Cairo - reaching out to 300m Arabic speakers

Edward Milford
News - International 05 Mar 2009

Locals bookshopping at the Cairo Book Fair   The UK was guest of honour at the Cairo Book Fair. Edward Milford reports Watching the brightly coloured train carrying several traditionally-dressed Muslim families past the huge piles of second-hand books, it is immediately clear that the Cairo Book Fair (which took place from 22 January to 2 February) is rather different from the genteel, trade-only gatherings in London and elsewhere. Books are of course a common theme, but the main purpose of the Cairo Book Fair is selling large numbers of them at low prices to the general public. It lasts for two weeks, well over a million people visit it, and local publishers and booksellers often take several stands in different parts of the exhibition grounds to maximise their chances of catching the book-buying public. There are corners of the Fair that look familiar. Hall 15 housed many of the foreign publishers, along with most of the Egyptian Ministries, which, strangely, did not seem to have much custom for their worthy statistical compilations on Egypt's agricultural sector, or on research programmes at Egyptian Universities. Though the hall was much quieter than others, any available hand-outs in whatever language went fast though I doubt all the browsers were able to read English.

This year, the 41st Fair, the UK was Guest of Honour, and so a delegation of UK publishers visited, taking part in a series of trade discussions with local counterparts. There was a collective stand in Hall 15, and for the four days of the publishers visits, it was pretty busy. The British Council organised a series of cultural events, with authors such as Ben Okri, Margaret Drabble and Anthony Horowitz taking part in public discussions with local writers and booksellers. A very colourful logo was used to publicise this; as well as being all over the fairground, it also appeared on the side of buses in downtown Cairo.
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As a relatively poor country, Egypt itself is a small market for most UK publishers unless they have titles of specific historical or political interest. However, it is also part of a potentially much bigger and more lucrative market; there are 300 million Arabic speakers in more than 20 different countries in the Middle East and a significant diaspora as well. Whether to view this as one market, or more than 20 separate markets, was probably the key issue discussed at the publishing seminars. Opinions varied: there are of course different dialects though a very common base for written Arabic rooted in the Koran. There are national considerations pan-Arabism is very popular in public, but as soon as you talk more privately the reservations and difficulties quickly emerge. There is not a single trading block, and inter-regional shipping is difficult, so much so that larger publishers, such as CUP, which supply significant quantities to many different Arab countries, do so all from the UK. The economics and logistics of a regional hub have never made sense.

Writers are one of the driving forces for the local publishing scene. Much local publishing relies on subsidy from the author to make it economic, and most authors simply want to be published, rather than to try making a living from it. With much of the infrastructure that UK publishers rely on missing (ISBNs, bar codes, wholesalers etc), distribution is often simply by van from the publisher's premises, and restricted to outlets within a few kilometres of the office. As well as the authors needing additional sources of income, so do a lot of publishers, who frequently operate print works, sell stationery, or adopt some other revenue-raising strategy. As was pointed out, with the average publisher earning the equivalent of £250 a month, a rights deal that brings in £1,000, say, makes a huge difference.
In among this rather traditional and conservative set-up, a number of more progressive businesses are emerging. There are now some bookshops with electronic tills, well-displayed books and even on-site cafes. There are online initiatives run by well-organised internet entrepreneurs, and new agencies are setting up, aiming to facilitate the two-way sale of translation rights.
There are two ongoing, significant challenges to publishing and selling books in Egypt. The first is the threat of piracy. Though Egypt now has a full set of copyright protection laws, and is a signatory to the Berne convention, enforcement of these is difficult, and expensive, particularly if the piracy originates outside of the country. The second is the somewhat arbitrary application of censorship. To local publishers and booksellers, this is simply part of the cost of doing business and there is little they can ever do to challenge a censor's decisions.
Cairo has long been an important Arabic-language literary centre, only rivalled by Beirut when the Lebanon has not been riven by war. Recently, however, both Abu Dhabi through their book fair, and Qatar, through the Qatar Foundation, have suggested that their wealth will allow them to challenge this, and the centre of gravity of publishing in the region might move east. That vast, enthusiastic book-buying public on the train around the fair could yet turn out to be Egypt's main counterweight to this trend.

Edward Milford is Executive Chairman of Earthscan.

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