Last year, Al-Dar Al-Masriyah Al-Lebenaniyah issued 15 new titles. This is around 10 percent of the 120 new titles it had issued in 2010. The decline in the new titles put out by this old and leading publishing house, according to its executive director Nora Rashad, is not simply a function of the economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic that had harmed several industries. It is also the factor of a sequel of political and economic changes, including of course the 2016 devaluation of the Egyptian currency.
However, according to Rashad, the impact of the pandemic cannot be overlooked. In 2019, just one year before the new coronavirus hit, Al-Masriyah Al-Lebenaniyah had managed to put out close to 50 new titles.
“For sure, 2020 was a very tough year, especially with the suspension of most book fairs all around the world; however, all publishers have been trying to find innovative ideas to keep the industry afloat,” Rashad said.
According to Ali Abdel-Moneim, member of the Egyptian Publishers Union, the suspension of book fairs in Egypt and worldwide shortly after the January 2020 Cairo book fair was a lot more hurtful to the smaller than the bigger publishing houses. He argued that unlike the big publishing houses that either have their own bookstores or know how to distribute their titles well, the smaller ones depend on the book fairs to make ends meet.
According to Rashad, without the actual return of big book fairs, the industry will continue to be significantly challenged.
During the past few weeks, and for the next three months, Rashad had joined a group of established and newer publishers to exchange views and experiences on the publishing industry under the umbrella of ‘Signals of Hope’, an online programme that is put together in cooperation with the Goethe Institute and the Frankfurt Book Fair.
The seminars that were launched on 30 March review a wide range of issues — some related to overcoming the impact of the pandemic on the industry and some related to new publishing trends.
Self-publishing, selling eBooks, and actual books online, translating diverse titles, and reaching out to new markets are all agenda items for around 600 participants that take turns in joining the online seminars of Signals of Hope.
“In essence, the prime target of this programme is new and newer publishers, but in fact it has also been purposeful for the more established publishers who still benefited from the exchange of ideas on the secret of the publishing business,” said Sherif Bakr, general manager of Al-Araby Publishing and Distributing.
Essentially, the things that Rashad and Bakr said that they got some new and interesting ideas related to managing the newest trend of self-publishing and to promoting books online.
“The publishing industry is going through an incredible change due to the pandemic, but also due to the newer modes of publishing all across the world. This includes self-publishing that is now a key staple of Amazon’s work in publishing,” Bakr said.
“And Amazon are coming round the corner and it would be good for all the publishers to be aware of the impact of this move on their business and to think of how they best benefit from this development,” he added.
“Improving the modes and efficiency of our delivery has helped us a great deal to keep the business stay afloat during the last year, and it is still working well now,” Rashad said.
According to Raniya Hannah, founder and manager of BookBuzz, a platform to sell and distribute books, selling books online, both eBooks and actual books, proved to be a key success during the first months of the pandemic.
She also added that online shopping has become a new favourite mode of accessing books for a particular audience that seems to be more enticed to explore and access books online than to go around bookstores or for that matter book fairs.
BookBuzz, Hannah said, had actually been having its own ‘online fairs’ — the most recent of which has been the Ramadan Fair that is offering a wide range of fiction and nonfiction books, both classics and new titles.
"We learned through the experience of the three years that we have been in business that online platforms could sometimes be more efficient in helping people find books and, for that matter, helping people send books to family and friends very easily,” Hannah said. During the early months of the pandemic and during the holiday seasons, Bookbuzz has been getting orders for titles to be sent from Egypt to overseas.
According to Abdel-Moneim, more publishers will certainly benefit from learning about the modalities of the online selling of books, as they get to listen to the experiences of other Egyptian publishers who take part in the Signals of Hope seminars and also from the experience offered by international participants.
“We are living in the age of digitisation; it is inevitable,” Abdel-Moneim said. Meanwhile, he stressed that the next tough challenge that comes with the inevitable digitisation is the need to protect copyrights. “This is not a small challenge, and it is certainly one of the things we need to acquire experience on,” he added.