Abu Bokor Siddique is the owner of an indie literary publication house Swore-O. All was going well with his company until the arrival of pandemic. Protracted lockdown measures took his small business to a point that forced him to send his family to his hometown.
This is the story of almost all indie-publishers in Bangladesh as the country's print and publication sector has experienced an unsettling downfall in business due to the pandemic.
All academic institutions in the country have been closed since March to stop the spread of the coronavirus outbreak. The closure has reduced the demand for books and printing products drastically-- stoking the woes of owners of publication businesses.
According to Dhaka Chamber of Commerce and Industry (DCCI), the printing and publication sector has incurred a loss of Tk 40 billion as of July last year due to the pandemic. The sector’s annual turnover of Tk 120 billion is also at stake now.
The survival of some 0.5 million people dependent on the sector has become a major concern, let alone make a profit.
The first hit of pandemic to this sector became evident when the celebrated book cafes Dipanpur and Kobita Café were closed down. Renowned publishers and creative bookstores like Nalanda, Madhyama and Pencil were forced to shut down their outlets. While the big names are reeling from the pandemic’s blow, local indie publishers are winding up.
“As I have several publication businesses, I knew an economic downfall was inescapable. Yet I tried to help one or two employees every month to survive financially as they were part of the family,” said a distraught Abul Kalam Azad, the owner of Kalantor Prokashoni.
Postponement of due reprints and new publications for a month or two was somewhat tractable knock-on effect on the traditional publishing houses. But for the indie and micro publishers with 50 or fewer published books, it was the heftiest loss they could ever sustain.
“We had to halt the release of our bestseller series publication due to lockdown” regretted Mr Azad. Although he didn’t have to de-hire any employee, he was compelled to withhold their salary and authors’ royalties for two months. “
“Yearly reprints were postponed. For a small publisher like me, the uncertainty was substantial and multidimensional”, he added.
This trying period of pandemic acted as a perfect catalyst for Bangladeshi publishers to branch out to digital media like ePubs, e-books and reading apps. As new and independent publication ventures, both Swore-O and Kalantor Prokashoni have taken a brave step by deciding to publish their books in digital media and on reading apps.
However, issues prevail with digitalisation as well.
“Fear of piracy, lack of technological advancement and marginal acquaintance to new media refrains many traditional publishers from going digital in our country,” explained Mr Siddique, highlighting the main problems of digitalising print publishing.
As the countdown for Ekushey Grantha Mela 2021 has begun, the new and struggling publishing houses could breathe some fresh air. However, to keep hygiene Bangla Academy has sought applications from those houses that had stalls in Grantha Mela 2020. The newer and smaller publishers reckon this as an entry barrier amid the current economic crisis.
Last year, Bangla Academy allowed publishing houses that had a minimum number of 50 published books with 20 quality books among them to have stalls at the book fair.
Swore-O publications has some 30 plus books, all of which, they believe, are of standard quality. Yet they can’t have a stall in the coming book fair due to not having published 50 books.
“Such rules need to be relaxed”, said Mr Siddique.
Govt has announced a stimulus package of Tk 200 billion for the SMEs. But Indie publisher Mr Siddique thinks they need a sustainable solution, not just a one-off remedy.
“We are a nation that fosters the notion of differentiating textbooks and out-books. Extra-curricular activities in school do not necessarily encourage reading books. Promoting GPA and BCS obsession has only flourished the publication of guidebooks.”
Therefore, he recommends a healthy ecosystem of reading and learning that would promote all sorts of books, not just guidebooks.
The writer is doing her MSS at Dhaka University.