Online publication in Iran—a new arena for censored writers

The use of the Internet is growing in Iran—the country has more than forty-six million Internet users and half of the population have access to smart phones. This opens up new channels for publishers to make banned or censored books accessible. Azadeh Iravani, publisher at the online publishing house Nogaam, tells of how they use technology in order go circumvent censorship.

July 8 2015 Text: Azadeh Iravani

It starts with an idea, a sentence, a dialogue or a simple image. It urges the author to pick up their pen and start writing. Many days and nights are spent developing characters, pouring their mind into their story’s veins and struggling in agony against writer’s block until, one day, they finally finish their work; a part of the writer’s soul and essence given form in words. A world created by them that exists nowhere else. But what happens next? Is it a masterpiece or a load of nonsense? It means nothing without being read, discussed and criticised by others.

You might have heard that being a writer is not a profitable career. Perhaps one of the most difficult jobs for a writer is finding and convincing a publisher to send their book to print. But not in my country, not in Iran.

In Iran, any author looking to have their book published should first send their books to the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance to get a publishing license. This process doesn’t have a definitive timeline, and books can sit on the waiting list for any period of time lasting from two months to over a year. There are also no clearly defined policies or guidelines in place for this review process, meaning that writers just don’t know what to expect. Most books are returned to authors with a long list of requested amendments that must be made before a publishing license is given.

Since Hassan Rouhani came to office in 2013, the process of book reviewing has sped up and the level of communication between the publishers and the Book Office has improved, but there are still blacklisted authors and banned books as the censorship machine is alive and running. Despite that, authors and publishers see hope as the darkest era of the publishing industry in Iran ends. Book censorship worsened under Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s presidency (2005–2013), leading Iranian writers to hide their work, publish them underground or put them online for free. Many previously published books’ licenses were revoked during Ahmadinejad’s time in office, while the crushing effects of inflation and the economic crisis also contributed to the squeezing of the industry, which meant that Iranian families were buying fewer books. In addition, increasing numbers of authors were reverting to self-censorship in order to hasten the permission-seeking process.

The advantages and disadvantages of online and digital publishing have been the subject of heated arguments all over the world for some time. Some countries are pioneers, whereas others are choosing to take a far more cautious approach, wary of naysayers’ warnings about sales figures and low profits. However, in a country such as Iran, in which the freedom of expression is ignored and each printed word must secure the approval of the authorities, online publishing offers a blissful alternative.

Internet and smartphone penetration rates in Iran have significantly increased over the last couple of years; at least half of Iranians have access to smartphones, according to officials. Iran has more than 46 million Internet users (57.2% penetration), making up nearly half of the Middle East’s total of Internet users (though not everyone has regular access).

In order to address the current issues around publishing in Iran through the use of innovative new technologies, Nogaam (New Step) was established in December 2012. Nogaam is an independent online crowd-funding publisher for books that are either partially censored or totally forbidden in Iran. Offering these high quality books online for free increases the operational capacity of authors whilst simultaneously giving readers the opportunity to access censored works about a broad variety of topics, from the socio-political to the historical to the taboo.

In addition to offering a way for provocative books to be published, Nogaam provides a platform upon which sensitive and important topics and literary works may be discussed. Nogaam works on a crowd-funding model; authors submit their manuscripts for review by an expert board, and, if approved, the books become projects on the website, which can be ‘crowd-funded’ by supporters. Supporters are Iranians from either inside the country or the diaspora. If the books raise the necessary funds, they are published under a Creative Commons license for free. Once a book is approved for publication on the website, Nogaam enters into a formal contract with the authors, securing a royalty fee and the book’s copyright.

With 25 books published from a variety of different genres, Nogaam has built an audience of thousands of regular users, with around 70% of traffic coming from Iran itself. The books include poetry, novels, short story collections and non-fiction, and are written on topics ranging from relationships and gender equality, to social and religious taboos, LGBT literature and underground music.

Online operations offer the chance for any reader from across the country, and from across the world, to have access to contemporary Persian literature. From big cities like Tehran, to the small towns and villages on the northern and southern fringes of the country, Nogaam’s supporters are making it possible for censored authors to publish their work and build a global audience. Nogaam’s books have been downloaded on average 2,500 times each since the first book was published—an extraordinary number considering that the average first edition print run of a book published in Iran at present is 500–1,000 copies.

The online publishing for banned or censored books seems to be one of the best solutions for distributing books inside Iran. The ease of accessing e-published books should be a huge draw for Iranian consumers, especially considering there’s no organised or systematic distribution system for books in Iran; as a result, even state-approved books aren’t always able to make it to the bookshelves. Major publishing houses manage to distribute their books themselves, but smaller ones, particularly those outside the capital, suffer from serious distribution issues.

Iranian publishers and writers are still sceptical of e-publishing’s ability to make money, overcome piracy and gain traction with consumers. However, diaspora publishers and self-publishing authors inside the country have already taken the first steps towards establishing a vibrant Persian-language e-publishing sector. Publishers such as Nogaam, H&S Media in London and Naakojaa in Paris are paving the way for a potential e-publishing revolution in Iran. For readers that have been offered just state-sanctioned, sanitised and self-censored literature for decades, e-publishers have the potential to create a space for Iranian literature to thrive without limits, boundaries and self-imposed compromise. A writer can start with an idea, a sentence, a dialogue or a simple image. They can create a world that exists nowhere else, and then share it painlessly with their own.