The 54th round of the Cairo International Book Fair (CIBF) is facing huge challenges due to the current economic crunch. Conditions have certainly affected book sales, though not the overwhelming desire to visit the fair, nor the keenness of Arab publishers to participate in the belief that being present and maintaining the trust of the reader is an achievement in itself.
One fair visitor is Hussein Nahaba, an Iraqi translator and writer, and the founding president of Ebjed Foundation for Translation, Publishing and Distribution, which he established in Iraq four years ago. Nahaba used to visit the CIBF frequently for many years, but this is his first time as a publisher.
“My fellow publishers advised me to participate as it is one of the three best and most important book fairs in the Arab region. Actually, this is what I felt myself by being here this year. More than excellent organisation, a huge number of visitors, and intense presence of publishers from across the Arab region and the world.” However, according to Nahaba, despite the large number of visitors, sales to individuals are small compared to sales to distributors and bookshops, but the latter buyers have created a kind of balance. “We have reduced prices significantly despite the high cost of publishing. I am already well-known as a translator in Arab cultural circles, and that helps together with the fact that the titles we publish – fiction, history, criticism – are unique and new, which makes them attractive to distributors and bookshops.” But aside from financial considerations, Nahaba feels that participating in the CIBF is a benefit in itself. “This is the place where the audience gets to know you, they get to know Ebjed. What can be better than that?”
Ashjar Publishing and Distribution is one of the UAE’s better established publishers, founded in 2003 and specialising in children’s books. According to Mohamed Dafaallah, the press’ representative at CIBF, this is the third time they have participated, consecutively.
“Our first participation was in the summer 2021 round, and we were surprised at that time by the huge sales and the high demand for our publications, so that we made reasonable profits despite discounts of up to 50 per cent. In addition, we achieved the popularity that we aspired to in the Egyptian market. In the next round, our discounts reached 40 per cent, there were huge sales to individuals and to many local bookshops, and we achieved great popularity on book promoters’ pages on social media, which encouraged us to participate this year, despite the stressful economic conditions.”
One problem was the way the new exchange rates affected the prices of books, however. A famous series that helps to teach children Arabic rose from LE600 to LE1450 despite the 30 per cent reduction. “The real price of the book has not changed, but the difference in the value of the currency exceeded our expectations,” Dafaallah adds, pointing out that most of their publications being children’s books filled with quality colour illustrations raises the cost of printing, but middle-class families with even more limited budgets being the main target buyer complicates things even more. Yet Dafaallah feels it is still worth participating: “We gained a foothold in the Cairo Book Fair, and in the Egyptian market, and we won’t lose that.”
Fergiani Publishing and Distribution is a newly founded Libyan publishing house that established a branch in Cairo several years ago. They print some of their publications in Egypt, and others abroad. Ghassan Fergiani, the owner, came all the way from London to supervise its pavilion at the CIBF. He says that the economic crisis affects the publishing industry and therefore book prices, but the biggest challenge facing a Libyan publishing house is that it has specialised since its inception in non-fiction books about Libya, which takes a long time to create a base for readers, whether in Egypt or in the Arab region. “Since last year, we have followed a new approach by focusing on fictional works by Libyan and Arab writers and translations, in addition to our traditional publications, in the hope of reaching a wider audience.” Fergiani believes that presence in the CIBF is an indispensable opportunity for expansion. “The economic crisis hits the whole world, but presence is vital for continuity in our project.”
Jaber Abu Fares is here in his capacity as the head of the Jordanian Publishers Association and Director of the Amman International Book Fair. His country is the guest of honour of the 54th round of the CIBF, and he says that, here as in Jordan, publishing is more of a challenge due to economic conditions, but also due to the decline in demand for paper books and electronic piracy. This year is seeing a significant increase in the book prices because of the value of the Egyptian pound against the dollar, which is the currency in which books are priced. But to counter this, he indicates that the Jordanian Publishers Association decided on a set of measures to relieve buyers and publishers at the same time.
“We reduced the number of Jordanian publishing houses from about 35 to 16, on the condition that a group of publishing houses share one pavilion, or that a group of publishing houses sell books on behalf of other publishing houses, meaning that the actual representation of the Jordanian publishing houses is not diminished. This is in addition to discounts reaching the maximum possible level.”
Abu Fares says Jordanian publishers have been keen to participate in the CIBF since its inception, and their books are in demand on the Egyptian market, as they specialise in academic books in scientific studies, and Islamic and Sufi studies. “CIBF is characterised by the large number of visitors who love reading. Everyone who comes here is looking for a book. They buy books in smaller numbers compared to previous years, but on the other hand, Egyptian and Arab academic institutions make up the difference.” The goal of publishers in the Arab region, in the light of the economic crunch, is survival rather than profit. Yet Jaber Abu Fares is proud that Jordan is the guest of honour: “Our presence as a guest of honour gives us the opportunity to communicate more widely with the Egyptian public in different ways through books, but also through many artistic and cultural events that introduce them to Jordanian culture and generate more interaction between the two countries.”
Representing Katara publishing house, one of the cultural projects of the Katara Cultural Village Foundation, which runs the Katara Prize for Arabic Novel, Khaled Al- Muhanadi says participation in CIBF is very important to promote the Katara Prize. “The Cairo Book Fair is big and full, and it is a unique opportunity to promote the Katara Prize, as well as our publications of award-winning novels. We also came this year to hold book signings for the novels that won the prize over the past few years and to celebrate their authors. The population of Egypt is very large and it is not necessary for everyone to buy books as long as they get some idea of them. It’s like a buffet dinner: people come here, wander around, watch, think, and maybe buy.” Al-Mohannadi adds that CIBF plays an important role in advertising books and publishers. “You can spend 10,000 dollars on advertising, or you can come to the Cairo International Book Fair, and you will discover that the returns are higher. It’s worth it.”
Willows Publishing House was founded three years ago in South Sudan and has since participated in successive rounds of the Cairo Book Fair. In addition to introducing the literature and culture of South Sudan in Arabic, Willows aims to translate some of the latest titles from world literature from English and French into Arabic, as well as publish fictional works by Sudanese and Arab writers. The general director, Gata Yemba, says that one of his main goals in participating in CIBF is to reach out to the huge Sudanese community in Cairo. “It is true that we are a relatively new publishing house, but in three years, thanks to our extreme selectivity in authored or translated titles, we have built a good base of readers, especially Sudanese in Egypt. Therefore, the Cairo Book Fair can never be bypassed.” She shares with all publishers the challenge of high prices and the consequent decrease in purchases, but she believes her biggest challenge is to attract the attention of the Egyptian. “I think that Egyptian readers are less curious when it comes to cultures they are not used to following. But I hope, through continuous presence in the Cairo Book Fair, that our readers’ network will expand to include Egyptians.”
Magdi Mohamed Ahmed is a Sudanese lawyer who lives in Khartoum and visits the Cairo Book Fair every year. He is particularly interested in following the latest legal publications, and believes that the Cairo Fair provides an unrepeatable opportunity to view a large variety of legal books. “The legal books of writers from the Maghreb, for example, usually do not reach Sudan. I can only get them through the Cairo Book Fair.” Magdi says that every year he used to allocate a budget of $1,000 to buy books from the Cairo Book Fair. Although his budget remains the same, this year he bought far fewer books. “I used to buy 600 to 700 books every year, but this year my budget bought me only 70 books.”
Nevertheless, according to the Sudanese lawyer, the Cairo Book Fair remains the closest window to his book needs and “the closest to the heart as well,” Magdi says.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 2 February, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly