After a successful book fair last year, Mahabub Rahman, the CEO of Adarsha publications, hoped for a good business year. The Covid-19 was still a 'Chinese' virus by the end of February 2020, and few people had imagined so much would change so fast.
However, everything changed by the end of March. The country went into lockdown in the guise of general holidays for nearly three months.
"Our business ceased to exist for the entire period of lockdown. We have around 25 employees working for Adarsha. We could provide them salaries thanks to the profits we made in the book fair and kept our fingers crossed that things would turn around soon," Mahabub said.
The general holidays eventually ended by June, but the business never really turned around last year.
"As we have a big team, we planned to make up for the losses by publishing three times more books in the next fair (2021). We released 30 books last year, so we prepared to release around 100 books this year," said Mahabub, adding that "we, however, remained vigilant of the Covid situation. We proceeded with the work, kept the books ready, and planned to publish the books only if the fair was organised."
It was a complicated decision – to implement or cancel the fair – for Bangla Academy. The international trade fair has already been cancelled this year due to coronavirus.
The academy, however, decided to organise an open book fair. Instead of February 1, the fair began on March 18. Thanks to the scorching heat, the shift in time frame could be felt dearly at the fair premise.
"Since the fair was really happening, we began to publish the books one by one. By the time the academy decided to end the fair, we had published around 70 of our books already.
"And it was a disaster. Our sale was not even close to 15% of what we did in the last year. Besides, a large amount of our books are sold in Banglabazar, from where it travels to the bookstores and libraries all across the country. In Banglabazar this year, the sale volume was around 5% of what we sold last year," Adarsha publisher Mahabub told The Business Standard.
The disaster can indeed be perceived from book fair standing committee convener Shyamal Pal's comments that whereas last year the sale volume of the fair was nearly Tk 80 crore, this year the book fair sale volume was only Tk 3,11,91,928 (less than four crore). The standing committee convener also said that the collective investment of 413 publications who participated in the fair was nearly Tk 100 crore.
How did the fair become so counterproductive? We asked several publishers. They mentioned several reasons why the fair went wrong.
First of all, the absence of a coordinated decision from the Academy's side – the dilemma to organise or not to organise the fair ruined the regular vibe among book lovers. Some criticised the decision to delay the fair till March, when the situation was better in February, and readers also have a connection with this month.
However, the second wave of coronavirus and the book fair went almost hand in hand. Covid cases spiked very fast in the second half of March and the government announced a lockdown without any preparation, which went really bad as far as public obedience to the decision was concerned. But it paralysed an already struggling fair.
So, some suggested if the fair could have been arranged online, the result might have been different.
"An online fair would have been better. I have my own online business. I am aware of the know-hows. The Academy could have sorted a way out for a collectively beneficial online fair, and we could explore how it works out," Sajid Rahman, publisher of Adee Prokashon, told The Business Standard.
Adarsha's Mahabub also agreed an online fair could somewhat help the publishers survive in the changing spectrum.
Mahbub said the fair could be given a digital boost through a partnership between ecommerce sites and Bangla Academy. He said along with Rokomari, or Daraz, other ecommerce sites could be partnered with - to avoid a market monopoly, and at the same time the fair could continue even now.
We asked A. H. M. Lokman, secretary of Bangla Academy, why this fair could not be held digitally.
"We understand the situation and that is why we had a meeting with the publishers last November. It was in that meeting that we decided to have an open book fair.
"We also had ideas to have an online book fair. While some of the publishers agreed to this, the rest opposed it strongly. And I think that is because most of the publishers do not have an online presence," Lokman told The Business Standard.
Baatighar Proprietor Dipankar Das is one of the publishers who supported the physical fair.
"In the changing Covid scenario, many publications have their websites and are available on ecommerce. So Bangla Academy organising an online fair would not be a good idea. We are always in favour of a physical fair. It creates a buzz online too. It has a different essence," Dipankar told The Business Standard.
He also mentioned, unlike many other publishers, that the book fair is not the only place to sell books, indicating to Baatighar's popular bookstores in Dhaka, Chattogram and Sylhet.
We asked Adee Prokashon's Sajid Rahman why many publishers are so dependent on the book fair for their livelihood.
"Our people do not read books," Rahman had a short answer.
As things unravelled for the publication industry this year, how is the publication sector going to survive? Every year the publishers wait for the book fair as for most of them, it is the only scope to make profits.
We asked the Bangla Academy secretary. He said "We gave them compensation through stall bookings. This year the publishers paid 50% of what they paid in previous years for stalls." It is hard to understand how the stall discounts would save the ailing industry, though.
Covid cases are surging. There is no certainty about what will happen in the coming years. Some vaccines have arrived. So did the South Africa variant of coronavirus that most of the current vaccines are incapable of dealing with effectively.
Besides, unhealthy competition among the powerful countries in hoarding vaccines is also a major roadblock. Thus, when the pandemic will go away remains unknown.
Does Bangla Academy have any preparation for the next fair?
"We are working on developing a common website for the publishers where they will present their books like a virtual market place. And I am assuring you that next year if the Covid situation is not under control, we will organise an online book fair," said Bangla Academy secretary A. H. M. Lokman.
"If the Covid situation improves we will hold the fair both online and offline," the secretary added.
Like all other pandemic-hit publishers, Baatighar also "sold only a fourth of what we targeted in the fair," said Dipankar. But he is sceptical of finding a solution through an online fair.
"We will have to make a decision based on the situation. However, I am in favour of a physical fair even if that is for fewer days," Dipankar added.
Dipankar is not the only publisher who opposes an online fair. How Bangla Academy creates a common platform where all the publishers can have a fair chance to make a profit and survive is an ordeal, and we will have to wait and see how it shapes up.