History of publishing

November 28, 2021

There is a need to reflect on the history of publishing in Pakistan to understand where it stands today

History of publishing

Lahore was the publishing centre of undivided India but it faced a crisis after Partition as mostly-Hindu publishers and booksellers left for India. The most famous example was Ferozsons. Its owner, Ram Advani, left for India where he set up one of the best bookshops in India in Lucknow. Fortunately, the smaller Muslim publishers of Lahore successfully stepped into the vacuum and sustained publishing because the field was open to them with the government of the then new country continuing the policy of allowing private publishers to produce textbooks for all schools, government and private. Thus, after Partition, publishers remained active in Pakistan and identified, developed and commissioned writers and published school textbooks on various subjects.

This policy lasted from 1947 to 1962. This favourable position of publishing in Pakistan changed when martial law was declared by Ayub Khan in 1958, and the publication of textbooks for Grades 1 to 11 was nationalised and handed over to a National Textbook Board in 1962. Thus, textbook publishing for government schools was transferred from the private to the public sector. Private publishers could continue publishing for private schools, but with only about 200 it was not viable. In 1971, the National Textbook Board was broken up into four provincial textbook boards and the publication of school textbooks for government schools was brought under the exclusive control of these boards. This stifled the nascent publishing industry and reduced publishers to the role of printers. From being dynamic, creative originators of books, they ended up being printers of low-quality textbooks for the government. This monopoly of textbook boards killed creativity and competition needed to drive up standards, variety and choice. Since publishers used their profits from school textbooks to publish general and academic books, both fiction and non-fiction, and story books for children, this business also crumbled.

The position of private schools changed in the mid-1970s with the rapid growth of private schools after their nationalisation by the Bhutto government was reversed. This was followed by an explosion of private schools resulting from the steep decline of the government school system across the country caused by the use of sub-standard textbooks, poor governance and management, and the growth of the middle class which demanded quality education and resources for their children. The government realised its inability to provide quality education and adopted a laissez faire attitude towards private schools, which encouraged entrepreneurs to set up more schools. It was an exciting, exhilarating time for education in Pakistan as private sector schools and publishers came into their own and began competing to provide the best services for a growing, demanding and challenging market. There was creativity, innovation, technology and the pursuit of high standards to fulfill customer needs. Innovation in education was catalysed in schools, and with them publishing grew dramatically. The rapid increase in low-cost private schools, which were affordable, provided better education than government schools, and responded more effectively to local needs created a dynamic environment in the marketplace.

The literature festivals, which became a movement in Pakistan from 2010, had a good impact on publishers as they promoted authors and books at panel discussions and book signings.

Private schools generated a demand for quality textbooks and resources, which enabled publishers to develop writers, designers, illustrators, editors and teacher trainers, and to compensate them well and ensure the ready availability of textbooks. Opportunities were thus growing both for new publishers entering the market and the established ones. This also led to greater contacts and collaboration with publishers in Singapore and the UK with Pakistani publishers obtaining rights to adapt and reprint their books for Pakistan. Schools in the GCC countries and North Africa, where Pakistanis live required textbooks from Pakistan that were exported. Even Indian schools in the GCC countries used Urdu courses from Pakistan for Indian Muslim children. The literature festivals, which became a movement in Pakistan from 2010, had a good impact on publishers as they promoted authors and books at panel discussions and book signings.

The growth of schools and publishers drew the attention of foreign publishers who began to take this market seriously and tried to enter it either directly or via arrangements with local publishers. This exposure to more established publishers led to foreign investment and the transfer of knowledge and best practices. Some publishers became victims of their own success as their books were pirated causing losses to them, authors as well as the government as pirates don’t pay royalties or taxes. This has been a major obstacle for publishers who see the fruits of their investment illegally copied and sold. Pakistan has weak intellectual property rights laws and enforcement.

In 2020, publishers were hit by Covid which led to school closures and lockdowns. They had barely recovered from this when the Single National Curriculum (SNC) was enforced resulting in their huge stocks of books becoming unsaleable as schools were forced to use books based on the SNC, and for which no objection certificates (NOCs) were issued by provincial Education Departments. This involved a long, convoluted and expensive process in which publishers in the Punjab, the ICT, the KP and the AJK had to get every single textbook reviewed by External Review Committees (ERC). Each ERC had to comprise 5 people who charged anything from Rs 10,000 to Rs 25,000 per head per book for the review and approval, which took months. Thus, publishers had to pay Rs 50,000 to Rs 125,000 per book. After this, they had to submit their books to the textbook boards to their Internal Review Committees for their final approval and NOC. The Punjab Curriculum and Textbook Board charges Rs 10,000 per book for the NOC after getting publishers to virtually rewrite, re-illustrate and redesign their books and submit manuscripts in the form of multiple colour photocopies. Each publisher has at least 100 books so the cost of multiple reviews at different levels, endless colour dummies and months taken can be calculated. When they protested, they were ignored and called “mafias”.

The frustration and despair of schools can be imagined as they cannot use any book that has not been issued an NOC. Raids are being conducted in schools and school bags of children, and school cupboards are being searched to see if they are using books without NOCs. Fines and closures are threatened if non-NOC books are found. No NOCs are being issued to books on social studies or general knowledge that are in English because, according to the SNC, these subjects can only be taught in Urdu. So, publishers’ stocks of books on these subjects in English have suddenly become unusable. They now have to translate them into Urdu and complete the painful process for obtaining NOCs. Science books for Classes 1-3 are not being issued NOCs as, according to the SNC, science teaching should begin from Class 4. What do publishers do with their stocks, and what do schools teach?

In other countries, governments have sent publishers’ staff on the furlough scheme in which the government pays 80 percent of their salaries during lockdowns, and supports their participation in international book fairs. Here, they have been forced to suffer massive financial and business losses by their stocks becoming irrelevant, having to completely change their books to comply with the SNC and pay vast sums for approval. This has been a terrible blow to both publishers and education. One can only hope that better sense prevails.

Publishers need to be valued and supported. They are the servants of civilisation.

The author is the founder and managing    director of    Lightstone Publishers

History of publishing