ABD Vol.27 No.4

Growth within the Third World Constraints
The Publishing Sector in Bangladesh

Mohiuddin Ahmed

The publishing industry of a country that devotes its expertise and energy to the production of indigenous books can have a far-reaching influence in every sphere of the national developmental activities. The variety of books needed by the reading public is infinite and has to keep pace with changes in their needs and taste, and as a result publishing is a competitive and high risk industry. At the very centre of the publishing enterprise are financial considerations. The economics of book publishing is related to such divergent factors as the rate of literacy, level of income, the reading habit of the population, the government's policy towards publishing sectors, libraries and the educational system. Publishing is also affected by scarcities. Not only is there a shortage of capital available for investment in publishing and a dearth of skilled personnel, there are also not enough books to meet the growing demands. There are not enough authors writing relevant, useful books.

The Beginnings

Let us now consider the development of the Bangladesh book industry. Publishing in Bangladesh has always had shaky financial foundations. On independence, Bangladesh did not inherit any developed publishing infrastructure. There were however a good number of printing presses, although they were not particularly geared to printing of books. In terms of development and growth of the publishing industry, Bangladesh has had to face all the difficulties and constraints typical in any developing country. Perhaps the most glaring reason for the stunted growth of the publishing industry was the sharp decline in the standard of education since 1971. Except for a small presence of English language publishing, all books published in the country are in the national language, Bengali. In the following paragraphs we shall outline some of the major constraints and impediments that retarded the growth of the country's publishing industry during the first decade of independent Bangladesh:
1) Absence of a distribution and promotion network; 2) Printing facilities available were not geared to meet professional publishing standards; 3) Absence of a sufficiently large base of effective literacy; 4) Absence of a modern class addicted to reading which feels that books are important and has sufficient purchasing power; 5) Non-existence of a mass educational system which would make use of simply printed books; 6) Non-recognition of book publishing as an essential enterprise during the Five-Year Plans of the country; 7) Dearth of professionals skilled in publishing, particularly skills in editing, translation and writing; 8) High price of printing paper suitable for books; 9) Commercial banks' refusal to accept books as adequate collateral/securities and hence non-availability of long-term loans on easy terms; 10) A faulty import policy designed to bypass the booktrade and allowing import of books directly by government institutions of 'actual users: 11) Purchase of books by the government and all other institutions under a "Tender System" which encourages corruption and eats up the margins of the booksellers; 12) Lack of effort by the government to make the book producing community and the readers aware of the copyright and laws against piracy; 13) Lack of clear knowledge of the publishers to estimate the print run of a book accurately; 14) Bookshops were under-capitalised. Discounts made available to bookshops were taken away by customers both individual and institutional. Hence booksellers were unable to pay the publishers; 15) Publicity in newspapers and magazines is expensive; 16) Absence of adequate national bibliographies and other reference tools; 17) In district towns and thanas, the booktrade is a seasonal business flourishing only during the school season; 18) There is no internal or external regulation to conduct the booktrade on sound and healthy lines - no agreement exists among publisher, booksellers, distributors, (suppliers) and librarians concerning discount which would prevent the kind of competition that often reduce profits to the bone; 19) Textbook publishing at the primary level and, to a large extent, at the secondary level has remained in the public sector and is monopolised by the government; 20); There has been no representation of the publishing industry in the formulation of National Education Policy.
From the foregoing discussions it is evident that publishing in Bangladesh had not progressed along the desired professional lines, but such had been the case in all developing countries. The book industry itself has a complex structure and requires a multi-disciplinary approach at both the government and private levels, to bring about the necessary development.
Also recent technological developments in the publishing field mean that Bangladesh publishers would require new investments. Government policy has proceeded to provide the necessary infrastructural support and encouragement to the publishing industry in the private sector. A lot needs to be done before the industry is able to prepare itself to face the circumstances of the 21st century.

Quest for the Book Trade Tools

In order to assess the development of publishing in terms of quality we need to understand that it is difficult to give any graphic descriptions where quality of content is concerned. One important measure would have been a survey of book reviews published in journals, newspapers, literary magazines and so on. Unfortunately the idea of literary reviews in print media has not caught on in the past decade, although some significant changes have taken place in Bangladesh Publishing. The National Book Centre, which overseas the Book Development activities, has maintained an informal record of general titles being published. The National Library and Archives under the Ministry of Cultural Affairs, publishes periodic bibliographies on the basis of the Legal Depository copies received by them from the publishers. It is almost certain that not all books published in Bangladesh are deposited as required by law for registration at the National Library and Archives. The first Books in Print published by the National Book Centre in Bangladesh, prepared from the current catalogues of the publishers of the country was released in January 1997. A chart showing progress in terms of number of titles published each year, prepared by the author from the above-mentioned sources, is presented in the Appendix.

The Culture of Book Fairs

There is, however, a unique institution which has developed in Bangladesh to promote books, generally referred to as the book fair culture. This feature is most prominent during the dry winter months. Book exhibitions form an integral part of any national or religious festivals. Boishakhi Mela (Bangla New Year) and Ekushe Boi Mela (Language Martyrs Day held on 21 February) are important landmark of this book fair culture. Newspapers run special columns reporting the daily progress of these fairs. The Dhaka Fair is a recent addition and each year important new features are added to the Dhaka Book Fair.
A very significant development has been the growth of readership of popular fiction. About half a dozen writers of popular fiction were able to capture this market. Traditionally, poetry books would have been the centre-piece of book exhibitions, but during the past decade it is believed that books on the Liberation War of Bangladesh and politics have also attracted many readers.
Publishing in the private sector has grown rapidly over the last ten years. It is estimated that about 35-40 publishing companies producing general and trade books release between 10-15 new titles each year. A large number, between 100 to 150, of medium and smaller booksellers/publishers annually publish 5-10 books each.
As stated earlier, the National Curriculum and Textbook Board (NCTB) publishes primary level books for the Ministry of Education. The NCTB works closely with the Publishers and Booksellers Association. The bulk of the secondary level books are also produced for the NCTB by members of the Association who are called publishers but are actually printing contractors. They have none of the professional skills of editing or manuscript handling and produce books from camera-ready copies supplied by the NCTB.
There are now about 20-30 large companies who produce textbooks for the secondary, higher secondary and tertiary levels. Books for the second stream of primary, and secondary schools in the private sector are also produced by this group. The school and college teachers' associations are active participants in the textbook business. The NCTB approves the books but the teachers have the option to prescribe from the approved list.
Approximately 500-700 new titles have been published each year by the authors themselves including poetry, fiction, college textbooks and some professional books. Publishing in this category continues to grow.

NGO Publishing

A significant development in the last decade has been the growth of NGO publishing. This new publishing sector may threaten the business of the private sector in the future. Initially some NGOs running educational programmes - i.e. primary and secondary education, adult education, and non-formal education - sought books from the private sector. The private sector, due to lack of capital and uncertain market, were loath to venture into a new and unknown area of publishing for neo-literates and NGO schools. NGOs running education programmes found easy money from external donors imported tax-free sophisticated printing plants, paper and colour scanners, hired high-salaried editors and illustrators, and went on to produce attractive books. The books are sold at a subsidised price to their own schools and educational programmes. The private sector continue to remain unconcerned and may have missed the opportunity to get into the business. As the situations stands today, at least four large NGOs publishing educational textbooks are in business of catering to book requirements of not only their own schools but also other schools run by smaller NGOs who have taken up such educational programmes. Additionally, such books have found a good market in private schools throughout the country.

Academic and Scholarly Books

The roots of the Bengali struggle for freedom can be traced to the language movement of 1952 against the imposition of Urdu as the state language by the Pakistani rulers. The culmination came in the war of liberation of 1971 when the people of Bangladesh declared themselves a separate nation and won their independence. The concern for the democratic institutions, the question of national identity, good governance and economic emancipation, are some of the key issues in recent history which are the subjects of academic debates, research and scholarship in Bangladesh. Such books are published by a handful of private and public sector publishers.
Another area of academic publishing is education and development issues. Bangladesh has come to be a centre of development initiatives with the largest aid package recipient in the third world. Through the publication of books on this subject Bangladesh is able to share its experience of dealing with aid, trade, environment, disaster management, appropriate technology, and the well-known Bangladeshi micro credit models - the Grameen Bank and other experiences.
The impact of scholarly books in Bangladesh today may not be very significant, but Bangladesh has a great tradition of scholarly pursuits and writings. About 200 scholarly books are published in Bangladesh annually. Significantly some Bangladeshi publishers have established international linkages and developed co-publication arrangements. A Dhaka publisher has launched a few Asian editions in collaboration with a leading multinational publisher. If achievements in this area can be advanced and sustained, Bangladesh publishing will not be unprepared for the 21st century.


There has been a tremendous development in the technology for book production in Bangladesh. All grades of quality papers are allowed to be imported into Bangladesh as are printing inks and other requisites. The latest, most efficient versions of DTP and multimedia computers and processors are available in the country for making 'camera-ready' copy for both Bengali and English books. The technology for colour scanning and high-quality printing is now well established. The skills to operate such equipment and produce excellent results have been demonstrated in the production of a number of coffee table editions on various topics by publishers in Bangladesh.
Fortunately, in Bangladesh the first democratic government responded to the demands of the publishing sector and in August 1992 the Ministry of Cultural Affairs formed a broad-based National Committee to formulate the National Book Policy. The Committee's recommendations for a Book Policy we reapproved by the Parliamentary Committee and subsequently by the Cabinet in early 1995. The Government has since formed an Implementation Committee to implement the National Book Policy. The author of this paper was a member of the Core Committee of the National Committee for Book Policy and has prepared an English version of the National Book Policy of Bangladesh which is given in the Appendix to this paper.

The South Asian Context

Besides being a tool for education and human resource development, books are now an international product and a cultural commodity. They are both a vehicle for development and a record of progress. In order to ensure appropriate development, effective dissemination and distribution of books would call for new partnerships. Also, with a view to putting the right book in to the hands of the students and general readers, most of the impediments of price, size, quality, adaptation and availability can be resolved by careful joint ventures and broad-based distribution arrangements inter-regionally.
There is also the matter of promoting indigenous publishing which shall have to be given priority. Co-operation at the regional level for books which have a common market, such as books in the following languages: English, Bengali, Urdu, Tamil, etc., would strengthen the industry.
In every country textbooks are among the most political commodities. A knowledge system is a powerful combination of forces which dominates in many ways the development and dissemination of new ideas, the links between resources, expertise, the size of the academic system and infrastructure. This means that ideas and knowledge products are to a significant degree centralized within the countries, therefore, in this context, the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) countries (Bangladesh, India, Sri Lanka, Bhutan, Pakistan, Nepal and Maldives) willing to cooperate in textbook production shall have to consider de-politicizing the content of the textbooks. How can this brought about? These issues need to be deliberated upon by the regional partners.
The library network in the member states would be a topic of consideration in any partnership deliberations because libraries are a major client for books. They need to be enriched with books on art, culture and history of the South Asian countries.
Piracy of books in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh is a major impediment to book marketing in the SAARC region. The question of copyright and protection of intellectual property needs to be considered in this context.
With liberalisation in trade barriers globally, common markets have emerged in Europe, Latin America and Southeast Asia. In the field of publishing, the Afro-Asian Book Council (AABC) concluded its fourth conference in Durban in July 1993, drew up agreements on a wide range of areas-from co-publishing and co-operative marketing to author development and translation.
Also the recent establishment (Feb. 1992) of APNET - the African Publishers Network with its headquarters in Harare is a practical example of regional cooperation. Participating African countries came together in order to collectively market their books in the major English speaking markets of Europe and North America. APNET is now an established regional forum.
In the SAARC region, due to the democratisation process, there has been an exponential rise in literacy and an increase in educational infrastructure, resulting in a sudden surge in the demand for books. There is a wide variation in the book production level within the SAARC countries - ranging from 23 titles (Maldives) to 55,000 titles (India) per year.
There exists some infrastructure of the book industry at various stages of development in each of the member states. However, the bulk of the demand for books remains unfulfilled in all member countries, resulting in undue reliance on imported books. This, consequently, retarding the growth of indigenous authorship and publishing.
Some SAARC countries have taken up the programme of "Education for all" by the year 2000". Hence whatever the stage of development in the countries of the region, availability of books constitutes a basic and vital component of educational expansion. Also the thirst for knowledge and the need for more and better books at reasonable prices and their widest possible distribution to inaccessible places within the countries of the region calls for regional co-operation in the area of book production and distribution. This co-operation must be essentially based on the premise that there are advantages to be derived from coming together in order to benefit from collective strength, while retaining individuality.
The signing of the South Asian Preferential Trade (SAPTA) by the SAARC countries has opened up new horizons for intra-regional trade and Article 3 of SAPTA encourages such cooperation among potential trading partners.

The Case of Copyright in South Asia

As in all developing countries, copyright here is seen as a barrier to free flow of knowledge and information! As mentioned elsewhere in this paper, piracy and copyright violations are a major impediment to the development of a strong indigenous book industry. The 'privacy culture' prevails. A glaring example is the vernacular press in this region. Translations of works of foreign authors take up large spaces in newspapers to keep the readers informed of the most current works of the creative minds of the world, without any reference to the owners of copyright.
The other embarrassing example is the large scale piracy in Bangladesh and Pakistan of the educational books prescribed in English medium private schools preparing students for British universities 'O' and 'A' levels certificate examinations. Some of the government agencies of this region have embarked upon translations and reprinting of important reference and textbooks for students' education without even referring to the authors or publishers of the books. In order to protect the interests of the authors, the interest of the state to protect creators of library and artistic works, and to develop its own national cultural heritage, development of national copyright laws in conformity with the international copyright treaties must become a priority in countries where copyright protection is minimal. Recognition of copyright would be incomplete if limited to national frontiers. This is so since every country, through the creative activity of its nationals, has something to offer to humanity.

The Asian Context

Singapore and Hong Kong have been long-term partners in book trade with Bangladesh, India and Pakistan. Major American and British publishers have regional publishing outlets or offices in Singapore and Hong Kong, which have traditionally met the needs for imported books in the South Asian region.
Indian publishers have already set up important links with the book trade in Australia, Malaysia, Philippines, Thailand and Myanmar. Some of the Indian book distributors are already trading South Asian books in these markets. It will not be long before Bangladesh and Pakistan will be finding markets in East Asia for their books. As indigenous books develop in the South Asian region over the next two decades, inter-regional trade is bound to grow on sound footing.
The advance in technology and the expansion of the Internet and multimedia have brought forth new possibilities in collaboration in the Asia Pacific region. These new systems can only help us develop our creativity and innovativeness in marshalling our strengths to take advantage of the fundamental shift in the book industry that is taking place throughout the world. This is because economic gaps have widened and books published in the North have become unaffordable in the South.


In conclusion, we may say that publishing in Bangladesh has been a constant struggle to overcome the constraints. With the implementation of the National Book Policy and strengthening of the institutions responsible to provide infrastructural support, the publishing industry is destined to become viable. Moreover, if Bangladesh publishers are able to advance and sustain their existing achievements, there should be no difficulty for the industry to step safely into the next century.