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.