The capital of Bangladesh, Dhaka, bears historical traces of trade activities even before the Mughal administration started to govern the city during the 17th century. A number of historians and travelers mentioned that there was a place over here which was known as ‘Bangala Shohor’ or Bangla city. A popular phrase was there to describe the place as ‘Bayanno bazar tippannogoli ( 52 markets and 53 lanes)’. One of those 52 markets was termed ‘Bangla Bazar’ which still exists in the Old Dhaka section of the present Dhaka city.
One major difference is that during that time it was known as a trade hub of silk productions but today it is known as the Mecca of Bangladeshi book- publication industry. A small number of book houses started their journey in there during the 1930s and gradually, in the course of time, this place turned into the heart of book publication in the post-1971 independent Bangladesh with over a thousand bookstores and publishing houses.
Bangla Bazar now provides direct employment to more than fifty thousand people and around half a million people working in Bangladeshi book industry are directly or indirectly connected to this place for their business activities.
On a visit to the heart of Bangladeshi publication industry, Bangla Bazar, lately, few interesting facts came forth. The general book-lovers of the country often heard of that kind of facts but may not have had the opportunity to analyze those in terms of numbers. Generally, there are two kinds of publications- academic and creative. Each of these categories has their sub-groups. The present topic will focus mostly on the creative publication scene. Talking about post-1971 creative publication industry of Bangladesh, one name inevitably pops up in discussion, late Humayun Ahmed. After his demise in 2012, numerous times readers heard it from various sources that this is a great loss for Bangladeshi literature and publication industry. By interviewing a number of industry-insiders, more in-depth insights into this industry were found. It is an undisputable fact that in the post-liberation book industry, Humayun Ahmed was the top bestseller creative writer for decades.
His sibling writer Muhammad Zafar Iqbal reportedly comes in second in this category. Depicting the scenario by numbers, the yearly total sales of a new book by Muhammad Zafar Iqbal is one-third of the yearly total sales of a new book by Humayun Ahmed. Since Humayun Ahmed is no more to write new books, it can be inferred that the current creative publication industry is led by Muhammad Zafar Iqbal in terms of sales followed by other young popular writers. Numerically speaking, the yearly total sales of a new book by the current most popular young writer is one-fifth of the yearly total sales of a new book by Zafar Iqbal. This implies that comparing the total yearly sales of a new book by current most popular young writer of the industry to Humayun Ahmed’s sales volume gives a slumping picture of the industry.
To summarize the facts, the current business volume of the fiction books has been drastically reduced by more than 70% in last few years. Evidently the last two ‘Ekushey Book Fair,’ arranged by Bangla Academy also went mundane in terms of business. Reportedly, a good number of publishers are planning to shut their publishing business and switch.
Besides the demise of a powerful and popular writer ,what are the other key factors which are striking this industry in a negative manner? According to many stakeholders of this industry, the rise of digital-based activities among the current youth of Bangladesh is one. Gifting book to the near and dear ones was a culture in Bangladesh, which is now almost absent in society. Due to rise of technological consumption in recent years people are getting more attracted to updated gadget stuffs and they are spending a significant part of their time in the virtual world. Because of the rise of digital piracy, nowadays Bangla e-books are also accessible on the internet. Readers who earlier were interested to buy a book are searching for soft copies on the internet instead. Apparently, majority of the publishers do not see any way forward from these situations but actually there are ways forward if strategic actions are taken.
Investigation shows that standard royalty structure for writers ranges from 10%-15% in this industry. But there is a twist in that. This standard royalty structure is actually not for all the writers; this is applied to a group of elite writers only. Who are they? These are the writers who have managed to gain evident popularity and followers in order to ensure a certain amount of sales of their books. In case of completely new yet talented writers they are not interested. There are cases where publishers do publish the books of a new writer only after taking all the production costs from the writer but do not offer a single penny for the copies that are sold out. Often, they over-charge the production cost and make profit from that. On top of that they do not offer royalty on the sold-out copies, in cases just give a lump-sum amount to the writers. Reportedly, new writers need to invest at least thirty thousand BDT to publish a book, without getting any sort of royalty in this process.
Eventually, only those writers come up in the scene who have money power to publish a book but do lack the quality of being a writer. Not all the new talented writers do have that much of money power or influence to turn their first publication in to a reality. Hence, many talents are restricted from entering into the scene.
Some are of the view that the lack of vision and professionalism of many publishers is basically killing the potentiality of this sector and eventually new writers and readers are drifting away.
The core of any sort of writing is to express one’s own views or creative thoughts in a written format. The rise of social media and the online blog portals in the last few years in Bangladesh has created that opportunity for new-age readers and writers. The intuitive and interactive characteristics of these media have widened their scope of getting the kind of audience they want to reach. The rising number of such readers and writers indicates that people have not lost their habit of reading or writing due to technology. They just shifted more to the alternative media/platforms from the traditional media to pursue their habits and getting popular too. Noticeably, majority of these writers regularly write about various socio-political issues based on the current state of affairs rather than purely fictional write-ups.
The first way forward in this scenario is to introduce a number of these talented young writers into the mainstream publications. Publishers who truly want to revive this industry have to take proactive visionary steps. Roadblocks do exist to make this plan a reality. First and foremost of that is the digital ignorance of our majority publishers. Many of them are not familiar with or used to the most popular social media and blog sites and therefore finding the right writers is hard for them. A more tech-savvy new-generation publishers can do so. Secondly, many of these online writers are more towards seeking fame rather than taking writing as a way of artistic expression. Therefore, grooming their writings for a larger audience is also an important aspect.
Digitization process of the current publishing houses is another way forward for the future of this industry. Major publication houses of developed nations like the UK, Canada are moving towards it. The first major step would be establishing the digital copyright and publication rights of the books.
Considering the global practices in this industrial scene, revamping the traditional distribution channel and shifting towards online distribution platforms is needed. ‘Rokomari’ has introduced e-commerce for book distribution from the year 2012 and it is a good sign that some of the publication houses have already established their own online platform for such distribution. Also revamping the existing royalty system for writers will be a dynamic move since in the upcoming days platforms are coming which will provide the opportunity for writers to create and distribute their books all by themselves on the online platform. Globally these kind of freelance writers are termed as in die writers and they are using such platforms created by ‘kindle unlimited’ and ‘amazon encore’.
Very recently, Bangladesh has become a member of the International Publishers Association by the efforts of one of the publishers’ associations which is known as Academic and Creative Publishers’ Association of Bangladesh. Such efforts are a good sign. Synchronization of the traditional and new emerging media with strategic collaborations between all the relevant stakeholders can actually reshape our creative book-publication sector.
– Written by Aynul Islam, Ex Associate