INTERVIEW: Rania Hanna founder of BookBuzz on selling books online in Egypt

It has been just a few days since the Cairo International Book Fair ended its first ever summer display that started on 30 June and lasted for two weeks. Still, BookBuzz, an online operation for selling physical books online, is busy sending out orders of titles that had been requested during the book fair, but had been out of stock.
“It really was a good season for selling books online with the CIBF happening in June,” said Rania Hanna, founder and manager of BookBuzz.
According to Hanna, it is not just that “several of the titles” that BookBuzz had online were going out of stock “but actually some titles went out of print and the publishing house needed time to send over the copies.”
Selling actual books online is not something new in Egypt. The business, according to Hanna, who is a pioneer, has been expanding over the past five years. During the past 18 months, with the pandemic enforced restrictions on gatherings, especially in the spring and winter of last year and this year when the level of infections was peaking in Egypt, many have resorted to ordering books online.
“The trend started when people were stuck at home – not being able to go out as much as they would – so they had to distract themselves by reading,” she said. Despite the fact that 2020 was not a record year for publishers putting out new titles, “it was a good year for selling recent and some of the old titles online.”
According to Hanna, fiction and history were particularly in demand “with people having long evenings to spend with large volumes to read.” She added, “The interesting thing is that as people were going through the titles of fiction we put on our website, they got interested in exploring the classics as well.”
In 2020, the manger of BookBuzz said, the orders of titles from Naguib Mahfouz, Ihassan AbdelKoddous and Tawfik AlHakim “were particularly high.” She argued that the fact that these titles were being offered in sleek new editions made them all the more attractive for the younger clientele who were finding their way around these titles for the first time.
It was during these months that Hanna got a sense of the growing trends in reading. “There has been a taste for history for about a decade already and of course fiction has always been a favourite. However, during this COVID-19 time, these interests expanded considerably,” she said.
“During this year’s CIBF these interests figured highest for the orders we got during the full two weeks of the fair,” she added.
With the sense of what people like to read in mind, BookBuzz decided to rework its classification of books to help the readers find their way easier. Titles of Mahfouz, Al-Hakim and Abdel Koddous are no longer under the plain literature label but rather under classics.
“I don’t know why, but I think during the Coronavirus months, people developed a taste for classics. I think this partially has to do with the fact that two of the leading publishing houses had already put out the titles of leading names like Mahfouz and Abdel Koddous in new and nice editions and they were already there to sell,” she argued.
During this CIBF, she added, the demand for the classics “was certainly one of the highest – and on some days it was just the highest.” “People were going for the obvious titles, for example the trilogy of Mahfouz, but the highest demand was for the titles that had not been turned into movies or for titles that are less known than the famous ones,” she said.
The pursuit of the old and undiscovered, Hanna argued, is best demonstrated during this round of the CIBF with the reprinted titles offering selected items from Al-Ahram’s famous commentator Abdel Wahab Moutawaa who used to answer readers questions on tough social questions on Friday’s Readers’ Corner.
According to Hanna, Moutawaa’s books, which are basically a compilation of letters he received with the answers he put out, “are the big surprise of this year’s CIBF.”
“I cannot say what was the exact order for the highest selling author during this CIBF for BookBuzz but I would certainly say that Moutawaa was there,” she said.
“I am not sure if this was just the case for the clients who went to the book fair but this was certainly the case for our online service – both for the titles that were delivered in and out of Egypt,” she argued.
History-based literature, Hanna added, also featured quite high on the BookBuzz orders during the past two weeks. “Again, I am not sure why, but this might be a function of the fact that with people working from home they have more time to spend on reading or because of the fact that history titles were so much in demand during the last 18 months, so the titles mixing history and literature attracted the attention of readers this year,” she said.
This is the first year that the CIBF was held on the last day of June instead of the traditional beginning of the third week of January. The government attributed the delay to the fear over the possible spread of the new variant of COVID-19 at a time when the recorded numbers of infection were peaking.
For BookBuzz this likely meant a lot more business than last year when the CIBF was held in January under some restrictions.
Hanna is not sure about the reason for this high demand, which came despite the fact that the book fair coincided with the summer holidays and both the Eid Adhah and the exams of the last year of secondary schools. She knows that despite everything, including the fact that for this CIBF, BookBuzz was going with 40 instead of 70 publishers, there was still higher demand this year than last year when the CIBF took place in winter.
“It might be that this year there are more new titles and when people go online to order new titles they navigate a little and find some interesting old titles,” she argued.
For example, BookBuzz would often get an order for a new title that might be from the horror section along with a couple of titles from the classics and a couple of other titles from self-help or psychology.
In some cases one family member would make an order for one or two people. “But in general, I noted that there is a higher demand for horror books for women and psychology for men. This too is one of the new trends that registered during the past year or so,” she said.
Meanwhile, she added that the new labeling “has certainly helped.” “I think labels like classics and politics and literature or history and literature have a higher appeal to the reader than plainer and more generic labels,” she added.
Moreover, she stressed that there is a fact that for all the damage it did, COVID-19 brought back a higher interest in reading among wider age brackets than before. This was reflected in this variety and volume of titles BookBuzz sold during the past two weeks.
“I think the proof for this point is the high demand we got for books from the religion section for this CIBF – and I am not talking about the academic books that students would normally go for in the regular CIBF but general titles which would have otherwise been mostly in demand during the month of Ramadan; I just think that people are getting more in the habit of reading,” she said.
At the end of the CIFB, BookBuzz offered a few recommendations upon the demand they got and also upon the reviews that some other titles got. Hannaa is confident that BookBuzz would have to soon stock up on some of these titles as she believes the interest would continue throughout the summer months and into autumn and winter with the more restrictive pattern of movement that would likely come up with an anticipated fourth wave of COVID-19.