Tuesday,17 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1182, (30 January - 5 February 2014)
Tuesday,17 October, 2017
Issue 1182, (30 January - 5 February 2014)

Ahram Weekly

Publishing in hard times

The economic slowdown over the past three years has brought major changes to the publishing industry, writes Noha Moustafa

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eco11
Al-Ahram Weekly

On the first day of the Cairo International Book Fair, which opened this week, the exhibition grounds were full of people coming and going carrying bags full of all kinds of books. At the Al-Shorouk Books Hall, some girls were inspecting the books and discussing among themselves which titles to buy.

“Books are very expensive, so we have decided to collaborate and develop a joint budget. This will allow us to buy books together and then swap them,” one of the girls explained. Another visitor to the Fair’s Hall Four said that books were expensive, but that there were significant discounts on offer at the Fair.

“I bought eight books for LE150. I would have paid LE200 for them outside the Fair,” he said.

However, despite the crowds at the Book Fair, the publishing industry faces numerous difficulties. Poverty and illiteracy are major obstacles, but books are also getting more expensive and beyond the means of many book lovers and consumers. Imported books are particularly expensive, and they are getting more so because of the increasing price of the dollar, something which is also true of paper for printing.

“About 65 per cent of a book’s price is that of the paper, and this has increased in price from between 33 per cent to 40 per cent over the past couple of years. Ink and other printing expenses have also increased by 25 per cent. The paper manufactured in Egypt is cheaper, but it is of worse quality,” said publisher Sherif Bakr, owner of Al-Arabi Publishing and Distribution.  

With the troubles facing Egypt’s economy over the past three years, it is only logical that publishing businesses dealing in such luxury items as books would have suffered significantly from the downturn.

Some publishers say that publishing books in such hard times at all has become a risky business. In 2011, many publishers cancelled or postponed their pending projects, as the public left books behind in order to follow events on the TV news, talk shows and social media.

“At that time many publishing houses, especially the small ones, were on the verge of bankruptcy. It was the worst downturn for the publishing business since 2007, which was also bad, but not that bad. We have never been threatened to this extent,” said publisher Wael Salah Al-Mulla, the owner of the Masr Al-Arabia publishing house.

Since 2011, Egypt has experienced weak economic growth with a high fiscal deficit and gross public debt rising to nearly 100 per cent of GDP at the end of June 2013, according to World Bank figures.

However, those people who are still reading in Egypt, even if they are only four or five million out of the total 85 million population, represent a significant market. “Egypt is by far the biggest book market in the Arab world,” Bakr said.

Even in such dire times, there have been increasing numbers of titles published in 2013 compared to earlier years. According to the index published by the Egyptian National Library and Archives (Dar Al-Kotob), registered publications in Egypt until September 2013 came to 6,892 books in Arabic and 919 foreign-language ones. Some 1,667 literary titles were published.

Overall, there has been increasingly activity in the publishing business, since not only have there been more titles, but there have also been new genres of writing as well, along with the development of creative writing and literary writing workshops and prestigious Arab literary prizes such as the Sheikh Zayed Book Award, the Naguib Mahfouz Literary Award, the Arab Booker Prize, and the Sawiris Prize, among others.

The financial rewards of some of the prizes are alluring and can reach as high as $50,000 for the Arab Booker, in addition to $10,000 for all six novels that reach the final list, while the Sheikh Zayed Book Award is worth AED7 million.

According to authors, publishers are more and more eager to publish novels in the awards season. The prizes create a huge opportunity to promote and market their books. However, apart from the very few writers who win literary awards, hardly any of them earn anything from their writings.

“I can’t say that I have ever earned anything from my books,” said Wahid Taweela, an established writer. “Even best-selling writers only get 15 per cent of sales. And if a book wins a prize, the publishing house gets a similar financial award to the writer. Probably this is the reason behind the increasing number of published novels,” Taweela said, adding that another problem was piracy.

“Many knock-off copies have been sold in Egypt of books published in Lebanon, and the publisher’s profits have diminished as a result,” he said.

However, the buzz surrounding new literary writing has nevertheless caused many leading non-fiction publishing houses to begin publishing novels. Al-Mulla himself published a novel, Graffiti by Mustafa Soliman, for the first time last year, and he said it had been quite successful.

Literary prizes are not the sole reason behind the increasing activity in the publishing industry. Just like everything else in Egypt, the industry has witnessed a transformation as a result of the troubled economy. The changing purchasing power of the local audience has meant that it has had little choice but to adapt to changing tastes among the public.

“After the 25 January Revolution, publishers faced hard times, especially non-fiction publishers, who had to face the fact that libraries, ministries, institutions and almost all government entities had to cut down their book-purchasing budgets,” Al-Mulla said.

Because the publishing houses were mostly privately owned, publishers took decisive steps to combat the deteriorating situation in the industry. Younger and more vibrant publishing houses moved even faster, Al-Mulla added.

The Revolution resulted in a new generation of readers who wanted to read new books, so publishers started to publish innovative writers, to choose more pleasing and timely titles, to adjust their prices, and to put out new covers by young designers, all as a way of appealing to younger readers, Al-Mulla said.

“A whole new generation of writers has appeared over the past couple of years, including figures like Ahmed Murad, Mohammed Fathi and Hassan Kamal. These authors are producing fresh writing that is full of new ideas and full of passion and enthusiasm,” he added.

Some publishing houses have tried other trends, such as publishing translated literature, or newly selected titles that click with current reality. New genres have also evolved in Arabic writing, such as horror novels and thrillers.

The marketing of books has also seen a makeover. Ten years ago, Madbouly was still the biggest distributor of books in the country, but now bookstores like Diwan, Alef, Kotob Khan and others are the biggest distributors of books. These have successfully changed the ways in which books are marketed to the public.      

“They know their audience. They know what the audience wants, and they are ready to give it to them. They want the publishers to do the same thing and to supply products that consumers want,” Al-Mulla said.

Bakr agreed that the industry was witnessing a huge transformation. “Publishers are trying to reach readers through non-traditional ways. They are trying to attract new audience by new ideas, like best-sellers, signing events, reviews of good reads and interaction through social media.”

Bakr said that the publishing industry was going through a period of transition and that when it settled down we would see new rules, new writers and new readers who would jointly enrich the country’s cultural life.

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