Even before the publishing industry in Bangladesh was struck by the pandemic, it had been infected with “the virus of faith”, as murdered author Avijit Roy called the increasing religious extremism in the country. Roy, who moderated a blog called Mukto-mona – meaning “free mind” – which promoted secularism and scientific thinking, was brutally killed in February 2015 by an Islamist outfit called Ansar Al Islam, for writing against religious intolerance.

He was not the last. In May 2015, regular contributor to Mukto-mona, Ananta Bijoy Das, was hacked to death by masked men. On October 31 the same year, Faisal Arefin Dipan was stabbed in the head and killed in his office at Shahbagh Aziz Co-operative Super Market in Dhaka. The owner of a publishing house called Jagriti Prokashoni, he had published two of Roy’s books, including his acclaimed analytical treatise Biswaser Virus (The Virus of Faith).

On the same day, publisher Ahmedur Rashid Tutul was also attacked in his office at Lalmatia along with writer Ranadipam Basu and blogger Tarek Rahim. All three of them survived despite sustaining critical injuries. Tutul was targeted for publishing two of Das’s, and several of Roy’s, books. Two other bloggers, Washiqur Rahman and Niloy Neel, were also killed by machette-wielding extremists that same year.

The deadly attacks on writers, teachers, and publishers critical of religion continued into 2016. They culminated in the gruesome attack on the Holey Artisan Bakery in Dhaka on July 1, killing 22 people. The brief lull was then broken in June 2018, when another Dhaka-based publisher, Shahjahan Bachchu, was shot dead.

Instead of punishing the killers, the Bangladesh government curried favour with Islamist parties and organisations that provided ideological motivation and justifications for the attacks. In its overzealous attempts to pander to their demands, the government sent special police teams to the Ekushey Book Fair, an annual month-long fair held in February, to halt the display and sales of any book that might hurt religious sentiments. These developments have dealt a blow to the freedom of expression in Bangladesh of late, curtailing publication and circulation of numerous books.

Even so, the publishing industry has witnessed a steady growth in Bangladesh. Despite many challenges, the realm of Bangla books has seen an exponential growth. In 2010, a little more than 3,000 books were published yearly, and the number now exceeds 6,500. Members of the Academic and Creative Publishers Association of Bangladesh reckon that more than 75% of books are launched during the Ekushey Book Fair, the country’s biggest book event. Currently, some 2,00,000 people depend directly on the publishing industry for their livelihoods, with nearly10 times as many people involved indirectly with the industry.

The market for English books has also expanded in recent time, helped substantially by the internationally acclaimed Dhaka Literary Festival. The festival has now become a celebration of the country’s cosmopolitan spirit, and of embracing diverse cultures while also upholding its own heritage. Ever since its inception in 2011, the DLF has brought together a broad spectrum of writers and journalists from around the world.

Changes before the pandemic

To gauge the full impact of the pandemic on Bangladesh’s publishing industry, we must first note a few recent changes that have driven publishing forward.

Historian and publisher Mofidul Hoque said that development of the Bangladeshi publishing industry has gone hand in hand with socio-political movements. However, due to prolonged political instability in post-independence Bangladesh, local publishing relied mostly on small private initiatives that rarely saw any return.

In order to give the industry a professional shape, a legendary publisher named Chittaranjan Saha, owner of Muktadhara Publication, came up with the idea of a book fair near the Bangla Academy in dhaka. He’d started as early as 1972, a year after Bangladesh gained independence, but it wasn’t till 1984 that the Academy associated itself with Saha’s effort, officially calling it Ekushey Book Fair.

The Ekushey Book Fair, organised and supervised by the government-run Bangla Academy, commemorates the spirit of the Language Movement. It saw thousands of people, led by students from all over Dhaka, march on the streets on February 21, 1952, in protest against the decision to impose Urdu on the Bengali-speaking population of what was then East Pakistan. The fair is the most anticipated event for publishers, as this is when they use their savings to bring out new titles and expect an increase in sales for a solid return.

Over the years, it has evolved into one of South Asia’s biggest book fairs. However, this year’s fair left publishers despondent. Although the number of stalls was increased from last year’s 499 to nearly 600 and total sales stood at TK 80 crore, an increase of TK10 crore from 2019, this expansion resulted in a decline in sales of individual publishers.

Further, according to Johirul Abedin Jewel, one of the proprietors of the publishing house Ittadi Grantho Prokash, after the poor sales at this year’s fair, publishers were poised to launch an all-out marketing campaign to ensure sales were revitalised through distribution channels at divisional and district levels. Insiders in the Academic and Creative Publishers Association of Bangladesh had reckoned that sales for the rest of the year could be as much as three or four times as that during the fair.

But with the first case of Covid-19 reported on March 8 and the first death on March 18, these plans could not materialise.

Although many publishers, such as the University Press Limited, are increasingly considering the potential of releasing ebooks, digital editions are yet to gain wider currency in Bangladesh, mainly owing to cultural orientation, and also because of the high prices of devices.

One often wonders how one manages to buy books in a traffic-choked city like Dhaka, where travelling even five to ten kilometres may take several hours. It is precisely for this reason that many in the city have made it a literary ritual to buy a stack of books from the Ekushey Fair. For those living outside, though, bookshops were the only places to buy new books. In order to address this gap, two important changes in retail have taken place.

The first is the advent of online book selling platforms with home delivery services. Rokomari was the first in 2012, and its emergence drastically boosted sales all over the country. Previously, only classics and books by popular authors such as Humayun Ahmed, Imdadul Haq Milon, Selina Hossain, Sunil Gangopadhyay, Samaresh Majumdar and Shirshendu Mukhopadhyay were available at shops. But now any Bangla book by any author, whether Bangladeshi or Indian, can be delivered to one’s doorstep no matter how far they were from a metropolis. Alongside Rokomari, other platforms providing the same service such as Daraz, Boimela, Boibazar, and Ittadishop have also emerged.

Secondly, big bookshops and reading cafes have re-emerged across Dhaka. There was a time when bookshops were concentrated between the Shahbagh and New Market areas, but this is no longer the case. More bookshops are coming up every year, with Baatighar as one of the biggest bookshops in Dhaka. Its owner Dipankar Das told me that English books account for 40 percent of his sales.

In the 1990s and 2000s, locally produced books by homegrown writers as well as imported books had a very small market. The market for English books was mostly sustained by a few shops, such as Bookworm and Zeenat Books Supply. A good portion of English readers relied on pirated copies. Taking advantage of lax government monitoring, many small businessmen brought out pirated copies of Pulitzer, Booker, and Nobel winning books.

Thanks to the growth of bookshops and online platforms, the market for English has expanded widely. Translations and academic texts are both widely available, and can be delivered to people’s doorstep.

Uncertainty during the pandemic

The different mechanisms of the government’s repressive laws could threaten, arrest, or kill a publisher and author, but they could not kill the spirit of the writing and publishing world the way the current pandemic has. The Covid-19 outbreak has plunged publishers and bookshop owners into uncertain terrain, with little prospect of recovery in sight yet. If anything, the number of books published and their sales had been consistently increasing, but Covid-19 has sent the industry into a state of shock, with a drastic decline in book sales.

The lockdown, in place from March 26 to April 14, was followed by what the government called a “general holiday” till May 30, which enforced a relaxed form of the lockdown, so that some “essential” companies could resume operations on a smaller scale. All bookshops across the country remained closed.

Some respite came around April 20, when a few couriers resumed their services, allowing some bookshop owners and online sellers to make home deliveries. However, going by my conversations with shop-owners and publishers, such sales were meagre. This unprecedented downturn in sales caught publishers unawares, as they were just about to launch their yearly marketing campaigns after the Ekushey Book Fair.

Since May 31, the lockdown has eased out, bookshops have opened ,and online platforms have resumed their activities, but sales have followed a downward curve as the number of deaths from the virus keeps rising.

Forced to stay indoors after work, readers have time to read. But the challenge of getting them to visit bookshops and cafes remains. Most people rush home after working hours, and those who do linger outside, it is to buy essential supplies. A bookshop owner from Aziz Cooperative Market in Shahbagh told me his sales have dropped by 90 percent since the beginning of June.

Although the Rokomari website is overloaded with orders, deliveries are being done on a limited scale, with customers posting angry and impatient responses on Facebook about their orders not being fulfilled. An employee of Rokomari said the number of orders have far exceeded the online bookseller’s capacity to deliver, and even courier companies have been operating with lesser capacity.

In the meantime, publishers are being chased by printers and binders for the money owed to them, while more than half of their books printed in the months preceding the Ekushey Book Fair are gathering dust in their warehouses or bookshops. Needless to say, salaries are being cut a little more every month. If the situation continues, it is highly likely that several smaller bookshop owners will go out of business.

New directions after the pandemic

The government has announced stimulus packages consisting of low-interest loans for many industries and businesses. Although important, many think such incentives are not enough for publishers.

As Hoque, owner of Sahitya Prakash, a publishing house said, “Even if publishers manage to get loans they will have to be repaid. When business is in decline, repaying a loan is not easy. While these incentives must be acknowledged as a gesture of goodwill, a lot more needs to be done. One of the urgent steps that the government can take is to buy books in bigger lots and distribute or donate them to government libraries all over the country.”

Many publishers also believe the government should launch massive campaigns to enforce social distancing, so that readers are encouraged to visit bookshops again. Publishers are also offering home delivery services, and many are urging readers to order books on online platforms like Rokomari. Further, in the event that another lockdown is put in place, publishers have demanded that courier services remain open and all people associated with book deliveries be allowed to run their operations.

As for imported books, no new book has arrived in the country since all cross-border transportation remained suspended with India since March 22. More than 90% of imported books – whether they are published by Indian companies such as Seagull Books, or India-based multinational companies such as Penguin Random House, HarperCollins and Bloomsbury, or by UK or US-based companies – enter Bangladesh through the Petrapole-Benapole border crossing with India. Bookshop owners and online sellers have emphasised that vehicles carrying imported books should be allowed to travel in and out of the country without restrictions. Locally produced books can be transported with the help of the government, but cross-border trade issue may require publishers, distributors, and bookshop owners from the two countries to work jointly.

Rifat Munim is a writer and translator based in Dhaka, Bangladesh. He is literary editor, Dhaka Tribune.

This series of articles on the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on publishing is curated by Kanishka Gupta.