By Tolu Ogunlesi
LONDON: Publishing — including STM, Educational and Trade material -– is currently estimated at being worth €80 billion and is the second largest creative industry in the world, after television; and is currently bigger than the music publishing; video games and entertainment software; and audiovisuals (DVDs and downloads) industries combined. But the question of what global publishing is really worth is not likely to be a true reflection, for one crucial reason: the near-total absence of statistics for Sub-Saharan Africa and the Arab world, which together account for a fifth of the world’s population.
“It’s a struggle to find the most basic statistics in Sub-Saharan Africa,” Rudiger Wischenbart, a book industry consultant, told the audience at a panel discussion exploring that question, during the 2011 London Book Fair. “There’s only one country with good statistics –- South Africa.”
Wischenbart is seeking to undertake an unprecedented project -– the compilation of a comprehensive database of global publishing statistics. He explained that the findings are still “preliminary” at this stage.
A presentation by panelist Nasser Jarrous, Managing Director of Lebanese publishing house Jarrous Press, and a former chairman of the Beirut International Book Fair, provided insight into the politics of publishing industry statistics in North Africa and the Middle East.
Because of the role official censorship plays in some of those countries, available statistics are likely to the officially sanctioned ones, and “conflict between official and unofficial statistics” is guaranteed. The irony, as panel chairman Jens Bammel, Secretary General of the International Publishers Association, put it, is that the most accurate statistics are likely to come from censorship mechanisms.
Apart from the difficulty of getting reliable statistics from many countries, deciding on appropriate measurement criteria is another challenge. Wischenbart has settled for three: Publishers’ annual revenues; Market value (based on consumer prices); and the number of titles published annually (new editions and re-editions), expressed as “number of titles published per one million inhabitants.” (Figures range from 26 in Chile to 51 in Egypt to 2,830 in Finland).
Wischenbart says there are seventeen countries in the world whose publishing industries have a market value greater than €1 billion. The United States is by far the largest book market (in terms of publishers’ revenues) in the world, followed by Germany, China, Japan and the UK in that order. The UK is the world’s largest exporter of books. None of the countries on the list is situated in Africa or the Arab world.
Available statistics show that 8,610 trade fiction and non-fiction books were published in the Arab world in 2010, up from 6,840 the previous year. (The average print run for most Arabic language books is 2,000 – 3,000). Placed within the context of the combined population of the region (360 million), these figures are dismal. In the United States, (310 million people) 47,000 books of fiction were published in 2008.
Jarrous pointed out that illiteracy and censorship are partly responsible. Twenty-percent of the population of the Arab world is illiterate. In Egypt, more than half of the female population is illiterate. Government controls also mean that a lot of potential books remain unpublished. On the other hand a proliferation of international literary prizes in the region in recent years has led to a noticeable increase in the number of fiction titles published. Jarrous describes this as “an evolution in the Arab novel.”
All of these will influence the statistics that will eventually emerge. The goals of his project, Wischenbart explains, are to “improve the understanding of publishing markets” and to “define the role of books and reading in the global knowledge society.”
These are crucial tasks, considering the increasingly important role that books and publishing are playing in the global economy. Bammel pointed out that there is a correlation between a country’s “involvement in international trade” and the rate of growth of its publishing industry.