The Bangladesh Prime Minister and literature lover Sheikh Hasina will once again inaugurate the month-long Amar Ekushey Book Fair on February 1, and with it the 3-day International Literature Conference.

There were no surprises in the press conference given by Bangla Academy Director General Shamsuzzaman Khan, but also little to be excited by.

The boi mela is of course a major literary event on the world stage, lasting the entire month of February each year and attracting huge crowds that spend serious money on books, in defiance of the widely held belief that Bangladesh is a publishing backwater.

How much is serious money. Try c. $10 million.

It’s too soon to jump to any conclusions about what the 2020 boi mela will bring, but hopes raised last year that the event might be liberated from the control of the Bangla Academy have seemingly made no impact.

It’s not that the Bangla Academy is bad at what it does, or that the publishers might necessarily do any better. But there is a feeling that we will just see more of the same, and that innovation and embrace of new opportunities – digital for instance – might not be as encouraged as one might hope.

As reported here last January, the 2019 boi mela was supposed to have been “bigger than ever” –

and in fairness it might have been if not for the extreme weather.

Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina

But hopes raised by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s opening speech this year –

were, if not dashed, somewhat deflated.

Said Hasana this year:

We want our art, literature and culture to spread not only throughout the country but also the entire world.

If we can’t respect and enrich our own culture, language, art and literature, we can never develop ourselves as a nation in the global arena.

(The Amar Ekushy Book Fair) is a place to increase the number of readers and writers, and enhance the practice of literature … It also creates a scope for many readers to explore unknown knowledge. It opens the door to knowledge.

Fine words, but has anything come of them?

Of course, it’s a two way process, and print publishing moves slowly. Digital, on the other hand, is responsive and can cross boundaries in ways print cannot begin to match. But sadly it would seem Bangladesh as we start the new decade has made little progress in the digital publishing arena this year.

Bangladesh’s biggest ebook store, Sheiboi, has fewer than 3,000 titles in bangle and none in English. For a year now the site has promised an English-language option and presumably accompanying English-language content, but no sign that will happen any time soon.

The tragedy is that Bangladesh is no internet backwater.

It’s easy to misunderstand that when seeing Bangladesh is only at 57% internet penetration, or that it started this century with just 100,000 internet users.

But in 2019 that 57% equates to 94 million people online, making Bangladesh the 9th largest country on the planet by internet users, with more people online than any European country except Russia.

Will we see digital rise in prominence at the 2020 boi mela? To be fair, there were hopeful signs last year.

It’s not that the esteemed Bangla Academy is against digital progress so much that Bangladeshi publishing is too wrapped up in its traditional model and its traditional challenges and that it is not seeing the enormous benefits a hybrid print & digital might bring, both at home and abroad.

But perhaps the boi mela, which is after all a book fair to promote and sell print books, is not the best place to develop the digital debate.

Maybe it will need Sheikh Hasina herself to call for Bangladeshi publishing to, if not embrace, then at least fully explore the potential.

 What better way to start the new decade?