This chain of thought began with a simple quest. It began with the search for an electronic copy of Dr Ishrat Husain’s new book. Search after search returned no results. The Oxford University Press (OUP) website offered only a hard copy in shipment. The same at Amazon. And elsewhere. For a book attracting so much praise you would hope that the publisher had arranged for the sale of an e-copy. But that is not how OUP functions. It publishes books by Pakistan’s leading scholars. If you are lucky your book will see a few reprints and then quietly it will be allowed to die, never to be revived again. Countless, priceless books have been lost this way. No e-book versions. No reprints.
There is a reason why so many scholars, politicians and opinion leaders choose OUP over other publishers: its accessibility. Unlike India where many renowned international publishers opened a local chapter ages ago, Pakistan has not been so lucky. Local publishers are convinced that a book written in English will not sell. It is in these circumstances that OUP’s local office seems so appealing. It is there and ready to publish. So, bring in your manuscript.
But there is a flip side. Admirable though the endeavour is, it does little for the longevity of the book. In a country with a limited absorption capacity for the English text, how many units can you print? What happens when you fail to shift the stock? Discounted sales are organised. And then the manuscript is forgotten. And with that goes a substantial chunk of our recorded history. A Journey to Disillusionment by Sherbaz Khan Mazari, The Betrayal of East Pakistan by AAK Niazi, books by K M Arif, Pakistan: The First Twelve Years: The Pakistan Times Editorials of Mazhar Ali Khan and countless other books are a few examples. You can hunt for a used copy in an old book shop but for all practical purposes these volumes are dead.
You cannot ask a publisher to keep printing a book that doesn’t sell. There is cost of printing involved. Paper. Ink. Binding. Marketing. Distribution. But can you ask the same publisher to throw the manuscript away? There are two possible ways out of this paradox. First, after the publisher is done with it the National Book Foundation can obtain its rights and ensure that enough units are printed to keep the book in circulation. The second solution is easier, and I am simply tired of writing it in the OUP’s visitor’s book again and again. Print e-book versions. No cost of production. No distribution or stocking hassles. Make it available on your website and anyone can buy a copy from there. No luck so far.
Don’t get me wrong. It is not just about OUP. Many other publishers have let many good books go. Ferozsons, for instance, published a truckload of children’s books in Urdu when we were growing up. Many of these books have just vanished without a trace. In a recent visit to the publishing house, I even offered to buy original manuscripts of these books if they could not print them again. It turned out that no one had a clue what to do next.
Of course, you cannot blame the publishers solely for the mess. They are merely guilty of failing to modernise. It is a simple demand and supply issue. Why a country of 200 million people with a growing literacy rate refuses to read or at least refuses to buy a book is a mystery to me. Religious books are thriving of course. But if you were to take a manuscript focusing on mundane issues to a printer in say Urdu Bazaar, Lahore, you would either be asked to submit a security deposit or else be encouraged to self-publish. Isn’t it mind-boggling?
Let us return to the issue of e-books. For a country that imports printing paper, it is astonishing that publishers have not explored the digital market. Given that none of the well-known e-reader manufacturers sell their Kindles, Nooks or Kobos directly in Pakistani market the technological ignorance of the man on the street is understandable. But you will not believe how many times I offered an e-reader to an affluent friend to be turned down because the person in question claimed to prefer the touch and feel of paper. Sure, why board an airplane when you like to walk. Technology exists to make life easier. Emperor Akbar preferred the work of his calligraphists to the moving type printing press used by the European visitors. And guess what became of his dynasty. If you are so inclined, you can buy a book and fondle it at leisure but why sacrifice your reading habit at its altar?
I prefer e-books because they solve many logistical problems. First is of cluttering. If you like to go through as many books as I do each month you must worry about the mounting piles of books. You can maintain a personal library but every space has its limits and books keep coming. E-books in comparison occupy no physical space at all. The second benefit is of speed. Not every book released abroad is readily available in Pakistan. Often you have to wait for its formal launch here or worst still put an order with your favourite book store. The e-book version, in comparison, is made available online as soon as the book hits the stores anywhere in the world.
Here you may encounter two problems. First, that the government of Pakistan has taken no notice of the technology at all. There are no subsidies or measures to encourage sale of e-readers in the country. Perhaps our bureaucracy confuses it with smartphones or tablets. But unlike a smartphone or a tablet, the e-ink technology of an e-reader is totally eyesight friendly, its battery lasts a month on a single charge and can only be used for reading. The second problem is of local support. Try reading an Urdu book on an e-reader and your eyes will hurt. Most of these e-books are put together by consumers like you and I, are published in a pdf format which is not very flexible for an e-reader. Let us hope these challenges are soon overcome.
Finally, a word on audiobooks. Since the culture of book reading is all but lost in the Islamic republic, I once toyed with the idea of getting international bestsellers translated into Urdu and recorded in audiobook formats. Nothing became of it because my colleagues immediately pointed out the challenges posed by piracy. The conclusion was that only radio stations in the country could do something about it.
Published in The Express Tribune, May 3rd, 2018.