Al-Ahram Weekly Online   20 - 26 July 2006
Issue No. 804
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Publish or perish

A new book sees cause for optimism in Arab publishing, writes David Tresilian

Franck Mermier, Le Livre et la ville, Beyrouth et l'édition arabe (The Book and the City: Beirut and Arab Publishing), Paris: Actes sud, 2006. pp244

Arabic is one of the world's great languages, and the Arab world contains hundreds of millions of potential readers. In theory, Arab publishing should be thriving.

In practice, however, as Franck Mermier makes clear in Le Livre et la ville, Beyrouth et l'édition arabe, a study of the Arab publishing industry, this is far from being the case. Not only are many Arab publishers under-capitalised, often being simply extensions of family-run bookstores, but they have had real difficulties in breaking into larger regional markets and sometimes even in effectively circulating their books in national ones.

Weak purchasing power in the most populous Arab countries, including Egypt, Iraq and the Sudan, means that books rarely sell in significant numbers, and high illiteracy rates, or an undeveloped reading public, only add to such problems. The absence of proper regulation, the often still prevalent censorship, and the fact that some Arab countries are not signatory to the Berne Convention on copyright have not helped matters. The result is what has sometimes been called the "crisis" in Arab publishing, the industry being largely unable to support writers or to sell significant numbers of new titles, with predictable effects on innovation.

Without playing down such problems Mermier nevertheless sees significant cause for optimism. As a result of the deregulation that has taken place in the industry in recent years, particularly in Cairo and Beirut, its most important centres, a host of small, independent publishers has sprung up, significantly extending the range of titles available to Arab readers. New publishing possibilities have grown up in countries that previously relied on Cairo and Beirut for books, notably in the Gulf, and new technologies, particularly the Internet, hold out the promise of extending existing markets and developing new ones.

All the ingredients for a take-off in Arab publishing are in place, but it is the Beirut industry, Mermier argues, rather than that based in Cairo, that is best placed to take advantage of them.

Beirut has traditionally been the most important centre for publishing in the Arab world, captured in the formula "Cairo writes, Beirut publishes, and Iraq reads," and the first part of Le Livre et la ville explains why this should have been the case. Beirut publishing, unlike Cairene, has long been outward-looking, aiming to serve a regional market. While both Egypt and Lebanon emerged in the later 19th century as significant venues for printing and publishing, Cairo becoming the Arab world's most important intellectual centre in the first half of the 20th, Egypt's predominance in Arab publishing was already being lost to Lebanon in the 1950s, definitively disappearing in the 1960s at the time of the nationalisations carried out in Egypt by the Nasser regime.

Mermier gives the example of Dar Al-Shorouq, today one of Egypt's largest publishers, which was founded in 1968 in Cairo by Mohamed Al-Mu'allim following the nationalisation of a previous company, Dar Al-Qalam, in 1966. In 1969, Al-Shorouq was transferred in its entirety to Beirut, only being brought back to Cairo in the 1980s. Meanwhile, Beirut's reputation as a refuge for intellectuals from across the Arab world in the 1950s and '60s, together with its hosting of many of the Palestinian refugees and acting as home for Gulf petrodollars, had made the city into what Mermier calls "an ideological and literary laboratory" on a regional scale.

Beirut, he writes, became "the Middle East's principal financial centre, attracting Arab capital, notably petrodollars, and playing an intermediary role for foreign companies in the region... [It] had the only liberal and parliamentary regime in the Arab world at the end of the 1950s, explaining its attraction, until 1975, both for businessmen wanting to take advantage of its liberal economic regime and for intellectuals attracted by the city's high degree of political liberty."

All of this helped Lebanese publishing, which was able to take advantage of the large number of talented individuals from different horizons gathered in the city, while turning the industry outwards towards regional markets. Mermier's conclusion is that it was the mix of Beirut's cosmopolitanism and its liberal economic and political regime that helped it to become the Arab world's main publishing centre in the 1960s. With the end of the civil war and today's renewed confidence of Lebanese business, it is this mix that seems likely to assist Beirut publishing in once again playing the leading role in Arab markets, even if this time round it is also threatened by competition from emerging players.

Mermier's book is especially useful for the field research it contains, and the author has spent several years interviewing intellectuals and publishers, not only in Lebanon but also from across the Arab world, taking full advantage of his postings first as director of the Centre français d'études yéménites in Sanaa, Yemen, and then at the Institut français du Proche-Orient in Beirut. Thus, in addition to the book's historical reconstruction of Beirut and Cairo publishing and its theoretical reflections on the optimum conditions for a thriving market in printed materials, drawn from the writings of German author Juergen Habermas, Le Livre et la ville also contains valuable case-studies that look at contemporary developments in Arab publishing and its prospects on a country-by-country basis.

Among the surprises here is the weakness of the publishing industry in the Maghreb countries, which, with the exception of Libya, have tended to rely on France for French-language books and have developed little by way of Arabic-language publishing, depending instead on imports from the Middle East. While the state has tended to dominate the publishing industry in Algeria, Tunisia and Libya, given over, on the whole, to the production of educational textbooks, the Moroccan industry has long been more diverse, with many small independents producing books in French and in Arabic.

Nevertheless, Mermier writes, in the mid-1990s only 10% of the books available in Morocco were produced by Moroccan publishers, and of the impressive number of publishers officially listed -- 65 in 1997 -- only 29 managed to publish three books or more per year. With the liberalisation of the publishing industry that has taken place in recent years, however, notably in Algeria, this situation is expected to improve, even if the Maghreb countries have thus far failed to develop a sub-regional market.

Increased private-sector activity has also been in evidence elsewhere, with gains in the number of titles offered and in their variety. In Jordan, for example, whereas 35 publishers were listed in 1979, by 2002 this figure had grown to 558. Though many of these are "occasional publishers," putting out, perhaps, a couple of titles per year, there has also been an expansion in Palestinian publishing based in the country. In Syria, the "development of private-sector publishing since the end of the 1980s has led to greater diversity in the books published and better marketing," some Syrian publishers being among the largest in the Arab world. However, copyright and censorship issues continue to hobble Syrian publishing.

Of the Gulf countries, Saudi Arabia has seen the most significant growth, the 50 Saudi publishers that published some 219 titles per year in 1979 having grown to 358 in 1997, 231 of which were private, publishing around 1,831 titles between 1989 and 1993. State- run programmes, notably in religion and heritage ( turath ), tend to dominate Saudi and Gulf markets, but the sometimes large amounts of money involved, together with an effective use of the new technologies, has meant that Gulf publishing has also begun to play a larger Arab role.

Iraq, which in the 1970s was known both for its large number of readers and for its publishers, producing the greatest number of titles of any Arab country in 1978, now has no publishing industry, and the lifting of the UN-imposed sanctions on the country in 2003 has done little to increase Iraqi purchasing power. Nevertheless, Mermier sees cause for optimism in the establishment of Iraqi publishers in exile in London in the 1980s and 1990s, such as Mu'assasa Al-Rafid, Dar Al-Warraq and Dar Al-Hikma, some of which are now moving operations to Baghdad: this is "a sign of the renovation of Iraqi intellectual life that local publishers could soon also help to foster".

Egyptian publishing has also benefited from increased private- sector activity. To established names such as that of Mohamed Madbouli, the "most picturesque of publishers," and those of Dar Al-Mustaqbal Al-Arabi and Dar Al-Thaqafa Al-Jadida, both known for "daring and innovative lists," can be added small independents such as Dar Sharqiyyat, founded in 1991 "to accompany the literary avant- garde of the 1990s, while giving particular attention to its books' physical appearance," Dar Merit, founded in 1998 and "giving over 70% of its production to works of fiction and poetry, as well as to works critical of the regime," and Dar Sina lil-Nashr, which, despite having one of the most interesting of all private-sector lists, sadly closed in 2000.

Aside from public-sector concerns, the largest of which is Al-Hay'a Al-Misriyya Al-'Ama lil-Kitab (the General Egyptian Book Organisation), Dar Al-Shorouq is the largest of Egypt's publishers, and Mermier devotes some highly-charged pages to the strategy of its chairman, Ibrahim Al-Mu'allim. Thanks to capital made available by "an alliance with investment bank EFG-Hermès," Al-Shorouq has been able "to invest in multimedia and to buy the electronic rights for Umm Kalthoum's songs and for the works of Naguib Mahfouz and [journalist and political commentator] Mohamed Hassanein Heikal," among others. Such a strategy has given the company an international and regional profile above those of its Egyptian competitors.

It also aligns Al-Shorouq's strategy with the great success story of Mermier's book, which is Lebanese publishing. In addition to their traditional advantages, Beirut publishers have been able to exploit new markets through the use of the new technologies. Beirut also has a "large financial network, with transactions being susceptible to fewer controls than in other Arab countries" and on-line book sales have taken off through sites such as, modeled on Amazon, outstripping competition from other sites including, also Lebanese, and, Al-Shorouq's on-line sales site.

Finally, one of the most useful features of Mermier's already very useful book is the listing it gives of publishers by country, including Web details where available. Lebanese publishers have been quick to take advantage of the possibilities a Web presence entails, with well- known publishers like Librarie du Liban ( and Riad Al-Rayyes ( also having well-designed and easily navigable sites.

Though there are some honourable exceptions, Cairo's publishers still have some way to go in building a comparable Egyptian Web presence.

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