Ameena Saiyid

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We interviewed Ameena Saiyid, Managing Director of Oxford University Press in Pakistan, about how the conditions for publishing are changing in the country.

She told us about copyright and IP infringement, censorship and the pressures on authors and bookstores, as well as sharing concrete suggestions for how the publishing sector can be supported. We learnt why she launched the Karachi and Islamabad Literature Festivals and why she's nostalgic for the age of “rickshaws and seedy hotels”.

Publisher Profile: Ameena Saiyid 
Managing Director, Oxford University Press, Pakistan

IPA: You started working at OUP in 1975. Since then, has it got easier or more difficult to be a
publisher in Pakistan?

AS: I joined OUP in 1979 and was responsible for promoting OUP books in schools, libraries, universities, medical colleges, and the trade. My area was the entire Punjab, the then North-West Frontier Province, and Islamabad. In a way, it was easier then as I could travel alone everywhere in public transport (buses, trains, rickshaws...), staying at seedy hotels. I would roam the bazars of Peshawar meeting booksellers, having tea with them, discussing business, and collecting orders all without covering my head or being wrapped up in a large shawl. Although booksellers in Peshawar and other towns were taken aback when I first began visiting them, they accepted and began doing business with me when they saw that I was serious.

It would be unthinkable to do this now in the current climate of extremism. The country was more liberal and secular then. Radicalization began from 1977 after Zia ul Haq took over, and got rapidly worse after 2001.

Some issues were common then and now. The state school sector was closed to private sector publishers and piracy was prevalent. Now piracy has become easier because of technology making pirated books more difficult to identify. In some ways, it was more difficult being a publisher then as there were very few professional authors of textbooks, editors, book designers, and illustrators. Nowadays we have a good numbers of suitable authors for textbooks, academic and scholarly works, as well as trained and experienced staff. Previously, approval was required from the federal ministry of information before publishing any academic or trade book. Although that's no longer the case, another kind of more insidious censorship now exists. In the current atmosphere of conservatism and extremism, there is a huge risk of content in books being regarded as blasphemous, a serious matter given the blasphemy laws in Pakistan carry a death sentence. Nowadays one has to be extremely careful to vet content to ensure it cannot be regarded as blasphemous.

So I can't say categorically in which period publishing was easier. I think there were challenges earlier and now, but at both times publishing had great potential and a good future.

IPA: Pakistan has a very poor record for protecting IP and copyright, and for book piracy in particular. Just how bad is the problem, and why are things the way they are?

AS: The problem is acute. Pakistan is a signatory to the Berne Convention and has Copyright Laws and an Intellectual Property Organisation (IPO) but they are weak and ineffective. For examples, the law does not state a minimum punishment and leaves this to the discretion of magistrates, who invariably let the accused off with petty fines. Thus there is no deterrent effect. Enforcement, however, is improving somewhat as the government is now beginning to realize that the weak IPR regime discourages foreign and domestic investment and reduces tax revenue.

The piracy problem is colossal. My estimation is that the market of pirated books is bigger than that of genuine books. What is most worrying is the mindset: there is a widespread perception that piracy is justified, indeed necessary, in a poor, third world country on the grounds that students and readers generally need cheap books, that imported books are exorbitantly priced, and that royalties and profits go out of the country. My contention, which I talk about at every forum, is that Pakistani authors are robbed of their royalties and have to seek jobs to supplement their income. This reduces creative output, the government’s tax revenue is reduced, and piracy actually raises the prices of books as it shrinks the market and prevents economies of scale.

Things are the way they are because of an entrenched mindset which regards pirates as modern-day Robin Hoods, a lack of accountability, weak laws, the enormous and quick profits generated by piracy, and poor enforcement. Incidentally, the violation of all aspects of IPR is rampant and not confined to books. Medicines, packaged and branded food, soap, shampoo, designer clothes and currency notes are all affected by counterfeit.

The knock-on effects are substantial on all stakeholders. The bona fide book industry is the worst affected. Any book for which there is a demand of even 300 copies becomes a target for piracy. Thus the cost of doing business in Pakistan is greatly increased as publishers have to spend their time and resources in protecting their copyright and brand, educating the government, educational institutions, readers and the media on the harm caused by piracy, and trying to change perceptions of piracy. Piracy also diminishes publishers’ brands as pirated books are mistaken for genuine ones and publishers are criticized for their poor quality.

Writers suffer as well as they are deprived of royalties on pirated books. The result is that they either stop writing or do so only in their free time. Many of Pakistan’s greatest writers such as Faiz Ahmed Faiz and Mushtaq Ahmed Yusufi spent their lives working in banks or other businesses in order to make ends meet, causing much loss to Pakistan’s literary heritage. At times, authors ask for a one-off advance payment in lieu of royalties to ensure some income. Bookstores selling genuine books, and there are not many, are affected, which is why there are no real chain bookstores. There are many small area bookshops which sell stationery and textbooks, but many of them sell a mix of genuine and pirated books.

Education and consumers are victims as well. Poor quality books discourage the reading habit and put children in particular off books and reading. Consumers are cheated as they are sold pirated books as genuine books. We have thus carried out an extensive copyright education campaign to sensitise the public to this issue and enable them to check carefully before buying, to distinguish between genuine and pirated books, and to report sales of pirated books.

IPA: How are reading habits changing in Pakistan?

AS: Reading habits are changing for the better in Pakistan but it is an ongoing struggle. We have to beat the drum to promote books and reading. There is another mindset that is at work here which is that books should somehow be obtained free. I think this has been created by a lot of vanity publishing, where people publish their own books and give them away to their families and friends. However, by publishing books on subjects of interest and relevance, selling them at affordable prices, making them accessible, and by promoting and marketing books effectively, it is possible to get people to buy and read books.

IPA: How is OUP changing its focus and strategy as a result of the digital age?

AS: OUP Pakistan is entering the digital age by publishing a limited number of digital resources. I am sure the demand for digital resources will rise quickly but at present it is limited, partly because Pakistan has still not entered the 3G/4G age although it expects to do so before long. We will ramp up our digital publishing in line with demand, but I expect printed books to remain viable for some years.

IPA: With so much already on your plate, what motivated you to launch the Karachi and Islamabad Literature Festivals? What are you hoping to achieve?

AS: The main reasons for launching the Karachi and Islamabad Literature Festivals were to draw the public, especially students, to books, authors, and reading, to give literature the recognition it deserves, to project Pakistan’s rich literary traditions and to create a model that can be scaled up and turned into a movement. Of course, I can’t do any more but I was delighted when another group began the Lahore Literary Festival modelled on ours; that too was successful in drawing the public to books and authors.

I have had requests from academics in other cities of Pakistan to organize literary festivals. I’ve told them that local groups should organize such festivals themselves. They are welcome to use our model and I’ll be happy to share our ideas with them but they should own it. It was a kind of medium and long-term market development plan that has proved to be enormously successful.

Over 70,000 people attended the Karachi Literature Festival this year and books were sold in large quantities and authors mobbed to sign copies. The media coverage was spectacular. We launch about 20 books at these festivals and they draw a great deal of attention and media reportage. Now that we have developed a template and learnt the ropes, the organization has become streamlined and predictable and does not require much time and effort.

IPA: What can be done to boost literacy and reading habits? How can we ensure young people feel a love of, and a need for, books?

AS: Well, the literature festivals are one way to create a love for books and reading and they have worked really well. Another is to organize children’s literature festivals and similar events which we do in collaboration with other partners. These are as successful as the Karachi and Islamabad Literature Festivals. Schools bring bus-loads of pupils to these and we entertain them through story-telling, theatre, puppet shows, songs, dance and art all directed towards books, reading, and authors. The idea is to make reading and books fun.

We also organize a weekly programme called ‘Friendship with Books’ where we get a popular musician and actor to read and sing to children and play his guitar. The message of the importance of the reading habit is delivered through such activities. During the summer holidays, we organize programmes for children related to reading; the emphasis throughout is to make such activities enjoyable.

IPA: What can be done to support publishing as a viable industry in Pakistan?

AS: The most important way to make publishing viable is to eliminate piracy and cross-border book smuggling. Courses on all aspects of publishing should be introduced in universities, to produce a corpus of trained personnel. However this can only be done if publishers’ businesses grow and more jobs are created. A network of well-managed libraries and bookshops needs to be established to improve access to books. A campaign on the importance of reading and the harmful effects of piracy would be very helpful. The state school sector should be opened up to private publishers, the monopoly of provincial textbook boards ended, and competition introduced in the supply of books to government schools; only competition drives up standards.

That is my wish list: any of these measures would give a boost to publishing in Pakistan.

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