Egypt's publishing industry between suffering and hope

Marwa Mohie El-Din, Thursday 12 May 2011

The cancellation this year of the Cairo International Book Fair left the country's publishers reeling but the revolution has given them hope of greater freedom and a more discerning reader

Since the revolution began in January, Egypt has undergone massive turmoil that has impacted all facets of life, and books are no exception. Publishing houses as well as readers find themselves in a totally new world in which prior conditions have been turned upside down – though not necessarily for the worse.

The first days of the revolution delivered a major blow to the publishing industry due to the delay and eventual cancellation of the Cairo International Book Fair. Publishing houses expect this to cause major losses since nearly 70 per cent of their production is focused on the fair – both in terms of sales and in promotion that can impact sales for the entire following year.

Life at small publishing houses was never rosy, in part because of the publication of material that, intentionally or unintentionally, caused controversy. According to Ahmed Mehanna, owner of Dar Noun, a small publishing house, there has never been coordination in the field of publishing. Prominent writers are typically monopolised by the big publishing houses, and Mehanna claims that for the past eight years none of their books were accepted by the Ministry of Education because of their controversial content.

Now the entire publishing industry is in a state of crisis due to a decline in sales. The overall quality of reading material has improved, and a new openness will allow for the publication of books that previously would have been prohibited; however, there is also new competition from newspapers. Newspaper publishers are developing an appetite for more diverse content which will result in greater profits when market conditions return to normal.

Because newspaper prices are a fraction of book prices and offer fresher material, Mohamed Salah, owner of Al-Dar publishing house, had the idea of offering a big sale in Tahrir during the weeks in which revolutionaries occupied the square. "Readers now learn to look for quality, not only exciting titles," says Salah, referring to the fact that in the past any book that offered a sense of opposition had a greater chance to sell than non-confrontational ones, even if they were of lesser quality.

What exactly will publishing houses do to overcome these negative effects? One solution is to publish a smaller number of titles. Moussa Ali, a media expert at Al-Dar Al-Masreya Al-Lubnaneya, says their company has decided to slash the number of titles by half. As a large publishing house, this means a drop from 75 to 40 titles annually.

Despite these negative impacts, however, everyone is happy with the revolution. Mohamed Hashim, owner of Dar Merit publishing house, talks enthusiastically of an expected major cultural and intellectual renaissance in the coming period. Hashim says he would not accept government compensation for the loss of sales caused by the revolution "no matter how much," referring to the request by the publishers union for such reparations based on the size of rented space at the Cairo Book Fair grounds. Questions have been raised about the legitimacy of the request, which will be decided on by the minister of culture, the head of the National Book Organization and the minister of finance.

The revolution has also caused a major change in State Security censorship. Prior to the revolution, State Security played a role primarily after publication, forcing the confiscation of published books and harassing and sometimes imprisoning publishers. After Mehanna’s publication in April 2010 of ElBaradei and the Dream of the Green Revolution by Kamal Ghobrial, State Security investigated details about places Mehanna visited, cafes he frequented, the address of his office (obviously already known to them), his views about the book’s content and even his opinions about Egyptian and Arab affairs. Mehanna was eventually arrested and spent two days in solitary confinement, and his entire personal library was destroyed.

In a few cases, State Security intervened earlier. Salah was harassed for eight months prior to the publication of Ibrahim Eissa's My Book, which was merely a collection of Eissa's articles that had been published in Al-Dostour newspaper during his time as editor. 

"It's all over now," everyone repeated, particularly after the appointment of Emad Abou-Ghazi as the new minister of culture. "He's unblemished," they all concur, and they hold great hopes and expectations for what he can accomplish, both in terms of expanded freedom and greater protection for the publishing industry.

Hopes also extend beyond freedom to more specific changes. Mehanna hopes to continue the Reading for All Family Library project, which has already been agreed to by Ahmed Megahed, head of the Book Organisation. Salah also wants to see the book fair would return to its traditional exhibition ground rather than continue at the Cairo Conference Centre. He believes that although many unrelated activities take place at the fair's old ground, such as picnics and the sale of clothes, Egyptian families who spend the day there for entertainment would also peruse the books and sometimes buy one or two. He argues ‘the Conference Centre with its international standards does not allow average families to capture even that small encounter with culture … not to mention they are unlikely to come in the first place."

A lot of hopes and wishes for the future. And a lot to worry about in the short term. But all the publishers agree the worry is a small price to pay for freedom. 

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