Book market

The Arabic book market could be the next big deal, but publishers say challenges remain

The question of how to build the Arabic book market has plagued publishers for years.

Is it simply a matter of supply and demand?

Or is there a need for sweeping changes, from editorial practices to new educational policies, for the region to realize its true market potential?

According to two seasoned editors – Egyptian Sherif Bakr and Lebanese Shereen Kreidieh – a combination of the two is needed.

Speaking during a panel at the Frankfurt Book Fair on Wednesday, the duo said the Mena region’s book market faces systemic and cultural challenges.

Bakr, managing director of Al Arabi Publishing and Distributing, says physical distribution remains a key stumbling block for the Cairo company.

“We are 100 million people in Egypt, so it’s relatively neither that big nor that small.

“But it’s very difficult to send a book from Cairo to Aswan or Alexandria,” he told the session organized by the Arabic Language Center in Abu Dhabi.

“We’re not so sure he’ll arrive because the postal system is unreliable and people don’t put an accurate address.

“That’s just the problem in Egypt. In other countries in the region, there are problems with censorship and sometimes the transport costs are higher than the price of the book.”

That said, Bakr is encouraged by some of the initiatives that have been created to alleviate these logistical problems.

He cited the growth of print-on-demand services in the Gulf, such as Lightning Source Sharjah in Sharjah Publishing City, as an example of some of the solutions needed.

“Print on demand is becoming a hot topic in the Gulf and it could solve some of the distribution issues,” he said.

“We have to keep finding different solutions because we can’t follow the same path because we will only get the same results.”

Know your audience

Are we placing too much blame on distribution?

According to Kreidieh, founder of children’s publisher Dar Asala, many of her counterparts also have to take some responsibility for why books, especially Arabic children’s literature, are not flying off the shelves.

Kreidieh recalled a study she undertook with Zayed University in Abu Dhabi, on award-winning Arabic children’s books, which found that they were valued more by adults than by the target audience.

“Isn’t the problem that kids don’t really like to read because the material we give them isn’t what they like?” she said.

Bakr cited a former stint as general secretary of the Egyptian Publishing Association, where a study commissioned by the organization found low interest in reading among young Egyptians.

“And the reason is that when they think of books, they think of textbooks. So for them, reading was horrifying,” he said.

“I remember asking a youngster if he was stuck in a room with only a book on the floor, would he read it? He said no.”

Kreidieh, who also holds a degree in elementary education from the American University of Beirut, says part of the blame lies with a rigid education system practiced across the region.

“In most of the Arab world, the school curriculum is too condensed and there is a lot of work to do.

“While in other parts of the world, like in Finland for example, children have a lot of time to play, they have nice classroom libraries and easy access to books,” she said.

“I try to teach some of these methods in schools, but the teachers say they have too much work to do.

“And children, with their homework and book summaries, associate reading with punishment. It’s not something they enjoy.”

The future is bright

Despite some of the challenges facing the industry, Bakr is optimistic that the region will eventually earn its place as one of the largest publishing markets in the world.

“I really believe we are the next biggest thing after China,” he said. “If you look at the Cairo International Book Fair, for example, you will find that two million people visit it every year and there is only one city.

“So if you look at the greater region, even if it’s a small percentage of the population that are consumers, it’s still going to be a relatively large number in Europe. But that takes time, of course.”

Kreidieh says she saw this potential both physically and online.

“When you go to the book fair in Cairo, it’s beautiful because you find all these kinds of networks of people, from parents to influencers, in one place.

“Social media is also playing a bigger role because people are reading the book, liking it and sharing it and people are coming to the fairs and ordering them.”

As the future looks bright, Bakr encourages aspiring writers to experiment with different story formats.

“Don’t fight him, but play with him,” he said.

“Create it the way it will work and get people’s attention. Good content will never die and it can be transformed in many ways.”

The Frankfurt Book Fair runs until Sunday, October 23. More information is available at www.buchmesse.de

Updated: October 20, 2022, 06:59