'We've seen a resurgence in the last 10 years'
A common misconception nowadays is that reading, as a habit, has become rare. However, according to publishers and book retailers, the number of readers may be insignificant compared to the actual size of the population, but it’s growing. This is certainly due to many factors such as the availability of quality books -- both in Bangla and English, an increase in the number of reliable local publication houses, more encouragement from guardians, and so on.
As per Rokomari.com, one of the biggest knowledge-based e-commerce platforms, the majority of their customers belong to the age group of 18 to 45 years. For Baatighar, most of the readers belong to the young age group, 18-35 year olds, and individual sales are higher. Pathak Shomabesh has observed a gradual rise in book sales over time to up to 60% which was 30% from 1987 to 1996. Though readership has risen, but not enough compared to the size of the educated population.
Besides big names in the book-sellers list like Pathak Shomabesh, Baatighar, Prothoma, and Rokomari, small initiatives -- whether small physical shops or online-based shops -- are also playing an important role to meet the requirements of readers. Apart from Bangla books, there is a growing demand for English books as well.
“We've seen a resurgence in the last 10 years,” said Amina Rahman, managing director of Bookworm Bangladesh, a 27 year old, trusted bookstore of the country. “People told me not to even consider going into the book business while I was joining Bookworm, because nobody reads anymore. However, I have seen the opposite to be true. Bookstores that take readers' demands into account sell more,” she added.
Even though the number of avid readers is increasing, one of the biggest challenges that remains is small readership; the prime reason behind it is the absence of encouragement to knowledge empowerment through reading in the education system, thinks Dipankar Das, owner of Baatighar.
“We need to build an education system that encourages reading books besides textbooks. The turnover of the book industry is rather small, compared to other sectors. We have to consciously and simultaneously prioritize our intellectual progress along with economic progress,” said Dipankar, while talking about the growth and sustainability of the book industry in Bangladesh.
“At this point, a good number of professionals are needed for the industry to flourish,” he added.
To expand the industry, there should be proper planning, goals, and most importantly, a strong marketing strategy to reach the readers. “There are plenty of readers and they want to read. If readers don’t get what they are looking for, or they don’t know about the books available in the market, then how can bookstores flourish?” asked Shahidul Islam Bizu, Managing Director, Pathak Shamabesh.
Echoing the same concerns, Jakir Hossen, Manager, Prothoma Prokashoni, which started its journey in 2009, said, “People talk about a lack of readers; I believe it is the responsibility of the publisher to produce quality books, and informing the people about them, so more and more people are encouraged to start reading.”
The price of books always remains a crucial factor. “The concerns about the prices are a constant issue, and another factor to consider if we want to expand the industry,” added Jakir.
Once considered as a big hub of stores for creative books, Aziz supermarket has lost its glory because many of the shops had to close down due to the overburden of utility costs compared to the profit range. “The profit is minimal when it comes to book sales,” mentioned Tanmoy Chakraborty, Operation Manager, Ananda/Bring Your Book.
“With the increase in the price of paper, binding and additional utility costs such as shop fare, considering the sales, there is hardly any profit made,” said Jakir Hossen.
Tanmoy also mentions that the lack of monitoring of pirated books is causing another obstacle. Besides having a physical store at Banglabazar named Ananda since 1976, Bring Your Book started as an online venture in 2018 to cater to the readers' need for foreign books. “The licence shops have costs related to the renewal of the license, which is no small amount for small entrepreneurs like us, apart from utility costs. When someone can get a pirated copy whether in physical or digital format at a much lower price, why would they buy the original books?” he mentioned.
With imported books, there is the additional challenge of advance income tax and, in certain cases, duty fee. “Apart from piracy, the VAT imposed on printed imported books is creating a barrier,” said Mohammod Faisal of Zeenat Book Supply Ltd.
Ekhushey Book Fair is one the best times of the year for the book industry. The fair was organized this year as well, despite a Covid-19 still being prevalent; however, the fair did not enjoy the same level of support or success as it has in the past, due to factors like the lockdown, timing of the fair, and so on. “We won't say it's a loss, but the sales amounted to one-tenth of that from the previous years,” informed Jakir.
Due to the pandemic, since last year, book shops and publication houses have incurred losses. “Before the pandemic, the sales were decent. However, we have been impacted by the pandemic, since most of our customers are students. Those who would buy books worth up to Tk3,000 each month can hardly spend Tk500 at present,” Tanmoy said.
Rokomari.com saw only a 30% growth in 2020, which was around 50% in the years 2018-19. Baatighar, on the other hand, had around 25% less sales due to Covid-19.
Many bookshops have shifted to online platforms over the past year. During the pandemic, the sales of other goods have experienced an increase, but the same cannot be said for that of books. “Because of the pandemic, the sales have increased from 5k to 10k on the online platform of Prothoma,” said Jakir.
The impact of Covid-19 for Pathak Shamabesh was minimal due to its planning for the selection of books and reaching the readers through online sales, mentioned Bizu.
“With or without Covid-19, the market is down because of a lack of planning, strategies, and proper action,” Bizu added.
The quality and availability of books for readers from every generation, the support from publications to create more readership, as well as authors, pricing, and distribution are certain areas that need to be taken into account for further progress of this sector.
Lastly, Bangladeshi readers are yet to fully embrace ebooks, much less audiobooks. Most of the readers still prefer physical copies. The number of ebook readers is still very small. Among such a small portion of readers of the digital version of books, by using credible platforms like Kindle, the majority download books in PDF or MOBI formats from different sources. There are certain issues involved with this, such as piracy, copyright, lack of publishers who show interest in ebooks at this moment, and readers' demands for printed copies that need to be considered in order to reimagine the possibilities of ebooks in the Bangladeshi market.
“Nothing can beat the joy of reading printed copies for book enthusiasts. The percentage of ebook readers is not that significant,” Bizu claims.
“There is a potential for ebooks in the industry; however, it will take time to build it. Many readers consider books as their assets, and so they prefer collecting printed copies,” concluded Jakir.