This 2016 interview is reprinted in tribute to Publisher Emeritus Mohiuddin Ahmed
The Gulshan office of University Press Limited has a corporate touch to it. The furniture is sleek, the decor elegant. But I was used to an old set of furniture and not-so-well-painted office and books. Mohiuddin Ahmed’s room in the old Motijheel office had book-filled shelves all over the place, some as high as the sidewall; the furniture in there could hardly be noticed. But here his room is bigger, has a sofa and a conference table on top of smart furnishings. The only shelf is put up on the wall with his reading desk.
I found him sitting in his wheelchair at the conference table, talking to Badiuddin Nazir, his adviser and most trusted editor. Mohiuddin bhai looked thinner than the last time I saw him, which was two years ago. Back then he could walk short distances with some difficulty, but now he couldn’t move without the wheelchair. Yet, the smile was there on his face, that lively, generous smile. He held out his hand and took mine. “How are you doing?” he said.
His health has deteriorated but his ever-youthful spirit remains the same. At 72, he is still carving out newer avenues for publishing.
Known as the publisher emeritus, the highest accolade awarded to any publisher so far, he has seen it all. He established University Press Limited (UPL) in 1975 and has taken ethical publishing practices to an outstanding height in Bangladesh and beyond. He has given a solid foundation to publishing books of scholarly research and thought-provoking essays. Many of UPL’s publications are in the shortlist of recommended books in many acclaimed Asian, European, and American universities.
I engaged him in a talk about our reading habit, especially about how it changed over past decades after independence. Soon it branched out in many directions from reading habit to different aspects of the current publishing practice of depriving authors of their royalties to the possibility of a change for the better.
Excerpts from the interview:
Do you think our reading habit has changed over the past decades?
Mohiuddin Ahmed: We have a rich tradition of reading and it has evolved over the years. Reading habit is formed early in our lives, may be in class six or seven or eight. Then it requires nurturing. In our time, we got the incentives through informal addas with friends and social gatherings. May be one friend would mention one book and some other would praise it while another would criticise it. Then what the rest would do is buy or collect the book and read it.
We also got institutional encouragement through debate competitions and cultural programmes where one had to read to perform well.
But forms of literary interaction and types of institutional encouragement have changed, and I don’t think they have changed for the better. In our time, there was a competition and those who read more used to do well, even in the job market. But there’s not enough competition now. Those who do well in their career nowadays are not necessarily the ones who read more or have better academic results.
I doubt young people these days bring up books in their addas, not at least as frequently as we did. Then there are the English medium students who have a commendable reading habit but they are not reading the local authors, they are buying mostly imported books.
Do publishers have a role to play in creating and encouraging readership? Does a badly edited book drive us away from reading other books?
MA: I think publishers have an important role to play. Their most fundamental role is to bring out quality books in terms of content and editing. More books are being published now but their qualities have not improved. Some of them are full of spelling errors and typos. It’s because most publishers do not have an editorial panel to review the content and check errors.
Publishers think authors are the editors and after an author submits a work, no further editing is needed. Sadly enough, our authors also believe that their work should not be subject to editing. They think no one should edit their work. So, yes, a badly edited book may affect a reader in many ways; it may drive him or her from reading other books of the same author or publisher.
What do you think about fiction readers? Has their taste changed from serious work to popular work?
MA: I think new fiction writers are not coming into play. We’re not getting a Shawkat Ali or an Elias or a Kayes Ahmed from younger generations. That’s why number of fiction readers has not increased.
Would you share your experience of publishing fiction?
MA: My first lot of fiction came in the early 1980s. Nayeem Hasan, a very good editor, took it forward at that time. He brought out 12 books of Bangla fiction that included Shawkat Ali, Elias, Shawkat Osman and Syed Ali Ahsan. All of them sold well. But in the following decades, I found it increasingly difficult to sell fiction because the pipeline dried up. I don’t think younger generations of writers are showing as much promise as their predecessors. That’s one reason why I’ve stuck to essays and research articles, though we’re planning to do some fiction again. We’re also concentrating on children’s literature.
There is another important factor I’d like to mention here. Creating promising authors is directly linked to encouraging young authors. Our publishing industry is still reluctant about authors’ royalties. It is an author’s right to get his royalties. Transparency, at least, should be ensured while dealing with an author. He has a right to know the updates on sales, production costs, and profit, if there is any.
(At this point, UPL’s editor Badiuddin Nazir came in and joined us. Mohiuddin Ahmed invited him to comment on the role publishers and authors can play in expanding readership)
Badiuddin Nazir: I don’t think publishers can play a very big role. Writers write and publishers print. Readers are attracted when the writing is good. So, if there is a dearth of good writing, publishers cannot do much. How does a writer grow? He does not start as a famous one. He attracts readers’ attention and gains some renown. Then publishers get recommendations about him from writers or readers. So, it is only by means of good writing that one can become a writer and create readers.
Let me share a story in this connection. Elias was not famous when he was publishing instalments of his novel, Chilekothar Sepia, in Saptahik Robbar. He was living as a tenant in Shawkat Ali’s house then. It was Ali who spoke highly of Elias to me. He asked me to publish his work. That’s how UPL was introduced to Elias. Then we teamed up with Elias and we put in a lot of effort to produce that neatly edited, fine-looking book. It grabbed readers’ attention as soon as it hit the market. It was possible because the writing was good and the publisher made sure the production was impeccable.
Such a story is rare these days. No one puts in a good word for another writer. Everyone seems busy with himself.
So, you think the onus is on writers to attract readers and increase readership?
BN: Of course. Think of Humayun Ahmed. Where did he get so many readers? It’s because of his writing. Once you start reading his fiction, no matter what you feel afterwards, you can’t put it back until you finish it. So, this power of taking readers in the story gained him his huge pool of readers. Today’s authors lack this power of storytelling.
MA: I’d point to one more setback for our young writers. A system of literary agencies has not developed in Bangladesh. India has only recently started the use of the PR work of literary agents. In the developed economies of western countries, scouting for good books is made easy for publishers by literary agents. A good literary agent can get a young author published by a famous publisher.
Do you think there has been any positive change lately in the publishing scene?
MA: Yes, there have been some positive changes which make me optimistic. A few publishing houses, such as Prothoma, have started this practice of signing contracts with authors and they are paying royalties, which, I’m sure, will come as an incentive for young writers.
Readers often complain about which book to pick. Can media play a role in bridging the gap between readers and writers?
MA: Well, we seriously lack good reviews. What we usually have in the form of reviews is just back-slapping. But what we need is real, objective reviews written by strong voices who can productively critique a novel or poetry collection, if necessary, by criticising it severely but logically. So, media can run that kind of review regularly. It is through good reviews that readers’ interests are piqued.
Note: When this interview was conducted in February 2016, the UPL office was shifted to Gulshan. Afterwards, the office was shifted back to Motijheel.
(Look out for the next issue of Arts & Letters, due on the 8th of July, for more tributes to Mohiuddin Ahmed)
Rifat Munim is literary editor, Dhaka Tribune.