November 12, 2010

Iran’s book censors challenge publishers, creating huge backlog of titles


Books the censors got around to

Imagine for a moment you’re a book publicist in Iran. You know that X title has been bid upon and bought by an editor at your house. You’ve conducted strategy meetings, done some initial outreach to media and reading venues to gauge interest in a tour, all the while the book is being shepherded through the production process. The interiors have been designed and files have been sent to the galley printer (a final copy edit is still being done but so what?–that’s why you include the “uncorrected proof: do not quote” warning). You’re assembling your initial mailing list of book editors and producers for media, but perhaps the most consequential recipient on your list is the most necessary–and most despised–job in your country: the censor.

In an essay for the McClatchy-Tribune News Service and picked up by the Kansas City Star, Iranian journalist Omid Nikfarjam peels back the curtain and lays out the challenges publishers face in Iran today:

According to government figures, there are about 7,000 publishing firms in Iran today. Even if only 1,000 of those publishers delivers five books a year for approval, that’s 5,000 books a year the censors must wade through.

No wonder one publishing house says it has about 70 novels and short story collections currently pending review by the censors, while another reports it has had between 50 and 70 books awaiting review at any one time during the last two years.

It’s safe to say that many publishers in Iran produce a lot more than 5 titles a year. Indeed, 70 titles could be 2 years’ worth of titles for a small-to-moderate sized press, meaning that publishers are caught in a sort of impossible situation: you have titles you know you can sell and promote, you’re laying the ground work–you might have even printed thousands of copies already–but the government won’t give you the go-ahead to put them in stores. (So you, dear publicist, are stuck in limbo.)

This was all made worse when Ahmadinejad was elected in 2005. In one of his first acts, he mandated that all titles approved by the previous administration be reviewed again:

That created a massive backlog. Censors had to go through already published works, as well as the never-ending flow of new ones, checking line by line to see whether they were compatible with the “core Islamic values” the new administration wanted to assert.

My own translation of Vladimir Nabokov’s Laughter in the Dark fell victim to this retrospective censorship. Seven thousand copies had been printed in three editions, but censors now deemed it “unpublishable,” and it never saw the light of day again.

Having to destroy an entire printing of a book could bankrupt a small press. Which some in the publishing industry there think is the whole point. “They want to crush well-known publishers and stop writers and translators from working on novels, which they see as a corrupt, western thing,” an author and translator told Nikfarjam.

Fortunately, Iranian publishers are about as stubborn as publishers anywhere. Said one publisher: “No totalitarian regime has lasted forever, has it? I’ve been in the book business for 50 years now and I have no plans to quit.”