP had to say in her speech a few minutes earlier. Ameena Saiyid, the OUP’s head in Pakistan, had in vain tried to draw the attention of those in office to some of the problems the book industry has been facing.

The step-motherly attitude vis-a-vis books adopted by the government has received reinforcement from public apathy. Of course the dismally low literacy rate of 36 per cent (not all of the so-called literates are capable of reading a book) is one factor responsible for the poverty of our book world. But the literacy rate would not have been so low if the successive governments had cared  more for knowledge and learning which are enshrined in books. The failure to boost literacy and book publishing is symptomatic of the same malaise.

The two major problems that the OUP chief in Pakistan highlighted but which fell on deaf ears are two sides of the same coin. One is the very high cost of book production which makes all publications so prohibitively expensive. The other is piracy which denies the publisher and the author their rightful earnings from the sale of their products.

Small wonder, the growth of the book industry is so badly stunted in Pakistan. At the most 2000 titles are published every year with a maximum print run of a thousand copies. In India on an average 15,000 titles hit the stands every year and the print runs, at least for popular fiction, are much higher than in Pakistan. A popular Hindi novel is said to have reached a record of 500,000 copies in print recently. Popular writers in Pakistan such as Mushtaq Ahmed Yusufi are lucky when their books have 3,000 copies printed.

Shams Quraeshi very rightly points out that the difference in the size of the populations of the two countries and thus the potential market size does not account for this disparity. Had it been so, the print run of a popular Urdu novel in Pakistan should have still been about 50,000. Since it is not, there is something seriously wrong somewhere.

This disparity is underscored in UNESCO’s World Education Report which gives the data for the printing and writing paper consumed in the two countries. While India uses 1861 kg paper per 1000 people, in Pakistan the corresponding figure is only 1297.

The government’s negative approach is best reflected in the economics of book production, which lies at the heart of the problem. It is now commonplace for even modestly sized books to be priced at Rs 200 or so. The small print run of course works against the economy of scales. But even otherwise the government has not been overly helpful. For instance, paper accounts for about 70 per cent of the production cost of a book. With the price of paper having jumped up nearly four times in the last ten years, book publishing is by no means a low cost business.

With no indigenous production of paper worth the name in the country, publishers have had to depend on imported material. Instead of recognising the predicament of the book trade the government has proceeded to give it a crippling blow in the form of an injudicious tax structure. The import duty of 55 per cent on paper at once raises its price for all other levies, be it the sales tax of 15 per cent, income tax of four per cent, Iqra of five per cent, and the Regulatory Duty of 13 per cent.

When the end product of the publishing industry is so frightfully expensive, the scope for piracy naturally knows no bounds. By not being required to invest in overheads, pay any taxes to the government or royalty to the author, the pirate can produce books which are cheaper. Therefore they sell more easily and his profit margin is bigger.

Piracy can undermine the publishing industry badly. The recent tightening of the copyright law which has enhanced the punishment and made it possible to nab the wrongdoers has not caused much relief either. A case can drag on in the court for years and the publisher could end up spending more than what he loses because of piracy. The most effective strategy to combat piracy would be to reduce the price of books so that there is not much margin for an artificial cut in price. But given the government’s taxation structure, the publisher cannot lower the price of books any further.

The small market — ensured by the low literacy rate and the poor reading habits of people which have been made worse by television — does not help publishers boost their sales. In other countries, a conventional outlet for the book trade has been a vast library network. This has woefully been lacking in Pakistan. There are about 1200 libraries in the country with less than 10 million books. This is a very small number for a population of 140 million.

Moreover, these libraries do not have a sizable budget for the purchase of books. At one time the university libraries were spending only half their budget on books. The college libraries have a smaller book budget. No comprehensive statistics are available to assess the share of the library purchases in the book trade in Pakistan. But it is definitely not too impressive.

The government has not adopted any concerted policy of book promotion either. For instance, no funds are made available to subsidise publishing so that low cost books are made available to the people who might then be encouraged to buy and read them. This is specially true for serious books such as reference works, encyclopaedias, research publications and science books. They are costly to produce and can hardly be done profitably by a publisher. That would explain why the bulk of the books produced comprise Urdu poetry, collections of so-called literary articles, religious discourses and impressionistic writings giving the opinions of writers but containing no information or data.

Shams Quraeshi points out wistfully that the Indian government spends millions — Rs 400 millions or so — on the promotion of 15 regional languages and Hindi. Paper is subsidised for books and calculated measures are adopted to keep prices down.

Textbooks, which have been described as the bread and butter of any book industry because of the large sales assured, have been virtually the government’s monopoly in Pakistan since the sixties when the Textbook Boards were set up. Book publishing suffered a grievous blow because textbooks, potentially the most paying product of a publisher, were not allowed to be produced in the private sector.

Mercifully the situation is changing somewhat. The government has on an experimental basis tried to involve private publishers in textbook production. Last year it invited publishers to submit samples of textbooks for seven specified subjects for four classes. Although 64 publishers were registered, only eight or so actually offered samples and five were selected.

But they will again be required to compete with the Textbook Boards on an unequal footing. Since the publishers will have to purchase duty-free paper from the Boards but pay a royalty on it or buy paper from the open market on which import duty has been levied. Ameena Saiyid says that this boosts the price of the OUP textbooks two-fold as compared with the Board’s publications.

The issue which ultimately emerges as the key one is whether the government is prepared to heed the voice of the publishers. The tendency has so far been to ignore them. This has not helped. If knowledge and research is to be promoted in this country, our approach to the book world will have to change.

Source: Dawn 09-04-1996