The Bookseller of Kabul” by Aasne Seierstad came in the Autumn of 2003 becoming an instant bestseller and a handy Christmas gift a few years after the war in Afghanistan had begun and there was optimism for the land, not least for women there. The Norwegian author became a wealthy woman, but she was also in a controversy with the bookseller, whose hospitality she had enjoyed only to reveal a bit too much of the intimate ongoing in the home. Another Norwegian had had an even greater success earlier, notably Jostein Gaarder, who wrote “Sophie’s World”, which was the most sold book globally in 1995. It has been translated in some 50 languages, and a film has been made of it.
I came to think of the topic for this article, as I this summer was a “bookseller in Islamabad”, promoting my two books related to Pakistan. I was signing copies and talking to numerous people. If I didn’t know it already, I learnt that the city is full of interesting residents and visitors. Some of them were Pakistani-Norwegian families back in their country of origin on vacation. The women I met were particularly confident and talkative, speaking good Norwegian and having borrowed some ideas from their independent Scandinavian sisters!
My stand was at the entrance of Saeed Book Bank in Jinnah Supermarket in Islamabad. That is where the city’s, the country’s and the subcontinent’s largest bookshop can be found. My stand included my books “Learning Away from Home” about Afghan refugees in Pakistan, and “The Know Norway Book”.
My book stand was just a table, with some Norwegian flags and pictures of the country’s beautiful valleys and mountains, similar to Swat and other wonders of Pakistan. A modest “shop”, yes, but I have heard that the founder and owner of Saeed Book Bank started his successful business from very modest beginnings, a small kiosk in Peshawar. He built up his business little by little, or, put more correctly, book by book. Unless you are selling textbooks (although it is seasonal), have special government contracts or other large customers, to be a retail bookseller means that you rely on a small profit from each book. Unless a bookshop sells many books, buys books cheaply, has low house rent for its premises, low staff expenses, and so on, the business cannot thrive.
In Pakistan, where books are still relatively cheap, well, considering the costs involved in printing, distribution etc, I wonder how it is possible to run a medium-size, good bookshop and make a profit. I am not thinking of Saeed Book Bank, which has reached a volume, variety and quality of local and imported books that make customers flock to the shop. But I am puzzled about how average bookshops selling new books can make ends meet. Books are cheap in Pakistan, I said, but to the buyer, say, a student or an ordinary salaried person, a book costing five hundred or a thousand rupees is not cheap! Hence, few can afford to buy books, and that leads to bookshops selling fewer new books than they should. True, there are also shops selling old books at reasonable prices, and pirated copies of popular, foreign books. That is, probably, where ordinary people have to go; yet, missing the tide of most new releases.
There are very good printers in Pakistan. Depending on the publisher’s budget, a book of 150 pages can be printed for Rs 150 or Rs 200 a copy. The same book can be printed on better paper, bound and with dust-cover for double that prize, but without colour pictures. Large coffee table books in four colours can also be printed in Pakistan. With close quality control, it is possible to print books of export quality. When European publishers try to save costs, they go for printing in the Eastern Europe and Southeast Asia. In future, Pakistan may become a competitive alternative.
Likewise, Pakistan has professional graphic artists, who charge a fraction of what book designers take in Europe. I believe that European publishers could outsource design work to Pakistani graphic artists, saving money and getting excellent results.
A weak link in Pakistan’s book industry is the distribution of books from the publishers and printers to the booksellers. I also find it strange that bookshops often don’t pay for the books they receive from the publishers until the books have been sold; 50 percent discount to the publisher on general books is also common. This system, or rather, lack of a sound and fair business system, is a major shortcoming in the country’s book industry, making work difficult for all parties.
Then there are the writers, the originators of all books. How are they treated by the industry, the publishers and booksellers? The pay for their work is minimal. I believe they are only treated well once they have become famous and are seen as an asset to the business people. Well, my own experience is a bit different, and I think publishing houses are still interested in the subjects and content of the books, not only the money they can make. They can often give valuable advice to the writers of any genre of books, fiction, non-fiction, poetry, children’s books, travel guides, textbooks, journals, research publications and so on.
In Norway, in my younger days, we used to say that a publishing house was a hybrid of a ‘cathedral and a stock-exchange’, a place of ideas, idealism and values, on the one hand, and just cold-hearted business thinking, on the other hand. But then in Norway, with a semi-socialist economy, the industry received government subsidies in way of a guaranteed minimum sale of all books of literary quality in advance of publishing. The books were sent to the some 1,000 public libraries in the country. But in Norway, too, writers have to fend for themselves, even after they get established. Only a few can (and maybe want to) write bestsellers.
Let me turn to textbooks, scientific books, and many other forms of non-fiction publications, which are again often neglected when we talk about literature. In Norway, we publish a number of journals and books for a very narrow readership, sometimes just a few hundred people (noting that Norway’s population is just five million, but the Swedes and Danes, another 15 million, can also read Norwegian). The government finds it a cultural and scientific responsibility to help publishing works in Norwegian, and today, also works in English written by Norwegians. Support is given to translate and distribute Norwegian books abroad through the successful organisation named NORLA (Norwegian Literature Abroad).
I believe Pakistan can learn a few useful lessons from Norwegian publishing policies and practices, notwithstanding some good government work being done in Pakistan, for example, by the Pakistan’s Academy of Letters. I would like to see more Pakistanis writing books, getting them published at professional publishing houses, and made available at affordable prices in the bookshops. I would also like to see writers being paid properly for their works, which would often require some form of subsidy or stipend from the government and the private sector. As with education, to invest in the book industry will give social and individual returns later, benefiting the country and the partners in the book industry. We will all benefit from more knowledge, and much knowledge is found in books.
Let me add, so that no reader of this article thinks I am an “old fossil”: even in future, I believe that printed books will the cornerstone for literary works and systematic knowledge. But there will also be E-books and written texts made available using other modern technology. When I was a bookseller at the doorstep of Saeed Book Bank, I realised that my own book about Norway would become more attractive with a DVD, so I added a 45 min tourist DVD at a Rs 100. In future, I believe most books should come with a DVD or CD, and they should also be available as E-books. Many books could also be made available as audio books. The book industry is certainly an exciting field, with room for the great Pakistani innovators in business and culture!
Did I sell many books on the bookstand? That remains a secret. My purpose was to meet people and talk about my books. I like to sell my books, but more important is the cultural and substantive conversations I have with interesting people; to write, read, talk and listen are the basic forms of communication. I belong to the school that places more emphasis on the ‘cathedral’ and less on the ‘stock exchange’, I have come to realise.
n The writer is a senior Norwegian social scientist based in Islamabad. He has served as United Nations specialist in the United States, as well as various countries in Africa and Asia. He has also spent a decade dealing with the Afghan refugee crisis and university education in Pakistan.