Any account of the history of publishing in Pakistan should, in all fairness, start with Lahore, the publishing centre for British India. Under the British, most publishing was in the hands of Hindu publishers. With Partition, most Hindu publishers migrated to India, leaving a nearly complete vacuum in the publishing industry of the newly founded Pakistan, which the Muslim publishers in Lahore tried to fill. What success they achieved was due mainly to the fact that, from 1947 to 1962, the government of Pakistan followed British India’s policy of allowing private-sector publishers to produce textbooks for government schools. This work subsequently formed the bulk of the publications in Pakistan, and provided the bread and butter for its nascent publishing industry.
Slowly, publishers such as Sheikh Muhammad Ashraf, Sheikh Ghulam Ali & Sons, Qaumi Qutb Khana and Ferozsons of Lahore, along with Urdu Academy Sindh and Shaikh Shaukat Ali of Karachi, began to make headway in identifying and developing local authors. However, this advantageous position changed shortly after the onset of General Ayub Khan’s martial-law rule, in 1958. Instead of allowing multiple private publishers to compete in the textbook market, the public sector was granted the exclusive right to publish all textbooks for state schools from classes 1 to 12, which were to be prescribed by a single textbook board, created in 1962. This board was later divided into five bodies, one for each province.
The formation of the textbook board was a great setback to the publishing industry in Pakistan. Deprived of the need to exercise initiative and creativity in producing new works, publishers were relegated to the role of printers and contractors of books published by the textbook boards. The low profits and lacklustre tasks consigned to them cast a pall over the industry. This situation could not be mitigated by publishing for private schools as, in those days, there were no more than 200 English-medium private schools in the country.
Publishing general books did not get the publishers very far, as the market for these was not large in a country where literate members of the population were, and still remain, in the minority. There was the occasional windfall, however, such as the publication of Ayub Khan’s Friends not Masters in 1967. The book generated sales of more than 70,000 in its English and Urdu editions, and translation rights were sold in several other languages. It was also prescribed in colleges throughout Pakistan. Friends not Masters was published by Oxford University Press Pakistan (for which this writer works), which at this point was also printing low-profit government-prescribed textbooks, like other publishers in Pakistan. At the same time, it was importing general books, English textbooks and dictionaries from the UK, and acting as an agent for several commercial and university presses abroad.
Libraries and their jewels
The era of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto saw the nationalisation of private schools, putting an end to whatever private-school market for textbooks there had been. The nationalisation of private schools was reversed in the late 1970s, however; given the growth of the middle class and the demand for better education than was offered by the state schools, the private school market for textbooks subsequently opened and expanded. This started with the opening of the Beaconhouse school system in 1975, which also heralded a new era of publishing for schools in Pakistan.
The proliferation of private schools was due also to corruption and mismanagement in the state schools. The disillusionment of parents, especially in the emerging middle class, created a large demand for private schools, and their number increased with the reduction in government controls and interference in private-sector education. During the 1980s, the lack of state regulation and the growing demand led to a significant upsurge in the number of private schools, which have since continued to multiply. Their number in Karachi alone now approximates 5000.
Karachi itself offers an interesting microcosm in this regard. Though before Partition, Karachi was a small town of a few lakh people offering hardly any incentive for publishing activities, it now hosts numerous publishers, mostly small but also some larger entities. OUP Pakistan, the largest publisher in Pakistan today, has its headquarters in Karachi. The increase in the number of publishers has been good for the industry as it has generated competition, leading to improvement in the standard of books.
With the burgeoning population of Pakistan, which is among the youngest populations of the world, the demand for schools and school publishing can only grow. Yet while the prognosis for publishing in the country is good, certain circumstances are far from entirely hospitable. For instance, much of the Pakistani population remains dogged by poverty – according to the Human Development Index, more than 60 percent of Pakistanis continue to live on less than USD 2 per day. As such, of course, a significant portion of the population cannot afford to buy books.
Such an adverse trend can be stemmed, however, by a dynamic library culture. Although libraries have grown in Pakistan in number, from 563 to 6034 since the 1970s, their accessibility and culture (ie, the custom of borrowing books) have not been strengthened. This needs to be done at the level of the school library, where children can be encouraged to develop a lifelong habit of borrowing and reading books. Regretfully, in many schools, books are hoarded as pricey school possessions, rather than circulated. It will take education and awareness among teachers and school owners before these jewels can be brought out and become articles of everyday use.
A steady acquisition of books by libraries would make it unnecessary for most readers to buy books. At the same time, the publishing industry would not be starved of its market. As a matter of fact, given a stable market of countrywide libraries, it could confidently spend more on research and exploration of new and special fields of interest. Properly and imaginatively exploited, libraries can make an enormous difference to education, especially in a developing country.
Libraries can also eliminate, or at least diminish, one great bane of the publishing industry: book piracy, the illegal reproduction of books. If, for instance, expensive college books are bought by college libraries, students would have less inducement to buy a pirated version. Because it satisfies the need for cheaper books among a large number of persons, it is not recognised as the daylight robbery and blight on intellectual endeavour that it really is. A book pirate incurs the smallest possible cost by merely copying a book that the publisher has produced after a large outlay – think of the proof readers, compositors, editors, designers, illustrators, the publisher employs, the authors she remunerates, the marketing and distribution costs she bears. By not paying royalties to the author, the book pirate is a definite disincentive to intellectual effort, and by not paying taxes it deprives the government of revenue. To cap off these sins, the book pirate lowers the moral principles and consumer standards of the ‘market’.
Book piracy is rampant in Pakistan, and is probably the most significant threat to its publishing industry. New printing technologies have made it more difficult to detect piracy, and enabled pirates to produce more of their illicit ware speedily and in large quantities, thus becoming all the more insidious to the publishing industry.
Among ways to make piracy less rewarding and therefore less attractive to pirates would be to make the original books cheaper. One of the ways this could be done is for the government to subsidise books used by college and university students. It could also give grants to libraries at all levels (public, college, school and special-interest libraries) to buy books, thus ensuring a more reliable income to publishers, which could induce them to reduce prices of their books. Government could also help to regularise the price of paper, always the single most expensive item in book production. Good paper mills in Pakistan overcharge since they hold a virtual monopoly over production, and the government could help to lower this price by reducing import duties on the raw materials for paper.
Booksellers are bad paymasters in Pakistan. But this again is a matter of culture – or prevailing custom. But, perhaps above all, the most important measure for securing better-quality books at lower prices would be to open the market of textbooks for state schools to private publishers. This would generate healthy competition among large and small producers of books and force them to improve their standards, thus enhancing Pakistan’s book industry generally.
Today, Pakistani publishing has advanced considerably from its state of virtual non-existence at the time of Partition. It is still struggling, but the future seems promising. Pakistan is a researcher’s, writer’s and publisher’s delight, and there are many unexplored themes to write about: the lives of people living in refugee camps; men and women subjected to karo kari (honour killing); the drug picture; vanishing arts and crafts, which need urgent documentation; discrimination against minorities; architecture in little-known places; little-known languages and literature, which need to be recorded. There is enormous scope for publishing in all these areas in Pakistan, and more besides. All that is needed is a harmonious blend of scholarship and enterprise.
There is a large population of young Pakistanis who need books, a huge gap that needs to be filled. In this sense, the country’s publishing industry has a future but also a great responsibility. We must attract the best minds and the best writers, and we must devise the best methods to attract a mostly uninitiated young population into the world of books.
~ Ameena Saiyid is managing director of Oxford University Press in Karachi.