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published in Daily Nation on 01/05/2007
Books (scrap) sell like hot cakes
It all began in the early 90s when some traders started importing scrap in the shape of books from other countries. Books are exempted from Customs duty and sales tax. These books taken from huge warehouses in USA, UK, Singapore and Australia are bought abroad in the form of scrap but cleared here as books. Both the taxes are applicable on scrap (used old magazines and paper) which is imported for recycling purposes in the paper industry. On books the importers have to just pay 6 per cent withholding tax. This tax is taken on the declared value of the imported item, which is very low. The books then hit the market and are sold at high prices.
This was revealed by Convener Import Group of the Pakistan Publishers and Booksellers Association Saleem Malik while talking to The Nation on Monday.
For over a decade now the trend has reached great heights. It is now a business that has multi-billion rupee turn over every year. There has been no check on it mainly for the reason given that it provides people with cheap books, which is no doubt a great thing considering that people were moving away from reading books simply because they were too expensive. But on the other hand it all has led to a lot of cheating on the part of many booksellers who fixed their own price on books. They also supply these books to libraries and public and private institutions at the original price printed on books in dollars or pounds. Take for example in one container the number of books imported as scrap ranges from 25,000 to 40,000. The cost of each may range from Rs 5 to Rs 50 or Rs 100. But the same are sold on the printed price (price of new book) or at the price fixed by the bookseller.
Saleem Malik said the whole thing was destroying the book industry and had bought a lot of disgrace to regular importers. "People now look at us with suspicion. They think that we too are making some quick bucks, which is not true. We are doing a great service to the country."
"The average discount on books is 40 and on research books sometimes it is almost non-existent or is low. We import the research books without getting profits."
"The sale of remainder stocks (books bought as scrap from abroad) to libraries and institutions is deplorable. The libraries should take extra caution in this regard," he explained.
He suggested that there one remedy to the whole problem. "The Customs should not clear books without first stamping them. Each book should be stamped `Remainder' and `Not for sale in libraries'. This is the only way to check cheating as the books are not a banned item.
"The ordinary people would continue to benefit by getting books but the illegal practices cheating the common man and wastage of tax payers money would stop," he explained.
Secretary General PPBA Muhammad Zubair Saeed condemned the book stock remainder trade. "The bonafide importers rights should be protected. The libraries should be careful in dealing with booksellers who try to sell them such stuff. They should first check their importing licence.
"A lot of confusion has been created for the ordinary people. These people are getting editions of books that are not the latest. Many libraries in UK and USA wind up or they dispose off old books. These are brought to Pakistan by these people and sold as new ones," he revealed.
He said now the publishers in USA and UK offer special rates to importers in Pakistan especially on medical books, which is a good sign.
The situation is grave as the volume of retail sales at bookstores constitutes about 20 per cent of the whole trade. 80 per cent of book sales come from supply to libraries and institutions. The whole situation has come to light with the opening of new bookstores like Readings on the Gulberg's Main Boulevard in Lahore that are doing good business by providing books to people at very cheap rates.
GM Readings Abid Rao said their motive was not just business but provision of books to people at affordable rates. "We pass on the maximum discount to customers. We want to bring back the reading habit in society. We would want to further bring down the prices and are consistently working in this direction," he said.
He explained that they import containers of books. "We have a big 3.5 kanal big warehouse on Multan Road where we sort out the books. Usually 40 to 50 per cent of the stuff is irrelevant to Pakistan or is damaged and not good for sale," he explained.
He said Readings was also providing the people with new books at very low prices. "We take only a reasonable profit unlike others and give maximum discount to others," Rao said.
The gravity of the situation can be gauged by looking at books and their sale prices. For example a new book `The Library Shakespeare' price is $75 which if calculated at the rate of Rs 61 for one dollar comes to have a price of Rs 4,575. The Readings is selling it at Rs 1,500. This is giving almost 70 per cent discount.
The cost of Webster's Comprehensive Dictionary is $89.95 that is Rs 5,490. Government fixes currency exchange rate for booksellers for periods of three months, which is higher, to ensure there are no fluctuations. It is about Rs 73 for one dollar. Calculated at official rate this book would be Rs 6,615.
Popular fiction sells likes hot cakes. At readings a John Grisham novel is being sold for Rs 60. But the same in Main Market and some other areas is being sold for prices ranging from Rs 150 to Rs 330.
The supply of books to libraries is done at the official rate that is higher. The books that are made available from the `remainder stocks' have been finding way into libraries and institutions. Huge kickbacks may have been given. This can be checked in the educational institutions and libraries. Some booksellers have also been giving donations to institutions to get big orders. Recently a university was given the donation of air conditioners.
High Court of Sindh, Karachi