Al-Ahram Weekly Online   29 January - 4 February 2004
Issue No. 675
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Hardly commerce

Mohamed Madbouli tells Youssef Rakha about Cairo's most successful bookshop at the Cairo International Book Fair

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Mohamed Madbouli
We have been in this wing two years, but before we acquired this space we had the other wing, opposite, which is now in its fifth year. We were the first to offer books in open air as you can see, rather than within the buildings. You have to realise that, to come here, you end up dealing with bureaucrats -- they have heads of stone. So it wasn't something they accepted right away. But we've insisted on it. Because that way you can sit at your ease, receive the books and sign the necessary papers without interference -- and also because it's easier for customers to find you. It's true, we've never been anywhere inside the buildings, where other publishers and booksellers tend to offer their books. It's the kind of independence that makes life significantly easier. From day one, when we decided to contribute to the fair, we chose to exhibit the way we do -- in open air. And it's something we have maintained.

The point is not so much more sales as simple presence. A contribution to the book fair -- believe it or not -- is actually a sacrifice on the part of the publisher, if you take into account the added expenses of managing the space. Financially it's a matter of increasing liquidity, gathering some cash with which to pay people back. Nothing more. It's hardly commerce, the book fair -- very little profit making as such. If you have books that haven't sold, rather than letting them accumulate in storerooms, you also bring them here and sell them at a discount. You sell everything at a discount, of course, but the older books are particularly inexpensive. At the end of every year we check our records for that purpose. It's hard to say which books will sell. Some people need very specific titles, so they'll buy them at any price. But in the end there is a book for LE1 and another book for LE500. You can't compare the two in terms of sales.

Aside from commerce, the book fair remains the most important event of the year -- you could even say we pack up one year in order to start preparing for the next. Why? Because it's a meeting point for everyone, it's the occasion on which people gather -- writers as well as readers and even people who are not in the book business at all. So you see everyone, you talk to people, you discuss projects, you test out the popularity of what you're publishing. It's an event, the year's event, and you have to show your presence. And there is no doubt that you do sell, probably a little more than you do on average at the book shop, though maybe not as profitably. Because many more people come and look at books -- and buy them. The most important thing is to be there for the gathering, for all those people who know of and expect to see Madbouli.

Some 10 to 15 percent of what we offer is published by Madbouli, the rest by other publishers we deal with in Egypt and elsewhere in the Arab world. The books that sell the most -- well, medicine, engineering, architecture -- the ones students need. And religious books, too, as you might expect: there is a market for them. Sometimes I personally decide whether or not to publish a book, at other times there are people working with me, a kind of committee, who discuss the book among themselves and decide. We try to concentrate on topics that are relevant to the times and important -- whether it's in the context of fiction or non-fiction -- like scientific, political, economic and historical topics, all of which are relevant to globalisation, the age's most urgent topic. No doubt we sometimes encounter censorial problems. It's unavoidable considering the fact that you're in this huge country with so many people and institutions. But of course we have our principles, the first two of which are that we will not harm people, nor promote apostasy. At heart we're against the secular, even if we like to represent all the various trends in existence. But any writer who is openly against religion -- no. Any book that will have a bad influence -- no. We are Muslims, after all.

We haven't had problems with the book fair management as such. There is, of course, always room for improvement. But the people who direct the fair -- they travel, they see what book exhibitions are like in the better off countries. So they should know what to do and how to do it. I say we've never had problems with the management, and we haven't -- in any direct way. But that doesn't mean that we haven't had problems. Dealing with bureaucracy is always difficult, and the book fair has all kinds of organisational shortcomings and other problems -- and they're never resolved. No improvement. But I won't get into the details of all that. If you want to find out more about that, you'd better be talking to General Egyptian Book Organisation officials. This is not just any old business you know, it's the most important and valuable business on earth -- the business of knowledge. So it should be given the very maximum attention. It deserves every kind of expense available. I'm already an old man, but here I am sitting here for most of the day, looking after everything and supervising the work. And it's not just because it's my business.

We've contributed to the fair every year since it was founded, except for the first year -- because it was exhibition only, there were no sales. But after that we made a regular contribution, and this is our 35th year. Of course it's changed. It's changed a lot since it first came into being. First it was in Gezira, there was very limited space. Then it came here to the fair grounds and there is obviously so much more space available -- except that the number of visitors has risen enough to make up for that. When we first arrived here, you couldn't have imagined how the book fair might become crowded -- there was so much space everywhere. Naturally the number of publishers has risen, too, and the variety of the books on offer. Now you see people coming in to ask for stationary or tapes and other things. None of these things were sold when the fair was still young. No matter how much it changes, though, we will always come back to the fair.

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