Middle-east Arab News Opinion | Asharq Al-awsat

Debate: The Arab world is not facing a publishing crisis | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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People look at books at the fifth Riyadh International Book Fair 2 March 2010. (Reuters/Fahad Shadeed)

With regards to the issue of publishing in the Arab world, I do not believe that we are facing a publishing crisis; rather, we are facing a reading crisis. We are simply a society that does not like reading.

The greater the demand for a product, the more this product will sell. A larger Arab readership would allow us to publish better, more creative, books, and in greater numbers. As far as Europe and the US are concerned, any book worthy of publication should sell at least 100,000, or even 500,000, copies.

Nobody can ascertain whether the sales of Arab books are authentic or exaggerated. For some publishers, I think what is required is simple, effective and comprehensible tax laws. When this is achieved, we can be certain regarding the authenticity of distribution and sales records.

There are those who pirate books simply because it is unreasonable to work in an unmarketable business. Why should one work in the publishing industry if this will only incur losses? In fact, the desire to make a quick buck has become very common in the Arab publishing industry, and we are seeing the promotion of books based on blogs written by figures who do not possess sufficient expertise and knowledge. This is inappropriate for an honorable publisher, as it does not meet the standards of literature that we are used to. True literature means novels, short stories, poetry and play, things we have been familiar with since the days of Egyptian writer and poet Mustafa Lutfi Al-Manfaluti, Egyptian political writer and journalist Mohamed El-Tabii, and other big names.

These renowned Egyptian authors have produced a genre known as adab khatira (flash prose). This is a phenomenon that was exemplified by Fathi Radwan, Salah Eisa and Khairy Shalaby. Some writers today who lack the adequate knowledge, expertise, or talent, are being introduced to the general public as if their works are comparable to these greats. The promotion of such books claim that they go through multiple publishing runs every month. If this is true, this would mean that publishers are making millions from such books, which is difficult to prove.

According to the National Library and Archives, and based on official statistics, our region has the lowest reading audience in the world. In Egypt, for example, which has a population of 90 million, a new book’s average publishing run does not exceed 1,000 copies, and rarely requires a second edition. If 40 or 50 books are published every year, between 30 or 40 percent of published books are never sold.

I believe that book sales—by which I mean the authentic figures—are related to culture at large, as well as to the economic and literary conditions. There must also be sound political and social circumstances which allows a margin of freedom for citizens so that they can enjoy freedom of expression and freedom of worship. This is something that no longer exists after the eruption of the Arab Spring revolutions. Rather, we are now trying to deny people the rights they used to enjoy in the pre-revolutionary era. My own view is that the situation in the region today is worse than it ever was before.

We cannot deny the fact that many of those in power, whether in the legislative or executive authority, were in prison prior to the revolution. We are speaking of the figures who now hold power in the post-revolutionary era. Many of these figures were in prison on charges of violence committed against tourists, Christians and the police. These same figures are now enacting laws regarding what books and ideas can be published and what cannot.

Unfortunately, the policy followed by the Arab Spring states is one that trends away from democracy, freedom and creativity. It is this policy that is the real threat to the publishing industry, as well as the very development of our literature.

Authenticity regarding books sales is something that cannot be secured unless we completely change this climate, and unless honesty is ensured so that readers are not deceived by promotion of bad books and fabricated sales. For example, books written by renowned television anchors and actors have appeared recently in the market and were promoted as best-sellers based on brand recognition, rather than the actual content of the books.

Therefore, because the number of readers in the Arab world is limited, particularly during the current climate, one must ask: Who is concerned about developing the skills and expertise of writers? Who is concerned about the issue of modernity? Who is concerned about literary innovation and invention? Who is concerned about the meaning of change in novels, poetry, short stories and so on?

The Gulf States, for example, by using their resources and book fairs, can contribute to rescuing the book culture. When I was attending an exhibition in the Gulf, I remember that one Gulf figure purchased one book for AED 3 million. This is excellent, as this will only serve to revive the book industry. The Gulf States can contribute to solving the problems we are facing by investing in culture, provided that freedom of opinion and expression in books is safeguarded and maintained.

The counterpoint to this piece can be read here