The study visit had a twofold purpose: 1) to investigate the contemporary state of the book sector in Tajikistan and 2) based on 1, to propose a scheme for a strategically focused approach to the book support to the Open Society Foundation – Tajikistan.
A parallel aim of the visit was to give Tajik publishers the opportunity to get information on developments in the Georgian book market from the recent years and to exchange ideas and experiences with a leading private Georgian publisher “Bakur Sulakauri” and one of its directors Tina Mamulashvilli.
Research was undertaken primarily via interviews with publishers, retail sellers, distributors, librarians, donors and foundation staff. 17 people in total were interviewed, mostly in their offices or working premises. Tina Mamulashvilli attended the interviews of the first 3 days of the visit.
I. Publishing in Tajikistan – main features
There are no publishers per se
This is the most important feature of the current state of the book sector. “Publisher” here is used to designate an enterprise which has as its main activity commissioning and developing original or translated content on the basis of certain views on readers’ needs, deciding on the appropriate printing format, making it printed and making it available to readers. “Publisher” in Tajikistan is rather used for every state or privately owned company which is able to process an already developed content into a book form, for which the financing is ensured by authors themselves or by organizations. Generally, “publishers” are in possession of some kind of printing and bounding equipment but there are also companies which do not have such equipment but act as mediators between the commissioner and the printer. Once being the best in the whole Central Asia, currently most printing equipment is heavily outdated and far behind in comparison with the neighboring countries. Both state and international donor organizations often print abroad – most commonly in Turkey and Kazakhstan.
Book sector is dominated by the state
Despite some recent trends towards privatization, the state dominates the sector at least in two senses: 1) approximately half of the active publishers are either state owned or the state holds most of the shares and 2) the state is the bigger commissioner. As far as major changes in cultural and economic policy of the country happen by presidents decrees, the book sector also expects that the state plays a major role by setting up the “rules of the game” in publishing, by supporting infrastructure and providing finances. The strong presence of the state, however, is combined with weak mechanisms for actual enforcement of state policies in the sector – for example, even state publishers rarely provide copies for the national book deposit.
Further, wholesale distribution is still monopolized by the state company “Tajik Kitob” (Tajik Book).
Book market is very weak; competition is a competition for commissions not for better sales
Although there is no data available, evidences suggest that the biggest share of the market is taken by textbooks (commissioned by the state thanks to credits by World Bank, UNESCO and occasionally other donors). Thus, virtually all publishers that we spoke with see their opportunities for future development as printers of more and more textbooks. Buit, in addition to being limited in time, the World Bank’s and other textbook tenders are often non-transparent and thus unstable as a source of leaving. Thus, competition between publishers takes place in a distorted fashion as competition for “zakazy” (orders, commissions) rather than a competition for more readers and sales.
The second place on the market is occupied by imported Russian language books on computers and English-language teaching.
On the overall, it seems that the long dominance of state socialism in the country had resulted in profound suspicion towards “income” and “profit”. Even at discussions with private publishers, money-talks, and especially talks on generating profit seem to be from the “lower” domain of the language, not only because of business secrets but because they are regarded as “amoral”.
Distribution and retail sales
Locally produced titles are distributed by their authors, by the state distributor “Tajik Kitob” or by four small private distributors operating in Dushanbe only. “Tajik Kitob” has also a bookshop situated far from the city center. Wholesale discount is 15-20%.
Retail sales in Dushanbe takes place at small stands on the streets, mainly selling new or second-hand Russian books and magazines and at commercial centers where each retailer rents a stand. We visited two of these centers, mainly selling stationary, with 1-2 bookselling points. While the majority of these stands trade Russian-language books, there was also one retailer who had up to 80% local titles on offer. According to publishers, street vendors work on commission and pay back 15-30 days after sales are done.
Import of Russian-language books is done in small quantities by individuals (from Moscow or Tashkent) and the price of the bestselling computer- and language- books is 10-15 US, almost equal to the average monthly salary in Tajikistan. There is also a big and very well-equipped bookshop for Russian books, situated in a secondary location but we were unable to get any information from its highly suspicious manager.
Monopoly over content
This monopoly takes different forms – the commissioner generally takes the whole print run for distribution, not allowing the publisher to make additional copies to distribute. This is valid for commissions done by authors and foundations (including Soros foundation) alike. Authors do that for fear of infringement of copyrights (as there is no mechanism for control over the sales) but also because selling their own books is a source of a tax free income for them. Another instance of monopoly is the control executed by the state over publishing of the bestselling and potentially profitable legal codexes which cannot be distributed by publishers.
Pirating/ unauthorized sales
According to the information we got, textbooks are most often pirated, with pirate editions having 3 times lower price than the original ones. Estimations say that 20-25% of the copies on the market are pirated. There are also cases when books supported by different donors for free distribution appear on the market – a fact that supports the intuition that free distribution is not always the most appropriate way to make a book available to its readers.
By constitution, Tajik is the official state language with Russian being “the language of international communication”. Russian is still widely spoken and is associated with access to world culture and knowledge. Most subjects in universities are taught in Tajik.
With the independence of Tajikistan, the language is quickly changing and developing to meet contemporary communication needs. There is an ongoing debate on how these challenges should be dealt with. Classical Tajik or nowadays Persian are often the sources used as opposed to Russian or English. There is also a Presidential Commission on Language which is supposed to develop standards and recommendations.
Lack of capital and difficulties in obtaining bank credits
The lack of working capital is one of the most serious problems that impede publishers’ growth. Normally, publishers work with 50-60% advance payments to be able to start working on a project. Several private banks provide credits for SME but the 6 months return period is too short for a business as publishing.
Professional associations and book-fairs
The Association of Tajik Publishers was created about 2 years ago and its operations are supported by a small Foundation’s grant. The Association gathers 12 (?) private publishers, and according to its statutes it is governed by a general assembly, an executive director and a president. In fact, however, the president plays a major role in taking decisions. Both the president and the director work in a state publishing house (!).
A major project realized by the Association so far is the organization of the Dushanbe Book Fair in November 2003 - the first of its kind for the last 10 years. The Fair attracted significant attention by media, politicians and general public but did not generated any sales due to the restrictions of the system of “zakazy” decribed above.
There is also Association of Entrepreneurs of which some publishers are members.