For the 53rd Cairo International Book Fair to be held on its usual date – last year Covid pushed it forward by six months – is a breakthrough for local publishers. But the harsh effects of the pandemic continue to cast a shadow over the book market, one way or another. Not all of the effects are negative, though, since the strategies with which publishers were forced to come up to cope have proven promising for the future.
According to Hani Ibrahim, the marketing manager at Battana Publishing House, the market has been declining steadily since 2020, though there might be light at the end of the tunnel. Up to 60 percent increases in the cost of paper and ink have made it necessary to generate income, and raising the cover price is unlikely to achieve that aim. Instead, the publishing house has sought reader engagement through a Facebook book club that offers members discounts of up to 50 percent. Like nearly all other publishers, it has also sought it through online ordering and direct home delivery. In addition it has focused on bestsellers like Mohmoud Abdel-Razzaq Gomaa’s two books on the craft of writing, Dear Editor: Your Guide to Professional Writing and Linguistic Mistakes Common in Cultural Circles, biographies of acting and singing legends like Soad Hosni, Shadia, Mohamed Fawzy, Abdel-Halim Hafez and Naguib Al-Rihani, or of steller poets and authors like Abdel-Rahman Al-Abnoudi, Amal Dunqul, Youssef Edriss, Taha Hussein or Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz.
Sameh Al-Moghazi, assistant sales director at the American University in Cairo (AUC) Press – which caters to English speakers interested in Egypt and the Middle East – says the press has had to come up with a new strategy following the decline in the number of foreigners visiting and staying in Egypt after the pandemic. “Like others, we were affected by the price hikes in paper and inks, especially since publishing in English is more expensive, whether in terms of intellectual property rights, authors’ wages or the cost of printing.” With a renewed, broader focus on the global market outside Egypt, AUC Press also organised book fairs to promote its publications, offering discounts and special offers, as well as mobilising its loyal network of social media followers. Al-Moghazi says the most successful books have been the latest to appear, since readers have been waiting for new things following the relative slump of the pandemic. The press can expect a boom in sales following the return of foreign visitors in the usual pre-Covid numbers, Al-Moghazi says.
According to Islam Hosny, the director of the Hindawi Publishing and Distribution Company – which prints ebooks made digitally available for free by the nonprofit Hindawi Cultural Foundation – Egyptian and Arab readers are still attached to paper. That is why the publishing company exists. He says the Very Short Introduction series, for example, though available for free online, sells very well. Like other publishers, Hindawi was affected by the Covid price hikes and especially the cancellation or postponement of some Arab book fairs such as those of Bahrain and Kuwait and low turnouts for others. Hindawi did not raise cover prices but capitalised on its strong online presence. Hindawi’s reading trend studies-based publishing plan ensured that it could weather the Corona tide more or less unaffected. In 2021 the foundation produced 80 new titles, securing the ebook and audiobook rights to the works of Mahfouz as well as the renowned Egyptian philosopher Zaki Naguib Mahmoud. Hosny stresses that an increase in sales depends on product diversity, and so the existence of electronic and audio books increases Hindawy’s market share. In the last two years at the book fair Hindawi’s best sellers have been psychology titles in addition to Very Short Introductions, novels and popular science books, the latter being one of Hindawi’s strong points.
For her part Raja Ali, marketing and sales officer Al-Arabi for Publishing and Distribution – a publishing house that has achieved considerable popularity for its translations and academic books – says Covid has greatly affected the book market since 2020, and the impact continues to this moment. “We are back,” she says, “but it is not as strong as it was before the Corona pandemic.” Like other publishing houses, Al-Arabi relied on home delivery, but its distribution plan was not limited to Egypt. It has worked with a network of distributors across the Arab world. Cooperation among Arab publishers and awareness of the consumer have been greatly enhanced by the pandemic, with publishers now aware of which social media platform to focus on in each country – Facebook in Egypt, Twitter and Instagram in the Gulf, for example – as well as the interests of young people not only through direct sales but through the work of BookTubers and influencers, who have enabled the success of at least one novel. The most popular titles are crime fiction in translation and prize winning Arabic fiction. As well as keeping up with the rising popularity of the Kindle here in Egypt, Al-Arabi has recently pursued its interest in audiobooks through cooperation with audiobook platforms that have recently emerged in the Middle East, including Google Play and Amazon’s Audible. “Audiobooks make reading an easier and maybe effortless experience.”
Storytel, the Stockholm-based Swedish audiobook streaming subscription service founded in 2006 and now available in 25 countries, converts best-selling Arabic books into audiobooks that are more affordable than print and now also produces its own Storytel Original content, some of which has been turned into print books by local publishers. Ali Abdel Moneim, Director of Contracts for Storytel Middle East, believes that the relationship between the printed book, the audio book and the ebook is more of a complementary than a competitive one, and the Covid crisis may have “prompted publishers to find new ways to reach readers”. Since aiming to spread audiobook culture in the Middle East, starting in 2015, Storytel has reached steady annual growth. “We are working to meet the needs of readers by studying user experience. For example, people in the Arab region spend a long time in transportation, which enhances the popularity of audiobooks. We are still in the early stages, but in general, the culture of listening to written content has existed for many years here, as people used to listen to poetry on cassette tapes. The demand for e-books and audiobooks increased during the Corona pandemic, which drew the attention of publishers, offering various subscription models to encourage listeners.” Storytel’s most listened-to Arabic books are international and Arabic classics as well as self help books and genre fiction.
Ahmed Al-Bohi, director of Dawen – a relatively new publishing house that has developed a wide readership base, especially among teenagers and young adults – says Dawen has recently entered the field of electronic publishing in cooperation with global e-book platforms such as Amazon, Google Play, and some Arabic platforms. Ebook culture is spreading, but it is too early to say whether it can ever surpass print. “I’m talking about ebooks on subscription platforms, not pirated ebooks. The culture of ebooks is to pay for a subscription to access the content.” Al-Bouhi adds that Dawen’s decision to enter the electronic publishing market began as a response to platforms that decided to focus on Arabic content. “Most of Dawen’s titles are on online platforms. But this has not in any way affected our sales of print books. I don’t think an ebook or audiobook will drive the printed book out whether in the region or in the world. However, I do see that there is a generation coming that will consider ebooks and audiobooks a priority compared to older generations. But until then, the ebook does not bring about significant profits so much but it is an additional source of presence in the market.” El-Bouhy notes that ebook and audiobook platforms should do more to study the book market, targeting the right publications to satisfy different tastes and interests. “So far it doesn’t seem to me that they are doing enough.”
*A version of this article appears in print in the 3 February, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.