The first session I attended today at the Sharjah International Book Fair was the one titled “Manufacturing of Arabian Publishing, the reality and ambition”. Having read the (depressing) statistics about the status of publishing in the region, I was prepared for what I was about to hear. Mr. Fathi Al Biss, a former publisher and Vice President of the Association of Arab Publisher talked passionately and from experience about the challenges that have plagued the book industry in the Arab world for decades.
According to various pieces of research, the average Arab reads for less than 6 minutes a year and whereas countries such as the UK publish 1 book for every 500 people, in the Arab world the ratio is as low as 1 book for 12000 people.
The challenges are many, but all, according to Mr. Al Biss are caused by the same factor: the lack of government support which showcases itself through censorship, absence of budgets, difficulties in distribution, overall disinterest in promoting culture etc.
I agree: apart from a few enlightened programs in the Gulf and especially the UAE, our governments have never implemented any significant cultural programs. Ministers are happy to have their photo taken cutting ribbons at book fairs, but that’s about all the support we can expect.
Therefore, why don’t we be realistic? In our region governments are often a roadblock, rarely a facilitator. The private sector has to fend for itself.
In many ways it has. If I look at the growing number of book retailers, I cannot but wonder if the figures used above aren’t too narrow. I mean the likes of Antoine Library, Magroudi’s, Virgin or Borders cannot possibly have been making losses all these years and it’s probably because they haven’t relied on Arab publishing. Walk into any of these bookstores today and you’ll most likely be presented with English or French best sellers rather than local reads. Somewhere, somehow people ARE reading, but we’re just not reading Arabic books, nor books by Arabs that are published in the Middle East.
This then begs the question: are regional publishers producing the right content, are they investing enough in packaging and marketing or are they out of touch with their audience? I cannot claim to have answers to those questions, all I can say is that as a reader, I often find myself at a loss for regional content and end up digging into the international best sellers pile.