Most Afghans Can’t Read, but Their Book Trade Is Booming

“There was this huge pent-up demand from so many years without new books,” said Dr. Ajmal Aazem, a pediatrician whose father founded the publishing house that bears their name. The Aazem company is publishing books as fast as it can, limited only by a shortage of qualified translators from English into local languages. Aazem’s 2017-18 goal is to print three new titles a day, 1,100 a year — a huge number for any publisher.

The publishing house is festooned with life-size posters of recent book covers, and the bookshop is full of volumes in artfully arranged helical piles or displayed on the walls with English and Persian versions opening from right and left, side by side. The floor in the middle of the sales room has been raised to accommodate the presses on the floor below, making a sort of platform with comfortable armchairs.

Because editing a book in its original language can be much faster than translating it, the bigger publishers have begun commissioning original work as well, for the first time in many years. Aksos has even started a sort of Afghan version of Amazon, selling books through its Facebook page and then delivering them the same day by couriers for the equivalent of about 50 cents a book in Kabul. Afghans often lack internet connections or personal computers at home, but educated young people usually have Facebook on their smartphones.

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Most Afghans Can’t Read, but Their Book Trade Is Booming
Most Afghans Can’t Read, but Their Book Trade Is Booming

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Piracy remains endemic. On a recent day, even some of the titles in Aksos’ own busy, flagship bookstore were pirated copies of popular books.

Publishers are worried. “On a lot of our books, we’ll sell 1,000 copies, and the pirates will sell 4,000 copies of the same book at lower prices,” Dr. Aazem said. “The government needs to do more to stop this.”

Government officials have started enforcing the country’s long-ignored copyright laws, according to Sayed Fazel Hossain Sancharaki, who is in charge of publishing at the Ministry of Information and Culture. “In the last four months we’ve had four or five copyright cases,” he said. One photocopy shop was closed recently by the government for running off cheap copies of printed books.

Realizing that “The Envoy,” the 2016 memoir by Mr. Khalilzad, the Afghan-American who was the United States ambassador to both Afghanistan and Iraq, would be a big seller here, Mr. Aazem rushed to acquire the Dari and Pashto rights. He was determined to offer a better-quality book at a narrow markup and flood the market before the pirates could do so. But Aksos managed to print a Pashto version first, without rights to it, selling 1,000 copies in three days, he said.

Mr. Nasiri, the owner of Aksos, which is also translating a new title every week or so, denied that his company printed pirated books. And he, also, complained about piracy. “We do have copyright law in Afghanistan, but no one seems to know that,” he said. “It’s a big, serious problem.”

Aksos recently began commissioning original books, too, including “Baghdadi Pir,” a historical novel in Pashto about a British spy in the 1920s during the time of King Amanullah.

But the publisher’s big sellers are self-help books, particularly in the how-to-get-rich genre. Ivanka Trump’s “Women Who Work” is also popular in translation, particularly among female readers.

Mr. Nasiri admitted that his company’s bookstores stock many pirated volumes, even if they do not pirate books themselves.

“We are actually against that, but since almost all books are pirated, we have no option but to accept pirated copies and sell them,” he said. “If we don’t do that, it will make business hard for us. This is happening all over Asia.”

The most recent publishing sensation in Kabul also became its biggest piracy scandal: “Afghan Politics: The Inside Story,” a two-volume book set by Rangin Dadfar Spanta, former President Hamid Karzai’s national security adviser and a Henry Kissinger-like figure here. Aazem Publishing sold thousands of copies in its first few weeks in print, though it is pricey by Afghan standards, at $15 a set. Its V.I.P.-studded book launch was held at the Fort of the Nine Towers in November, and an English translation is due from Aazem this year.

“We invested heavily in that book and printed it beautifully, then kept the cost as low as possible to defeat the pirates,” Dr. Aazem said. Promotional posters were distributed to bookstores, showing the avuncular Mr. Spanta, and billboard space and airtime were purchased to advertise it.

“Afghan Politics” was out for about a month, however, when an electronic file of the book began circulating on Afghan social media accounts.

Furious, the publishers at Aazem closed their doors in protest, hanging black curtains in all the windows and idling the presses until the government promised to pursue book pirates. They’re still waiting.

Jawad Sukhanyar and Mujib Mashal contributed reporting.

Follow Rod Nordland on Twitter: @rodnordland. Follow New York Times Books on Facebook and Twitter (@nytimesbooks), and sign up for our newsletter.

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