Making books accessible

Hammad Ali
Published : 11 Feb 2015, 12:16 PM
Updated : 11 Feb 2015, 12:16 PM

For the few years that I was living outside Bangladesh, one of the things I missed the most was the Ekushey Book Fair held in February. I am not alone in this. Nine times out of ten, when I speak to expatriate Bangladeshis, the one thing they report as missing the most is the Ekushey Book Fair. When you think about it, it really is a spectacular event – this month long celebration of books, readers, writers, and publishers. A lot of people I know set aside time on their schedules this month to visit the Fair, and money aside in their budgets to splurge on books.

However, there is also a somewhat less pleasant aspect to this festival. Every year it becomes clearer and clearer that the entire writing and publishing industry in Bangladesh is encompassed around the Book Fair and the month of February. Very little happens in this industry at other times of the year. No matter when a book is ready, it is only usually published and launched in time for the Book Fair. To be fair, most writers also only write with the February deadline in mind, starting maybe around December of the prior year. Lastly, many less popular but highly useful books are only available during the Book Fair. For the rest of the year, in the handful of bookstores around Dhaka, you will only find a few big popular names, and none of the more niche books that one can see during February.

Even with the big names alluded to above, it often seems that their books do not sell enough. Certainly they do not sell enough to enable these writers to pursue their writing career full-time, or even with more involvement than just this seasonal writing. This then perpetuates the vicious cycle where many writers need to pursue other careers, and can only devote time to writing with the intent to publish for February.

Another consequence of this situation is that it discourages publishers from taking the risk of publishing something by young, upcoming writers. At the end of the day, publishers are also businessmen, and the risks of such a gamble are too high.

So is there anything that could be done to address these problems? To be honest, one of the reasons for all these issues is the high price of books. Many avid readers often scoff at this statement and counter with how books are no more expensive than a lot of other things people in Bangladesh seem to do for entertainment, such as eating out, watching films, or even shopping. While I am not aware whether any serious comparison has been done to corroborate this claim, I am more than willing to accept that it may well be true. However, I would then point out that reading is both more demanding and more rewarding as an entertainment form, and that we should do everything we can to ensure that more and more people embrace it. It will certainly create a much higher level of tolerance, empathy, and intellectualism in the country. One of the things we certainly need to do towards this end, is to make books more affordable and accessible. Another would be to ensure that new writers have less of a hard time trying to get their work published.

How then could this be done? In the past, there have been talks of subsidising the publishing industry through charging less for paper and other raw materials, and the government buying out a large number of copies for all books published. These books could then be distributed around the country in libraries. However, I feel that relying on the government too much will only defeat the real purpose, which is to make sure that people themselves keep this industry alive. In fact, I think it is safe to say that without a bottom-up change in attitude about books, state support will in fact end up hurting this industry more. The guarantee of a minimum amount of patronage can never be an incentive for continual improvement in any business.

Instead, I have a different idea. One tour around the Book Fair will tell anyone that most of our major publishers seem to only bring out hardcover books in high quality offset paper. On the up-side, this means that the books are of high quality and more durable. All over the world, hardcover books are more expensive, and usually targeted towards people who maintain a personal collection of books. A quick look at some prices also tell us that they are typically up to five times as expensive as the more common paperback editions of the same book.

Let us talk about paperback books here. In the simplest terms, these are books with relatively lesser quality paper and less durable binding and cover. This usually means that these books are not as durable, and thus less popular among those who want to collect books and can afford to do so. However, there is still a substantially sized market for these books because they are cheaper. In fact, as already mentioned, they often cost only one-fifth of the same book in hardcover.

Let us look at the all differences having a paperback version of a book can make. First of all, the cheaper rate means that people are more likely to buy the book. Other things being equal, anyone would rather pay Tk. 40 than Tk. 200. The current attitude of not wanting to buy a book by a new author could be greatly addressed by making their books available in cheaper paperback versions. Based on the sales figures, decisions could then be made to also have a hardcover edition meant for fans and collectors. The reader would also feel less apprehensive about buying a book if it did not take out as big a chunk of their budget. With the relatively low cost of production and the higher projected sales figures, publishers would be taking less of a risk by giving a chance to new, young names in the field. Again, the lower cost would also mean a lower breakeven point and thus a correspondingly higher royalty for the writers, something that might help them devote a little more time to their craft.

To the best of my knowledge, we are possibly the only nation in the world where books are made available only in hardcover and offset paper versions. This automatically excludes a significant number of people from being able to purchase these books. Making paperback editions available in parallel could go a long way towards increasing sales and enabling publishers to launch new authors at lesser financial risk. I believe it is time to at least begin a discussion on these issues, for the sake of the publishing industry and to meet the challenges of today.

Hammad Ali is a freelancer and an advisor for Bangladesh Math Olympiad Committee, Society for Popularisation of Science in Bangladesh and the Bangladesh Open Source Network.

Toufique Imrose Khalidi
Editor-in-Chief and Publisher