We have just begun: Young publishers reshaping Bangladesh’s book industry

February 10, 2023

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As soon as he got admitted into a university, Mafiul Kadir Adon decided to open his own publishing house, Chirkut, back in January 2019, at the young age of 19.

The story is even more curious for Shafayat Khandaker Zayan. Before the Covid-19 pandemic hit, he was pursuing his Honour’s degree at a college in Gazipur. But once education institutions started to reopen and things returned to normal, he bid farewell to academics at the age of 22 and launched his own publishing house, Naya Udyog.

Benzene Prokashon’s Hasbitul Hasan Nijhum is also a full-time publisher now, apart from being a university student. Meanwhile, Bhumi Prokash’s publisher Zakir Hossain came into this business right after his graduation, when he was 24.

No matter how unusual it may seem, becoming a publisher at an early age seems to have turned into a norm lately in Bangladesh. These young blood might have lacked experience when they first started, but thanks to their innovative and unprecedented ideas in the Bangladesh context, they certainly started to turn the tide in the country’s publishing business.

The Business Standard caught up with them to learn about their insights into the business, like the selection of the right books, prioritising book promotion, aesthetic production, authorised translation as well as their vision of attaining long-term sustainability.

Selecting the ‘right’ books

When it comes to finding commercial success as a publisher, book selection is key and the young publishers seem to be thriving the most here. Primarily because they are, unlike most of their elderly counterparts, avid book readers first and foremost – coupled with a solid understanding of the readers’ (belonging to today’s generation) choice and taste in books.

“It helps if you are a reader first, and a publisher next,” said publisher Nijhum, “Then you know which books are not just good, but also have the potential to be in tune with the present taste of the youth.” But publishers hardly get time to read books beyond scanning through thousands of manuscripts, annually. Still, some young publishers try to keep their reading habits alive.

Young Authors

“I have set a goal for myself that I will read one book a week and keep a tab on what is happening around the world of the book business,” said publisher Zakir.

Meanwhile, Chirkut’s Adon particularly hit the bulls-eye with his selection of the Artemis Fowl series or the books of Anthony Horowitz. Bangladeshi readers had not been familiar with these books before, but since publication, they won over the hearts of the majority of audiences.

The art of promoting a book

Contrary to the old notion, these young publishers do not fail to consider the potential of books as a marketable product. In effect, they put in a lot of their effort into promoting the books among the readers, mostly online.

Unlike the older publishers of Banglabazar who would announce a book’s publication only after completion of all works or after the book has already hit the stands, young publishers try to build up hype for a book from the very initial stage through their continuous online campaigns.

Sometimes they even make an announcement of a book even before authors or translators started working on the book.

The announcement of a book is followed by several other promotional strategies such as publication of the book summary and excerpts, there’s also ‘unveiling’ of book cover, video packages, and more. With their ubiquitous social media presence, the young publishers try to make sure they captivate their readers’ attention all the time so that the book’s name does not fade out of the reader’s memory, even before it is published.

Another huge advantage at their disposal: the online space. These young publishers either own an online bookshop themselves or collaborate with another bookshop to sell their books.

Through these bookshops, as well as through their own Facebook pages, young publishers can directly connect with the customers.

Online book communities also come of great help. “People like to belong to a community, and so do the book lovers. So, these groups are like a blessing for us. Through these groups, we can hold on to the attention of our readers,” said publisher Zayan.

‘Aesthetic production’

The physical outlook of a book gets the topmost priority by the young publishers. They want to ensure that their target audience will fall in love at first glance with a book. This is why a lot of the focus is put on elements that make the book visually appealing.

However, the term “aesthetic production” goes way beyond just covers. It begins with page quality, and everything from binding, jackets, boxes, bookmarks and what not also comes along the way.

“With Chirkut, I began introducing the audience with colourful and vibrant book covers. Now all across our industry, book covers are given more emphasis than ever before,” said publisher Adon, a fan of the numerous collector’s editions of the Harry Potter series.

Evidently, there have been efforts to turn books into collectible items as well.

When Benzene Prokashon started publishing complete translations of world classic literature, they were quite sincere about making the overall quality of book production pitch-perfect. “Otherwise, why would people be interested in buying books they already read?” asked publisher Nijhum.

Authorised translation: A new dawn?

In the past, most Bangladeshi translated books would be unauthorised versions. But nowadays, thanks to the young brigade of publishers, acquiring approvals from the original author and publisher is gradually becoming a standard norm.

According to Adon, the first thought of acquiring copyrights of foreign books came across his mind following the publication of Magpie Murders, which became immensely popular in both Bangladesh and West Bengal. But later the young publisher got to know that a Kolkata-based publication had the copyrights to exclusively publish this book.

“That was like a wake-up call for us,” said Adon. “After this incident, we decided it was high time for us to acquire copyrights ourselves.”

Still, there remained some sceptics who were not ready to believe that Bangladeshi young publishers were really acquiring copyrights from foreigners.

“Then we created history with the simultaneous publication of The Maidens by Alex Michaelides,” said Bhumi Prokash founder Zakir, adding, “Once the Bangla translation of a book was published on the same day as its original version, all the naysayers were silenced forever!”

Getting the whole story

Nothing can be riskier than publishing books that are already read by millions in your country.

There had already been multiple translated versions of Dracula or The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde in Bangladesh before. Still, Benzene Prokashon’s Nijhum showed the courage to republish them, but this time with the translation of complete texts.

And the outcome was nothing short of extraordinary. Nijhum hit the jackpot with it. So much so that his publishing house has made a name for itself completely based on these translations.

Nijhum’s effort led to a plethora of new complete translations as there seems to be a revived demand for full-text translations. Perhaps, fueled by the new generation of readers who are no longer interested in consuming shorter versions of classics, like the ones published by Seba Prokashoni or Panjeree Publications.

New genres in the block

There was a time when only three genres of fiction books would sell the most, whether it was romantic, social or thriller. But now, courtesy of never-ending experiments by young publishers, some other genres are also catching readers’ attention.

One such genre that garnered widespread popularity of late is fantasy. Not only translations, but plenty of original fantasies written by Bangladeshi authors have also been coming out to the fore in the book publishing market for the last couple of years.

To add to that, genres like horror, mythology, dystopia, hardcore science fiction and others are making a place for themselves.

To Zayan, this is a very good sign for the book industry on the whole. “There is this popular sentiment that the youth in today’s age do not read books much. Irrespective of that, we are quite optimistic seeing the ever-increasing popularity of new genres,” he said.

The economics of pre-ordered books

Gone are the days when publishers would need to wait for years to recover their costs for a book. Now with online pre-orders, young publishers can not only be certain of how much a book could be sold at the initial stages, but they can also recover a big chunk of their overall cost.

According to Adon, a big amount of pre-orders helps them to minimise the total cost, and so they can decrease the book’s price to keep it within readers’ reach. “If we get a great response from pre-orders and produce more copies at one go, we can cut the book’s printed price down to as much as Tk30,” said Adon.

The trend of taking pre-orders first and sending books to the press later has also widened the path for young people to embark on publishing business with very little capital.

One shining example in this regard is Nijhum, who did not make a big investment even for the first book of his publishing house. The lion’s share of his cost was already recovered through the collection of pre-orders.

An eye on the prize

According to Zayan, it takes at least five years for a publishing house to become a truly profitable venture. The time leading up to the five-year mark is about creating an impression and making space for oneself in the market.

Among the four publishers we spoke to, only Zakir has so far crossed the five-year milestone in the publishing business. And according to him, after launching Bhumi Prokash in 2017, he had been on the verge of making annual profits before Covid-19 hit and postponed his success for some more years.

But none of the publishers thinks they are running at a loss. All of them have an eye on long-term sustainability, and they believe they are on the right track with whatever they have done so far.

“Initially we all started with translations mostly. But now that people are accustomed to many new genres, we will now focus on publishing more original books of those genres. So, our journey has just begun,” said Zakir.

“I am not looking for overnight success. I am now investing my time and hard work behind this business. I have no plan to quit, and I will surely reap rewards in future,” added Zayan.

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