They’ve come a long way, but publishing houses in Pakistan are still struggling.
A history of publishing in Pakistan should start with Lahore, the publishing center for British India. Under the British, publishing was mainly in the hands of Hindu publishers. With Partition, most Hindu publishers migrated to India, leaving a vacuum in publishing which Muslim publishers in Lahore tried to fill. Their success was due mainly to the fact that, from 1947 to 1962, the Pakistani government followed British India’s policy of allowing private-sector publishers to produce textbooks for government schools. This work subsequently formed the bulk of publishing and provided the bread and butter for Pakistan’s nascent publishing industry.
Slowly, publishers such as Sheikh Muhammad Ashraf, Sheikh Ghulam Ali & Sons, Qaumi Kutub Khana and Ferozsons of Lahore, and the Urdu Academy Sindh and Sheikh Shaukat Ali of Karachi began to make headway in identifying and developing local authors. This advantageous position changed after Gen. 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 several bodies, one for each province.
The formation of the textbook board was a setback to the publishing industry. 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 lackluster tasks consigned to them cast a pall over the industry. This situation could not be mitigated by publishing for private educational institutions, as in those days there were no more than 200 English-medium private schools.
Publishing general books did not get publishers very far as the market for these remained small because of widespread illiteracy.
The era of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto saw the nationalization of private schools, putting an end to whatever private-school market existed for textbooks. This nationalization was reversed in the late 1970s. However, given the growth of the middle class and the demand for better education in comparison to what was being provided by state schools, the private-school sector expanded. This started with the opening of Beaconhouse in 1975.
The corruption and mismanagement in state schools led to the proliferation of private schools. The disillusionment of parents with state schools, especially in the emerging middle class, created a large demand for private schooling facilities, and their numbers rose dramatically. During the 1980s, the lack of state regulation, the poor quality of the state school system, and growing demand led to a significant upsurge in private schools, which have continued to multiply. Almost 40 percent of all children in school are now studying in private schools.
This heralded a new era of private schools and, as a result, of publishing. Karachi offers an interesting microcosm. Even though Karachi in the pre-Partition days was a small town offering little incentive for publishing, it now boasts many publishers.
With Pakistan’s population, among the youngest in the world, burgeoning, the demand for schools and publishing can only grow. Yet, while the prognosis for publishing in the country is good, certain circumstances render it inhospitable. The population of Pakistan remains dogged by poverty and a significant portion of them cannot afford to send their children to school or indeed buy books.
This trend can be stemmed by a dynamic library culture. We need a network of libraries in every school and neighborhood which would make it unnecessary for readers to buy books. Libraries can also eliminate book piracy, which is rampant and a major threat to Pakistan’s publishing industry. If college books are bought by college libraries, students would not have to buy pirated versions. Through libraries, children can be encouraged to develop a lifelong habit of borrowing and reading books. Regretfully, in many schools, books are hoarded as pricey possessions. People in the education sector should be persuaded to bring these jewels out into the open.
Piracy can be made less rewarding to pirates by raising awareness about its disastrous effects on publishing and on writing and by making the original books cheaper. The government should subsidize books for college and university students and give grants to libraries to buy books, thus ensuring reliable income to publishers and availability of resources to students. The government should also lower the price of paper by eliminating import duties on it as well as on the raw materials required for its production.
The most important measure for securing better-quality books at lower prices is to open the market of textbooks for state schools to private publishers. This would lead to an expansion of the market and trigger economies of scale. It would also generate competition among publishers which would drive up standards and reduce prices.
Publishing in Pakistan has advanced considerably from virtual nonexistence at Partition. But while it is still struggling, the future seems promising. In addition to opportunities in the textbooks sector, Pakistan is a delight for researchers, writers and publishers since there are many unexplored themes to articulate: the lives of people living in refugee camps; men and women subjected to karo kari; the drugs menace; vanishing arts and craft, which need urgent documentation; discrimination against minorities; architecture in little known places; forgotten languages and literature which need recording. There is enormous scope for publishing in many areas in Pakistan. All that is needed is a harmonious blend of scholarship and enterprise.
There is a large population of young Pakistanis who need books; this is a huge gap that needs to be filled. In this sense, the country’s publishing industry has a future but also a responsibility. We must attract the best minds and the best writers, and we must devise the best methods to attract a young population to the world of books. The future beckons.
Saiyid is the managing director of Oxford University Press Pakistan and is based in Karachi. From our March 15, 2014, issue.