Since its fledgling days in the early fifties in the then East Pakistan, commercial book publication in this land has been beset by some basic problems. Substandard production of creative books and poor marketing are among them. Even after the emergence of independent Bangladesh, lack of professionalism kept plaguing the publishing sector. However, keeping pace with the fast increase in the number of readers and publishers, books on varied topics began appearing. The trend was noticeable from the initial years of the 1980s. The production quality of books also underwent a change of sorts during this time.
Thanks to the regular arrangement of book fairs and emergence of creative writers and those in different genres, the country saw a popular publishing culture taking shape. But the perennial problem of amateurism haunted the sector. This and some other dampers stood in the way of the proper growth of the country's publishing sector. They are very much prevalent in these days too.
These stark realities being a part of the local publishing scenario, the recent international seminar on publishing in Dhaka has prompted the reading public to look to recommendations and wise words about the specialised sector. The two-day seminar in Dhaka brought together a rich assemblage of international and regional publishing experts, Bangladeshi publishers and authors and academics, ministers and bureaucrats. They discussed at the seminar sessions the topics they deemed to be of great importance to the Bangladesh publishing sector.
The seminar by and large remained focused on the writers' right to free thinking. As a corollary, the discussion has invariably led many people to ponder the subjects such as direct and subtle external controls on the publishers and writers, as well as acts of infringement of freedom, and persecution. To make their case strong and factual, a few speakers referred to the grim developments that had sent shock waves across the Bangladesh publishing sector and the writers' community in the recent years.
No doubt, the occurrences of deadly physical assaults on free thinking writers and publishers have lately earned a bad name for the country, apart from sullying its age-old image as a nation attaching immense value to tolerance. When it comes to the country's publishing industry, a large number of people may not agree on viewing Bangladesh as a nation generally hostile to free thinking writers. Coming to novels, short stories, poetry, and the prose works on socio-political topics, just a handful of books have faced governments' prohibitory measures in independent Bangladesh. The few books which were subject to bans proved to be 'provocative'. They allegedly carried the seeds of social unrest. In the pre-liberation period, a temporary ban was imposed on a collection of short stories by Abdul Mannan Syed in the late-sixties. The reason was obscenity.
The acts of bloody violence involving free thinking authors and publishers have prompted great embarrassment for the country. But upon a dispassionate appraisal, one may feel hesitant to consider all of these writers and publishers as belonging to mainstream Bangladesh publication industry. Barring a few, they used to be active in online writing and the social media. Their tragic fate does bring up the issues of the right to free thoughts and protection from assaults. It is better to treat it as an area belonging to the mass media. This field is far away from the realities and the very nature of book publishing.
The Dhaka international seminar on publishing was indisputably a major event in the country's publication history. The audiences' expectation was quite high. It could well have been made to be focused on the infrastructural and promotional aspects of Bangladesh publishing. To the dismay of many, the seminar talks have often digressed. The pressing realities of Bangladesh publishing seemed to have eluded the otherwise interesting and serious colloquium.
The month-long Amor Ekushey Grontho Mela, popularly known as Bangla Academy Book Fair, held in February in Dhaka every year, are participated by over 400 small and big, new and old publishers these days. A total of 155 of them are institutionally recognised book publishers, having membership of the Academic and Creative Publishers Association of Bangladesh (ACPAB). The annually expanding fair shows the importance the country attaches to book publishing. This publication spree notwithstanding, Bangladesh has yet to emerge as a publishing country that goes by international standards of creative books. However, for over two and half decades it has been participating in the international book fairs focused chiefly on publishing. These include the Frankfrut Book Fair and the Delhi Book Fair. Thanks to these participations, the country has long ceased to be a largely obscure country in the scenario of book publishing.
Perhaps as a pointer to its maturing, the publishers of the country in collaboration with the government-run National Book Centre organised the international seminar on June 24- 25. Based on the official theme --- 'Publishing in a Free World' -- the two-day seminar held discussions on publishing in Bangladesh in the 21st century. The presence of Ben Steward, director of International Publishers Association (IPA), and the organisation's president Richard Charkin has considerably added to the international importance of the seminar. With special focus on the hindrances facing publishers and writers in today's world, those in Bangladesh in particular, the speakers at the opening day's sessions dwelt at length on the issues of freedom of thoughts and publishing. Viewing Bangladesh publishing against the backdrop of the recent distressing occurrences, a few of the speakers rued the inadequate protection to 'free thinkers' in the country. Emeritus Professor Dr Anisuzzaman has observed that a clash between publishers' freedom and restrictions has been plaguing the publication world since its early days. He expressed his firm belief in the final victory of free thinking in Bangladesh despite its being besieged by scores of hazards. Coming up with a global portrayal of the predicament of writers and publishers, IPA director Ben Steward said, "Freedom of publications across the world is worsening day by day, and Bangladesh is not an isolated country." Earlier, HT Imam, political adviser to Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, pointed out a critical aspect linked to the issue of free thinking. According to him, free thinking does not mean abuse of freedom. In cases like this the state at times has to impose restrictions in public interest, the adviser observed.
Free thinking and freedom of publishing dominated the seminar's discussions. The speakers underscored the need for collective efforts in facing the hurdles standing in the way of unimpaired publication of books. However, a considerable segment of the audience had a different view. As they thought, in the context of the not-so-impressive publication industry in Bangladesh, the urgent issues of book marketing and promotion deserved similar stress. A few speakers picked the subject of the proposed National Education Act and its impact on textbooks. Writer and academic Syed Manzoorul Islam recommended detailed exchange of views between the government and the publishers on the apprehension of undesirable impact of the said Act on textbooks. Among others, the seminar's firs- day speakers included author-publisher Mafidul Haq, Bangla Academy Director General Shamsuzzaman Khan, Awami League presidium member and writer Nuh-ul-Alam Lenin, Commerce Secretary Hedayetullah Al Mamun, Director, National Book Centre, Md. Akhtaruzzaman, ACPAB president and publisher Osman Gani, its executive director Kamrul Hasan Shayok, and vice president Mazharul Islam.
The second day's sessions aptly stressed regional cooperation and a South Asia publishing forum that would help the Bangladesh publishers and authors get a wider exposure. The day's sessions centred on three subjects: 'internationalisation of Bangladesh books', 'women in publishing' and 'regional cooperation in book publishing'. Novelist Selina Hossain, writer-publisher Niaz Zaman, poet Mohammad Nurul Huda, novelist Anisul Haq and young poet Mahbubul Haq Shakil participated in the day's discussions. Besides, State Minister for Information Technology Junayed Ahmed Polok, senior government Secretary Kamal Abdul Naser Chowdhury (poet Kamal Chowdhury), Cultural Secretary Akhtari Momtaz, senior publisher Mohiuddin Ahmed and publisher Milan Nath took part in different sessions on the day.
As has been emphasised in the concluding day's sessions, overseas exposure of Bangladeshi writers is one of the urgent tasks that face our publishers. But all attempts will prove futile without quality translation of books into the major foreign languages, especially English. The seminar's stress on competent translation cells merits in-depth study.