The Cairo International Book Fair will be officially inaugurated on 25 January. On the following day it will open to the public amid worries that the rocketing price of paper and its impact on the prices of books will curtail sales.
“I am not sure I will be able to make any serious purchases this year. Prices have already gone up a great deal since summer and from what we hear from publishers further increases are likely. Basically, most books will end up being unaffordable,” says Mohamed Salem, a Tanta University student.
Salem has been a regular visitor to the Cairo Book Fair since his early teens. He would save in order to benefit from the discounts most publishers offer during the fair. Over the last four years, however, Salem had to cut down his list of to-buy books. This year he has put together a shared list that will be distributed among four of his friends. Even so, Salem is not sure that they will be able to buy more than one or two books each.
“The prices of government-affiliated publishers are always much more affordable than those of private publishers, but the most interesting titles are generally put out by the big private publishing houses,” says Salem. He nonetheless remains hopeful that there will be discounts and possibly some packages that allow university students “who are on very tight budgets to acquire books”.
Mohamed Rashad, president of the Egyptian Publishers Union, says publishers are committed to discounting titles, with some promising reductions of up to 80 per cent. Speaking at a press conference on Sunday, Rashad said that students and citizens with special needs will be offered special packages. Overall, he added, there is awareness among publishers that prices of books are taking a serious toll on the industry.
It has been a very tough year for business, says Yehia Fekri, chair of Al-Maraya Publishing. The price of paper has tripled over the past seven to eight months on the back of the devaluation of the Egyptian pound, dealing a serious blow to the industry, and a further fall in the value of Egypt’s currency is expected.
“This uncertainty and volatility is prompting a lot of apprehension and it has been an ordeal to get books printed ahead of the book fair,” said Fekri. With the increasing price of paper, “but also of ink and printing and production costs”, Al-Maraya had to cut down its list of titles put out for this year’s book fair.
“It is unfortunate, but we had no choice,” he said.
What goes for medium-sized publishing houses applies to bigger publishers. Nora Rashad, publication manager at Al-Dar Al-Masriya Al-Lebenaniya, says they have significantly cut the number of titles they are putting out.
The trend, she explained, has been going on for more than a decade. Al-Masriya Al-Lebenaniya would put out around 100 titles for the book fair before the January 2011 Revolution. The number dropped to around 60 after the revolution and then to 50 titles up to the Covid pandemic. For this year’s book fair, they are putting out a little over 20 titles.
“We have been working to cut our profit margin as much as possible, but there is a limit to how far we can go in this direction and maintain the quality of production to which we are committed,” she explained.
Both Fekri and Rashad acknowledge that despite cutting as many edges as possible an increase in prices is inevitable.
For Fekri, whose books target the low budget reader, “it is very frustrating to bow to the unavoidable increase and it will be more frustrating for us to see the impact of this increase on the accessibility of books to keen readers with limited budgets.”
While making books available on smart reading applications is an option, most publishing houses are considering, given the narrow profit margins it is unfeasible for publishing houses to forgo print for exclusively online publication.
There is concern that publishers will end up being less adventurous in terms of titles and writers, dealing a severe blow to new authors. They might also opt to print smaller books, and spiralling costs could prevent the reprinting of important titles. Publishers are also worried that piracy will increase.
Writers, too, are frustrated. Ahmed Samir, whose second novel Rasael min Al-Ganna (Messages from Paradise) is being published by Dar Al-Shorouk, laments that “writers do not make a living out of their books.”
“This has always been the case. The most prominent writers, including Naguib Mahfouz and Ihsan Abdel-Koddous, had to have jobs to make a decent living. But writers have to be read. If our books do not reach readers then there is no point in us writing,” he says.
According to Samir, many publishers will have to focus more on selling books through regional book fairs, like those in Riyadh or Sharjah where price is less an issue, though he warns that these financially better off markets are much smaller than in Egypt.
“The way to solve the problem is to start having public libraries all over the country that can provide interested readers with the titles they cannot afford to buy,” says Samir. “We cannot expect readers who are already having a hard time making ends meet to spend more money to buy books that are in many cases prohibitively expensive.”
*A version of this article appears in print in the 19 January, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.