Printed books still enjoy a buoyant market in New York, Washington DC, London or Paris. In the 21st century, bookstores in many cities have their avid clientele. The news may surprise lots of doomsayers who have already reached the conclusion that the days of printed books are numbered. They belong to the 'brave new world' where paper publications will soon be replaced by e-books (electronic books). Eventually, as they view, traditional books will be consigned to the archives. E-books have begun reaching readers online. Uncannily enough for some, this might turn out to be a reality.
The future that unfolds carries the elements of shock and surprise for many readers and writers. They mostly live in the countries outside the developed blocs. But there is another class. Despite living in territories having ceaseless publication of printed books, these people eagerly await the days when paper publications will be regarded as outdated. Unfortunately, they do not represent the view of the mainstream society. Likewise, the highly developed and tech-savvy world also has people passionately in love with paper books. To speak frankly, large sections of proponents of online publications appear sceptic of the dawning of an e-book era anytime soon. This fact prompts a sense of relief among the worldwide advocates of printed books in general. Perhaps making their case stronger, the spectacle of the rows of bookstores in New York's Manhattan still remains alive with readers.
This is February, the month of the Language Martyrs of 1952. This is an eagerly awaited month for Bangladesh book lovers. The Prime Minister opened the Ekushey Gronthomela, the largest book fair in the country, in Dhaka on February 01. The fair virtually emerges as a mega festival of books. Thousands of people converge on the fair ground for a full month to celebrate reading of books. Commerce also has a prime role in the national event. Publishers participate in the fair to sell books of myriad categories; readers are found annoyed at the soaring prices of the works of their favourite authors. They, however, go home finally with the books of their choice.
What all these book-centred activities boil down to is, almost 100 per cent of the books that appear in the fair are produced by employing physical labour. Despite the part-use of computers and the semi-digital segments of book production, the whole process is operated manually by involving technicians and workers at every phase. The final outputs are printed paper books, which can be touched, leafed through and carried by hand from one place to another.
The e-book trend and technology has yet to make remarkable inroads into Bangladesh. Although the local media world has for some time been offering online newspapers, the publication sector seems to be ensconced in the traditional printing devices. However, lately a handful of e-book publishers have entered the scene. They look for writers interested in the digital version of their traditional books. On being shown the prospect of attracting readers worldwide instantly, writers in the country have started signing contracts with these online publishers. They are assured of hefty sums of royalty. Many authors even get their payments in advance against the royalty for their e-books.
In Europe and North America, publishers in many countries are vying for the largest possible chunks of profit from online book publishing. A number of book publishing websites now rule the roost in global publication network. Few publications remain limited to just the print editions of books today. Like with the movies, both modern classics and popular books these days come out digitally commensurate with their printed versions. What it results in is a global readership, English being the most dominant language. Alongside the new ones, e-book publishers are regularly bringing to readers long-out-of-print books. These books turn out to be of immense help to academics and researchers. Thanks to the smart technology used in e-publication and easy accessibility to it, electronic books have been gaining faster popularity with the passage of time. Their increasing acceptability among the young readers and writers is a foregone conclusion.
In spite of the great role played by printed books in this country's literary, scholarly and academic worlds, e-books have begun witnessing a unique status for them. Coming to literary activities, one would like to mention the fast growth of Bangladeshi e-book publishers and authors. The online writers have formed their own web-based societies. Readers play a critical role in it. To the chagrin of many literary and cultural activists, a lot of online authors are stubbornly averse to printed books, and also the literary outputs based on traditional methods. They are also regarded as strangers to the print-based publication industry, and thus looked down upon. As a reposte of sorts, the online writers appear to nurture a deep-seated apathy for the mainstream authors of the country. At the moment, the steady rise in online book and journal publications seems to be leading to an undeclared face-off between the two sides.
The advocates of innovation and new-age digital breakthroughs, however, do not see any spectre of clashes. The month-long Ekushey Book Fair is chiefly focused on printed books. Many e-book proponents do not see any reason for their writers and publishers to feel fidgety over the predominance of traditional books among the readers. As a number of them view it, online publications symbolise progress of the modern times. The more optimistic of them find e-materials to embody the demand of the age. As they view it, in the future these outlets of creativity and scholarship are slated to be the prevalent trends. However, for now countries like Bangladesh can opt for formal online publishing on a test-case basis. The full-fledged survival of bookstores in the USA or UK alongside the growing popularity of e-books points to a normal and time-befitting view. It points to an inevitable juncture. Technological and industrial revolutions have had to pass through this volatile phase. In this context, the future of Bangladesh does emerge as a fuzzy one. A feared messy situation may set it. It would result from the fact that the widespread technological backwardness has made many educated people shun the online book media. The place of computers with their amazing functions in even the upper echelons of society is uninspiring. In many remote rural pockets of the country, computers are still regarded as an awe-inspiring 'wizard box'. That they can be a part of the everyday life enabling people to read complete 'books' eludes the general people, barring, of course, the tech-savvy youths. However, age-old books are set to survive many more years. This truth evidently comes alive during book fairs. In these events books stand for pure delight, which comes only from ethereal objects like a book.
In spite of the cautious entry of online publishers into the sector, most of the general readers are unaware of the developments. Many writers who know about it do not show much interest in e-book publication. However, days are changing. So is the overall attitude towards books. From the age of hand-compose and letter-press, Bangladesh has fast graduated to state-of-the-art printing technology. Books these days come out of off-set presses, many of which belong to the latest models of these machines. This is how newer technology replaces the old ones. Keeping this in view, one can safely predict a remarkable dominance of e-books in the country. For the scene to become a reality, e-publishers might have to cross phases of opposition from different quarters. But finally the online books are set to have the last laugh. The Ekushey Book Fair in the future may have to keep a section reserved for e-books only.