“... book lovers will never stop buying books”

May 15, 2022

Saleem Ajaz Malik, vice chairman and administrator of the Lahore International Book Fair, discusses the challenges of organising a book fair

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he News on Sunday (TNS): Based on your experience, how successful do you think organising the Lahore International Book Fair has been in promoting a reading culture in the country?

Saleem Ajaz Malik (SAM): The Lahore International Book Fair started out small in 1985 at the Alhamra Centre. The place was too small for the book fair, but we had no other choice because books cannot be displayed in the open or in a tent. We called it Kitabon ka qabristan (a graveyard of books). We couldn’t understand why, despite this being a busy area, no readers were coming, and nobody wanted to buy a book. The response was too poor but we kept organising the fair from 1985 to 2003 or 2004, and never lost hope. Our costs during this time were very high due to Alhamra’s high rent. The returns we received were very low, but we continued to put our best foot forward in the hope that maybe one day, people would gravitate toward the books.

Several people then went to India - we used to visit India often in those days since plenty of books came from there - they signed an MOU there and gave it to us, telling us that they planned to hold a large book fair in Lahore with Indian publishers participating. They picked the place themselves and told the association that it was now a matter of honour since they had reached an agreement on Pakistan’s behalf. They said something had to be done.

TNS: As one of the organisers, how would you describe your role?

SAM: I was perhaps the only one to stand up to them. I said, no matter what, even if India’s trade with Pakistan ends, I will not let it happen. In the end, my association stood by me, and we turned that idea down.

The decision was not driven by egotism. I gathered all my friends and reasoned with them. I told them that if we partnered with India, they would take over. We have had quite a few examples of this in South Asia, where those who sought assistance from India ended up with Indians directly selling them books and publishing. The local industries have been all but wiped out and Indian publishers have taken over. Our country of 220 million people already lacks a reading habit and publishing. Around 500 books are published every year and hardly any are sold out.

Najam Sethi sahib, the association chairman, supported me. I was advised to move the book fair to Aiwan-i-Iqbal. I felt that there was very little difference between Alhamra and Aiwan-i-Iqbal since both are located in the same area. I thought the public response would be even poorer there. We had realised over time that people with the buying power tend to avoid visiting The Mall because of the traffic and parking problems. So, I talked to Sethi sahib and convinced him to take our book fair to Expo Centre next to the Fortress Stadium. Sadly, we were only able to hold it there for 2-3 years since the place was then sold for commercial use.

TNS: What kind of response does the book fair receive now? Which age group does it mostly attract; children, teens or adults? How does it keep the crowds interested?

SAM: In 2005, we held our first book fair at the Expo Centre, inviting people from all over Pakistan and India to participate. We also invited Bangladeshis and Sri Lankans to participate. Only the former visited, but did not take part. The public response, however, was astonishing. Our own stats and analysis of the response in Lahore proved to be wrong because a large number of people showed up, including families, children, the elderly and young adults. We discovered that there were many book buyers in the city. There was no change except for a new location. We encouraged local publishers to give readers the same maximum trade discount they offered throughout the year so that they could buy more books on a limited budget. While we had offered the same at Alhamra, it had not made a difference but it was a success at the Expo Centre.

The digital age and e-books do not excuse the decline in readership in Pakistan. For a nation of 220 million people, the small number of books published annually is embarrassing. Most of the published books make their way to libraries. There are very few individual buyers. For this reason, we cannot blame the lack of value for books in our country on digitalisation.

This lasted for five years (2005-2009). The centre was eventually sold to a multi-national company that turned it into a store. Then a member of the military, who owns the area, approached us to host a book fair in the Fortress Stadium under a waterproof tent and offered to facilitate the event. We held the book fair on that ground for two years. Unfortunately, a storm hit once while we were there, and although it didn’t cause much damage, it frightened us. The next year, there were bomb blasts in cantonment areas and that led us to decide not to hold the book fair there anymore because if it touched the event, it would permanently shut down book fairs. The first time we missed a book fair was in 1985 owing to economic conditions. We missed one again in 2010 for the same reason.

It was during this period that the Lahore Expo Centre opened for business. In 2011, we held our first book fair there. However, the rent for one hall for one day is Rs 1.2 million. Since we run a five-day book fair, it costs us Rs 6 million in rent alone. We had to pay separately for other services. Even so, they created many hurdles. On the one hand, they said you can get services from wherever you wanted, and on the other, they refused to let the service providers in the hall on the grounds that they were not shortlisted or registered. The government had spent billions to develop this facility. The land alone cost billions of rupees. But they turn everything into a money-making venture here. Yet somehow, we managed it.

TNS: The emergence of the digital world and its inevitable impact on the book industry may have been among the many challenges organisers had to face during this event. What other challenges does a book fair of this size face?

SAM: We were concerned initially that the Fortress Stadium public would stop coming to the Johar Town Expo Centre since it is located away from the city, but we have been pleasantly surprised to see bigger crowds every year. We have held 34 book fairs since 1985, but in 2020 we lost one due to Covid-19. So technically, it has been 37 years. Governments all over the world develop these facilities. You see them in Europe, in the US and in India which is the third-largest publisher in the world. Unfortunately, we’ve got no such facility in our country. Public bodies that should be doing this work don’t do anything. Even when private organisations take an initiative, they aren’t willing to cooperate with them. In our city, for instance, we put on a large-scale exhibition, and it is imperative to advertise it to people, yet the Parks and Horticulture Authority (PHA) doesn’t allow us to put up banners or posters. And yet the political banners are everywhere. The PHA does not allow us to put up streamers and puts forward a tariff plan saying that one must pay Rs 6-7 million for hanging streamers for 6-7 days. Booksellers cannot afford such a charge. Governor Khalid Maqbool helped us by getting the PHA to cooperate with us. After him we faced the same insurmountable hurdles. During Shahbaz Sharif’s government, we approached the chief minister, and again, we got cooperation. This year, despite his instructions, the streamers were removed a night before the book fair. As chief minister, he used to inaugurate the event himself. The public sector should work with us to overcome these obstacles to promote this healthy activity.

TNS: In the age of e-books, where readers of all ages are gravitating toward reading books on their mobile phones and tablets, to what extent does an event like the Lahore International Book Fair help people develop an interest in books and encourage children to read physical books?

SAM: The digital age and e-books do not excuse the decline in readership in Pakistan. For a nation of 220 million people, the small number of books published annually is embarrassing. Most of the published books make their way to libraries. There are very few individual buyers. For this reason, we cannot blame the lack of value for books in our country on digitalisation. The digitalisation has taken place worldwide and while many people now buy e-books and even read online, they also value printed books.

TNS: In what ways might the event draw more people in the future and encourage them to read more books?

SAM: True book lovers will never stop buying books. However, our country lacks the reading habit. We cannot blame digitalisation for that. The only thing we do is use the internet and upload PDF books. There is no [respect for] copyright in this country. The same goes for popular authors who face piracy in their own country. Pirated works are being sold unchecked while ethical publishers suffer.

I must mention Zubair Saeed, the owner of PLD. He was our chairman in 2005. He was a dedicated and devoted friend whom we lost on January 28. His work for the book fair will always be remembered.

The interviewer is a freelance contributor

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