Saturday,20 October, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1378, (25 -31 January 2018)
Saturday,20 October, 2018
Issue 1378, (25 -31 January 2018)

Ahram Weekly

Off the bestseller track

As Cairo readies for a new round of its famed book fair, Nahed Nasr queries some of the city’s emerging publishers on their survival strategies

 

Book Fair
Book Fair

Days before the 49th Cairo International Book Fair (27 January-10 February) — book season in Cairo — the business of shaking up the Egyptian publishing industry is as challenging as ever. For 20 years now things have been changing dramatically, but the underlying tenets of distribution and marketing, rights protection too, are the same as ever. Nor have recent economic difficulties helped.

According to Karam Youssef, the founder of Al-Kotob Khan bookshop, which has become a notable publisher since it was established in 2006, the greatest challenge is printing the kinds of text she feels are worth publishing. Al-Kotob Khan, she says, never took “the bestseller path”: “We have sided with books that serve cultural functions: philosophy, social critique, anthropology, psychology, politics, economics, literature, whether it takes the form of fiction, poetry, letters or essays.”

Despite having three outlets, as a result, the process is complicated by the commercial preconceptions of distribution companies and bookshops, whose choices reflect not only revenue predictions but expectations of readers’ preferences as well. As “the guardians of taste”, they tend to bar all but the most obvious and the safest choices.

Other challenges include soaring production costs and piracy, which robs author and/or translator as well as publisher of their time and money. “The publishing cycle of a single book is a very long, hard and expensive process. It takes one year to distribute 1,000 copies of a single book and you still need to work hard to achieve this. So when property rights are not adequately protected how can you, as a publisher, survive?”

Ironically Al-Kotob Khan’s most effective survival strategy is to take things into its own hands, shouldering all distribution responsibilities whether within Egypt or abroad. “We target as many regional book fairs as we can to carve a niche for our books in the regional market. For the local market we depend on e-marketing and the idea of a space where readers can enjoy themselves reading and attending activities: creative writing workshops, a monthly book seminar, film screenings and music performances. Al-Kotob Khan is not only a bookshop and a publisher but also a cultural centre committed to culture in our society.”

***

Poet Ashraf Youssef, the head editor at Elain Publishing House, believes the principal challenge in any Arabic publishing is the lack of a readership. While eliminating reading time as such, the educational system includes no contemporary literature whatsoever, he says. Generations have therefore lost touch with the material and the habit; and if younger people do choose to read, they tend to choose superficial writing.

In addition, “there is no state cultural policy to encourage reading and support publishing books. Only 20,000 books are published yearly in a country of 100 million.” Established in 2000 by Fatma Al-Boudi, Elain publishes a selection of literary, academic, and non-fiction titles; and its principal survival strategy is to publish works by non-Egyptian as well as Egyptian writers — to attract a region-wide audience.

“We participate in most regional book fairs with a list that includes non-Egyptians,” Youssef says. “Currently we have 15 Moroccan, 10 Sudanese, six Emirati and eight Tunisian writers in addition to the Egyptians. This marketing strategy has proved to be effective and it also enriches the local market.”

But, although participating in book fairs is a good way to increase regional distribution, e-books are a better solution. “The market is very big and demanding but to start an e-publishing system would require the collaboration of the state, which would provide the necessary infrastructure. This is the only way to survive…”

***

For his part Mohamed Al-Baali, who founded Sefsafa Publishing House in 2009, blames publishing difficulties on the lack of national distribution mechanisms. “As an emerging publishing house,” Al-Baali says, “we’ve had to depend on our own individual efforts to reach our readers. But even our efforts yield limited results. All over the country the main distributors are those rich entities that have the money. They can control the kinds of books that are made available, skewing the market in their favour. Readers’ tastes are dictated by those distributers.”

Sefsafa focuses on non-fiction in translation (subjects include politics and cultural history) as well as selected fiction in the same line by authors from the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Egypt. “From the first moment we’ve tried to promote Enlightenment ideas,” Al-Baali says. And the process might’ve been easier had the banks been more willing to give publishers loans.

“The only option we have,” he says, “is to raise the cover price.” Another possible survival strategy is to open a bookshop business. “If you publish bestselling books that would work, but for an emerging publishing house like Sefsafa which focuses on intellectual titles this option will increase your burden in terms of taxes. You cannot open a bookshop unless you publish at least 40 per cent of the books you sell.”  

***

Founded in 2014 by Bisan Adwan, the Ibn Roshd Publishing House — another Enlightenment-, as well as secularism-, feminism- and philosophy-oriented project — chooses its books freely but suffers from the bias of those distributors who dominate the market (and tend to be publishers themselves). “They are the real obstacle,” Adwan says. “Some refuse to take our books, others hide them from the audience. Others still refuse to give us our share of the profits and/or return the unsold copies.”

The disconnect affects writers, too, she says, many of whom prefer the big publishers-distributors because they offer higher advances and greater visibility. “We do our best to give the writers fair contracts but we cannot afford the same money as the big publishers and so, in a very competitive market, we don’t have fair access.”

For Ibn Roshd, aside from some regional opportunities, Egypt remains the main market. “To reach readers outside the big cities,” which is what they aim for, “you need a different pricing policy.” Their survival strategy is medium-quality printing of quality content, making the books affordable in five governorates where they have started a collaborative initiative with emerging bookshops: Sohag, Hurghada, Fayoum and Damietta as well as Cairo.

“These local bookshops also work as private cultural centres to distribute our books. This is our way of circumventing the obstacles. Our hope is that more and more publishing houses will join the initiative, creating an alternative network and market through which to reach our target audience…”

***

Not all emerging publishing houses suffer from the same challenges, however. The three-year-old Toya Publishing and Distribution rapidly found its place in the big market. According to its founder, Sherif Al-Leithi, who worked in publishing for many years before he struck out on his own, the trick is to study the market and identify your target group.

“Eighty per cent of readers in Egypt are 15-25 years old, 80 per cent of these are female and most of them use the Latin alphabet to write Arabic on phones and computers. You can see evidence of this on social media reading groups and in the fascinating success of such writers as Ahmed Mourad.”

And so Al-Leithi decided to focus on this group, publishing only books written in a language accessible to this group which fit into one of seven categories that cover all interest areas, with a focus on humour. In three years Toya managed to set up two bookshops — in Maadi and 6 October — focusing on the sale of its own books.

Al-Leithi’s main complaint is that there is no government support of any kind despite drastic economic measures. “Publishing materials are 120 per cent more expensive, which has affected cover prices. Piracy is also taking its toll.” Unlike other emerging publishers, however, he does not feel the big distributors are playing a negative role.

“They cannot read every single book and decide if they will distribute it, they depend on the reputation of the publisher. When you provide what your audience wants no one can stop you.” His proposed strategy — which he submitted to Egyptian Publishers Association, and from which he feels everyone who sells books will benefit, is to organise other book-selling seasons in addition to the book fair. “We should have at least two seasons a year to revive the book market.”

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