Speaking to Ahram Online from the second and bigger branch of Tanmia, which opened five years ago in New Maadi, Loutfy said the journey, with its ups and downs, “has certainly been worthwhile given the role that Tanmia has been playing in offering new lines of titles to the Egyptian readers of all ages and interests.”
This year, for the first time in five harsh years that kept him away from his bookstore, Loutfy found his way to the Cairo International Book Fair and there he saw what he thought was coming over 12 years ago when he started selling books at a makeshift store next to El-Sawy Culture Wheel in Zamalek: “the beginning of a passion for the types of books that examines big questions in a profound way – be it fiction or non-fiction.”
It was the success of his early endeavour to contribute “the untypical and not so easy to find” to what seemed back then to be a thriving book market that started his success story and got him to open his first bookstore where he was then mostly focused on providing “quality translations of prominent novelists as important non-fiction titles that were being translated in Arabic.
“There were also the titles of Arab authors that were coming out and that we were making available very promptly to the Egyptian readers,” he added.
In May 2011, Loutfy was so pleasantly surprised by the attention his titles found and the high demand that got some of the titles to be sold out in a matter of weeks. Clearly, he says, it was a moment of “a particular hype with a passion to learn and to find answers to many questions that were being asked back then.”
According to Loutfy’s observations from this year’s book fair, it is not hard at all to argue that this hype went uninterrupted – “somehow”. As was the case during the past five years, Tanmia did not participate with a booth in the fair, even though it showcased some of its publications, including Karim Gamal’s impressive Oum Kalthoum wa Sawt Al-Maghoud Al-Harbi (Oum Kolthoum and the years of fundraising for the army) that documents the role of the ultimate diva of Egyptian song in showing support to the army in the wake of the shocking defeat of 1967.
Walking through the halls of the book fair, Loutfy was rejoiced but not surprised to see the obvious interest of readers in their teens to get this book and other titles that offer profound research and address complex matters. “I think it is very safe to say that we have a generation that is not easily impressed with light reading material,” he said. “I am here talking about a generation that was in primary school when Tanmia started. When I compare the taste for quality titles that this generation is opting for to that of those who were in their late teens when we started, I could easily say that the curve for quality books is certainly on the rise with this generation,” he added.
Loutfy does not have a simple answer as to why this has occurred. He first argues that “it has been occurring – an incremental change of taste as we have been seeing with Tanmia.” He then adds that the availability of a wider range of titles at hand through the new publishers’ wave “possibly helped.” There is also, he argued, the access to information on the newest titles and for that matter, the access to PDF copies, pirated or not, of these titles online. Ultimately, he said that it is a hype that has been accumulating for over a decade, even though it was not immediately noticeable.
It is hard to find a publisher who would not agree that the past 12 years have opened the door for significant diversity in a book market that has been thriving since the early 2000s with some new novelists and the re-introduction of older novelists in new editions. However, in the case of Loutfy, the story was more about “the curiosity [of that moment] to learn more, a lot more about the experiences of others, through fiction mostly but also through non-fiction.”
At that time, with a mix of budget limitations and growing demand, Loutfy opted to pitch for joint publications – either with some cultural centres that offer publishing grants or with Arab publishers. “Introducing the ‘Egyptian Edition’ (starting 2015) was key because we were getting the books printed in Egypt at a smaller budget to make the books available for the readers at as affordable prices as possible,” he said. “Even before the recent devaluation that came with a big rise in the prices of paper, it was still expensive to import the books and sell them at their US dollar-marked prices,” he said.
The positive impact that this scheme had, in terms of giving ample space for many titles in Egypt, which is arguably one of the bigger markets for books in Arabic – original or translated – encouraged Arab publishers to cooperate. “Clearly, a book that gets good reviews in Egypt is most likely to sell well all across the Arab world,” he argued. Another factor that boosted the “Egyptian Edition” scheme was the very obvious fact that with readers being able to have the original copy at affordable prices they were not inclined to go for lower quality or compromised versions of pirated copies.
Today, Loutfy said, Tanmia works more on offering as many titles as possible in “Egyptian Edition,” growing to accommodate the interest of the new generations of readers to access a wide range of books coming out in many countries. “There is a particular interest in the Egyptian market in reading titles coming out in South America, again both fiction and non-fiction, and for the majority of readers this has to come in an Arabic translation,” he said. And, he added, with the soaring prices of books, an “Egyptian Edition” becomes “simply essential.”
Meanwhile, Loutfy added that selecting the titles to bring to the shelves of Tanmia was both easy, “especially with the communication with top writers who were frequenting Tanmia in downtown,” and difficult, “with such a wide range of titles that were coming in demand from the readers and being offered from the many Arab publishers I was getting in touch with” all across the Arab world, “as I was keen to bring home titles from Al-Mashrek, Al-Maghreb, and the Gulf.”
With his impressions of this year’s Cairo International Book Fair, he said that he knows that there is a growing space on the shelves of Tanmia for history books and biographies of interesting, and not just famous, people and also for books on politics and “easy-to-read economy.”
“There is also a lot of demand for new names, especially in fiction because this new generation is looking for new writers. They don’t wish to settle for whatever has been there during the past 10 or 20 years,” he said.
Loutfy, who is now 42 years old, started his association with the publishing business upon an incidental part-time job with the 2001 Cairo fair. Over 20 years ago, he said, it was good enough to have a decent set of novels by Egyptian, Arab, and some international writers. Today, he added, there has to be a wide variety that covers all disciplines. “Satisfying the expectations of the reader today has become a lot more challenging,” he argued.
Back in 2011, Loutfy said, he was there for a generation who had benefited from ambitious projects led by the government's cultural arms, including Maktabat Al-Ossra (Family Library) and Al-Qaraah Lel Gamie (Reading for All). “The role of government institutions in providing a wide selection of important titles at subsidised prices was, and still is, crucial. We all saw the success of the affordable reprints of the Taha Hussein titles in this year’s book fair,” Loutfy said. He added that today there is also an increasing number of book-tubers who bring more titles and ideas to the table and pose a challenge to publishers.
A particular challenge that Loutfy is happy to take on is the recent line of publications for children that Tanmia has launched. Over the past few years, Tanmia has put out three children’s books with segments from the works of Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish. “They did very well; I am very happy with those; I mean, it is really interesting to be able to introduce a child to Mahmoud Darwish,” he said.
For the 13th year of Tanmia, Loutfy is promising more children’s books for sure.