Publishing industry’s travail: Narrow market, poor technology inhibit expansion

By Zubeida Mustafa

IN 1978, the year for which full statistics are available, 642,000 titles were published in the world. Out of these Pakistan’s share was a meagre 1,317 titles, whereas Japan and West Germany, with smaller population produced over 43,000 and 50,000 titles respectively.

This projects a rather gloomy picture of the state of our book world. Things are said to have improved and Mr Ibrahim Saad of the National Book Council of Pakistan (NBC), estimates that last year 3,000 titles were printed in Pakistan. But this figure includes 800 textbook titles which are reprinted every year with hardly any revision.

books-24-10-1982The paucity of new titles is not the only indicator of the poverty of our book industry. The low print run is another important measure of its underdevelopment. Rarely are more than a thousand copies of a title printed and then too the publisher expects to sell off his stock before two years. Only books by eminent writers lik Faiz, Insha, Josh, Faraz get a bigger print run.

These statistics do not give much of an indication about the quality of the books being printed. Not all books produced are of a desirable standard. The publishing industry has been hard hit both in terms of quality and quantity.

There are two elements which go into the making of the publishing industry. First, there is the publishing technology which is concerned with the whole gamut of skills and capabilities needed to produce a book: managerial skills, authorship, editorial expertise, production techniques and entrepreneural capability. Secondly, the publisher’s environment also determines the state of the industry. This includes the legal framework, social arrangements, copyright laws, academic freedom, development of libraries, communications system and government policies affecting printing and publishing.

On both these counts the publishing industry in Pakistan faces serious problems. There is acute dearth of technology in the trade, since no adequate arrangements exist in the country to train skilled manpower for book production such as designers, illustrators, translators, typesetters, printers and binders.

Equally relevant is the shortage of active, authors and translators— the key figures in the creation of a book. This is not because we lack talent but because our writers do not get sufficient incentives—both monetary and scholastic — to induce them to take to full-time writing. Given the low literacy rate and poor reading habits of people, the readership is small and in view of the economic woes of the publishing industry royalties are low.

Writers receive just 10 per cent of the listed price as royalty on actual sales, that is if they actually receive it. Some unscrupulous publishers are known not to disclose the correct trade turnover, to be slow in making payments or even print second editions without the author’s permission. At times writers are even forced to pay the publisher to get their work published.

No measures such as tax exemptions, sabbatical holidays, stipends and fellowships for authors have ever been instituted in Pakistan. No writer, even the most eminent one, can hope to live on the income from his books. He works in other professions and writing is his secondary occupation. It is, therefore, not surprising that his output is low and in serious disciplines the quality is poor. Thus Malik Noorani of Pakistan Law House points out that no good books on law are being written in the country because our lawyers can earn much more from their legal practice than from writing books.

The major single factor which has adversely affected the book industry in Pakistan is the limited market for new publications. This is reflected in the very small number of shops selling books. Mr Ibrahim Saad estimates that there are at the most 3,000 booksellers in the country, but this number includes the seasonal booksellers who ply other trades and take to selling textbooks when the school year begins.

Karachi, a city of 5 million, has only 450 bookshops. Some localities do not even have a bookshop. Why? Mr Shams Quraeshi of Mackwin & Co., who has been in the book trade since 1947, explains that one has to sink massive capital into a bookshop and the turnover is so small that returns are slow in coming.

But bookshops and the individual readers do not by themselves constitute an assured outlet for publishers. This role is essentially played by libraries. Whereas a publisher in Britain can be certain that at least 2,000 or more of a newly released title will be lifted by libraries, says Shams Quraeshi, m Pakistan the only assured outlet is the 10 copies a publisher is required to send to the Government under press laws plus three free of cost for the repository libraries.

As it is the library system in Pakistan is rudimentary. There are only 1,200 libraries with eight million books in the country. These include 600 college and university libraries which have very small budgets and tend to confine themselves to the books on their recommended reading lists. Mr Quraeshi feels that unless the library system in Pakistan is adequately developed, the book industry will not be assured of a guaranteed outlet. He wants the government to play a more active role in establishing libraries. A chain of small libraries in every neighbourhood would serve their purpose more than one or two large pretentious ones. Mr Quraeshi also wants the government to set up library boards to announce library budgets and purchase books in bulk as the American Library of Congress does. This would encourage publishers to plan and organise their publications accordingly.

Mr. Quraeshi believes that the acute shortage of libraries is not the only problem publishers face. Inadequate facilities for distribution and marketing, especially in the countryside, handicap the book trade seriously. In the absence of a wide network of transport and communications facilities in the rural areas, there is no regular distribution system for books in the rural areas. To say that books will not be sold in the villages is a fallacy, insists Mr Quraeshi. Seventy per cent of our people live in the rural areas. Although only 14 per cent of them are literate and most of them have a low purchasing power, nevertheless this outlet must be tapped.

It is generally believed that book retail sale centres set up at every tehsil headquarter could help to boost sales in the rural areas. But who is to organise them? The NBC suggests that the Publishers and Booksellers Association should undertake this task. But booksellers are reluctant. Moreover, the NVBC in its survey on “Promotion of Reading Habits in Pakistan” observes that this Association is a “very weak and inactive trade body” and book trade constitutes “one of the most disorganised trading sectors in Pakistan”.

Marketing is made further difficult by the high rates of postage and the pilferage which deter publishers from reaching the population in far-flung areas. (A 400- page book costing Rs 160 would cost Rs 13 to airmail from Karachi to Lahore.

An integral part of marketing is book promotion, perhaps the weakest link in die chain. Books (not textbooks) are not indispensable. Hence to sell a book a bookseller literally has to tempt a customer into buying it. According to Mr Saad what better way is there to motivate a person but to let him see a book and, may be read a few pages.

In this context book exhibitions and fairs have great importance. But their significance has not been sufficiently recognised in Pakistan. As it is, publishers and booksellers have little to spare from their tight budgets to spend on publicity. The NBC now realises the role of book fairs in book promotion. At the book exhibition the, NBC organised in Karachi in July with the cooperation of the Publishers and Booksellers Association the response was “beyond our expectations” to quote Mr Saad. They now plan to hold a fair every year.

Given their narrow profit margins, individual publishers cannot be expected to spend much on book promotion and the government should do more, believes Shams Quraeshi. Even in a country like Britain, books get due publicity through the audio-visual media. He cites the BBC’s “Book Choice” programme as a case in point. Our radio and television fight shy of publicising books and their publishers. Newspapers also do not give them enough coverage. Concessional advertisement rates, which the NBC also recommends, have never been considered.

One form of book promotion very popular in other countries is the book club. Given the small book market here booksellers are sceptical of the feasibility of such a venture. Book clubs abroad have memberships which run into thousands (5-10,000 is considered to be the minimum number to make a club viable) and they arrange for the printing of special low cost editions of new titles to supply to their members at crash prices.

However, Mr Arshad Jaffri of Pak-American Commercial Inc. is quite satisfied with the book club his company has been running since 1975. It now has 900 members who pay Rs 25 as membership fees and are obliged to buy at least ten books every year offered to them at discounts ranging from 10 to 50 per cent.

But the Pak-American book club is simply confined to imported books, and as such it does not serve as an outlet for locally produced books. Mr Jaffri cites four reasons for not including local, especially Urdu books. First, whenever they have been offered, they have not been much in demand in the club. Secondly, he finds the local publishers’ credibility in meeting schedules rather low. Book clubs have to be reliable for they offer titles for sale to their readers much in advance of publication. Thirdly, there should be plenty of variety and a large number of titles should be available if a book club is to cater to the diverse tastes of its members. This is not possible in the case of locally produced books. Finally, the local publishers’ discounts to booksellers are not big enough to leave a margin for further reduction in price.

The crux of the problem appears to be the low demand for books which affects their sales and boosts their prices. Higher prices in turn depress sales and so the vicious cycle goes on. But all in the book trade are convinced that people can be motivated to buy books. It is a question of priorities. “After all a man is willing to spend Rs 100 on entertainment in one evening. Then why can’t he be induced to spend even half as much on a book which is of permanent value?” asks Shams Quraeshi.

Both Mr Ibrahim Saad and Malik Noorani are of the view that the problem can be tackled by attacking its root, namely that of a disinterested readership. It might be a long-term solution but what is important is that reading habits be inculcated in children from early childhood. Once a child becomes an avid reader (and this is not difficult if he is given access to books) he remains a reader for life. School libraries and compulsory reading hours in class can make all the difference, they believe.

But until this approach can be adopted and its impact is felt on the book market, a more direct approach is needed. This calls for a drastic reduction in the price of books to promote sales. That involves the entire economics of book production. Here the government alone can help.

Mr. Shams Quraeshi is disappointed by the official attitude towards the publishing industry. He feels the government’s policies have been actually hostile towards the book trade and have prevented its growth. At no stage has the government provided active incentives or concessions to the development of the book trade. Whenever it has felt the need, the government has either tried to enter the publishing and import field itself with disastrous consequences or it invited foreign publishers to do the job. The only book the government ever tried to promote actively was Friends Not Masters copies of which were bought in bulk by government departments.

Textbook production, the mainstay of the industry, was taken over totally by the Textbook Boards. The Government has at various periods tried to control marketing and publishing through the Pakistan Publications Bookshop and the National Publishing House — and when they failed the National Book Foundation. It is not surprising that all these bodies have failed to come up to expectations or deliver the goods, for “bureaucrats can not produce or sell books” says Mr Quraeshi.

Source: Dawn 24 October 1982