By Porter Anderson, Editor-in-Chief | @Porter_Anderson
‘How a Publisher Can Survive’Our interview with Mohamed Rashad—president of the Arab Publishers Association—brings to light many of the policy-level issues encountered by publishers in the region during the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic and looking at details of what publishing needs to grow and develop as the effects of the contagion hopefully begin to ease.
Publishing Perspectives is also glad to have had a chance to interview Rashad’s son, Ahmed, for his ground-level viewpoints of a publisher and bookseller in Cairo.
Ahmed Rashad is the executive director of two publishing houses, Dar Al Masriah Al Lubnaniah and Dar Al Arabia lel Ketab. He also is chief executive of the high-end bookstore named al Masriah Al Lubnaniah. You’ll find the publishing houses’ presence online at almasriah.com and the bookselling component at store.almasriah.com.
And not unlike his father, who serves the Arab Publishers Association, Ahmed Rashad is a board member of the Egyptian Publishers Association, so he, too, has the industry-community level viewpoint.
We begin our exchange with Ahmed Rashad by asking him to give us a sense for the challenges he has noticed as standouts during the pandemic era in Egypt.
Ahmed Rashad: The first challenge for us as publishers was the cancellation of all Arabic book fairs. As you know, Arabic fairs are the main market for selling books to the public in the Arab world, and they represent a large percentage of any publisher’s sales during the year.
The second challenge was the complete closure of most bookstores in some Arab countries and the reduction of working hours for bookstores in other countries as a result of the curfews imposed in many places. Remember that we’d started with a fundamental problem even before the pandemic, the small number of bookstores in the Arab world.
And as for a third challenge, the market in the region was basically not prepared enough to accept the idea of reading online through platforms such as Amazon, Google, and so on. That issue arrived on top of the small number of services we have that sell print books and deliver them to homes. So in many cases, we were without the digital “magic solution” which, in other parts of the world, was helping publishers withstand the pandemic.
PP: In the Cairo market, how has bookselling fared? What has been your experience with your bookstore?
AR: The situation at the beginning of the pandemic became extremely difficult in Cairo as a result of a curfew and reduced working hours.
“There are no distribution companies inside or outside the Arab world to distribute Arabic books.”Ahmed Rashad
In addition to that, there was a decision to close all restaurants and cafés for a period of approximately three months, and our bookstore is located in a mall with restaurants and cafés.
Moreover, to work in less than normal working hours, of course, made the situation very difficult. And that was added to the customers’ original fear of going to a bookstore and touching the books for fear of becoming infected.
So we resorted more to relying on selling online through our site and through our pages on social media and used boosted ads in which we explained a lot of our precautionary measures for the delivery of books. This solution greatly helped us withstand the situation and that’s why we’re now working on developing our site. We’ve increased our marketing budget through social media, as of the beginning of this year.
But I’d also like to note that despite a helpful end to the retail closures and reductions in working hours, a new factor has been imposed, and that’s the economic impact of the pandemic and the limitations it has put on readers’ purchasing power.
‘The Necessity of Pursuing Digital Transformation’
PP: Looking at the situation from your vantage point as a board member and the lead on the marketing and public relations committee for the Egyptian Publishers Association, how ready do you feel the region’s book business was to take advantage of e-commerce and other digital responses to the crisis?
AR: In the Egyptian Publishers Association—and particularly on the Marketing and Public Relations Committee, which I head—we’ve been working since before the pandemic to persuade publishers of the necessity of pursuing digital transformation and working to evolve traditional selling methods to new sales methods such as selling print books through online sites or social media networks.
These approaches aren’t only good in confronting the pandemic, but also are solutions that help publishers solve the problem of there being too few bookstores. And this goes back to poor distribution. There are no distribution companies inside or outside the Arab world to distribute Arabic books.
As for other actions we took, we made a list last year of all sites that sell ebooks and then were able to instruct our Egyptian publishers on how to contact those sites. In addition, the leadership of the Egyptian Publishers Association has made an agreement with a vendor to digitize books for our publishers at a reasonable price.
In terms of public-facing efforts, the Egyptian Publishers Association also launched a campaign called “Stay Home With Your Book.” That initiative has worked to encourage our publishers to raise their sales presence on social networks and on their sites, with free delivery for consumers.
And in the near term, we’re preparing to conduct a workshop for Egyptian publishers with one of the biggest companies in the world on how to digitally convert books, the importance of digital transformation, and the latest statistics that explain how a publisher can survive in our world now if he takes the step of digital transformation.
PP: Lastly, what are points the Egyptian and Arab world industry must handle well in our post-pandemic future?
AR: I think that the lesson learned throughout this pandemic is that there’s simply no alternative to digital transformation and e-commerce. Even on a personal level, I’ve benefited from this both as a publisher and as a bookseller.
Any publisher in our Arab world who was taking steps toward digital before the pandemic hit has seen its sales double over what he or she was making before the crisis.
I can agree with those who say it didn’t solve the problem as a whole, but the digital transformation and e-commerce actually helped some of us to withstand these circumstances. And now, having had the experience we’ve had of seeing Arab book fairs canceled, I believe that a lasting effect of the pandemic will be that it has helped our Arab publishers in the future to reconsider relying so heavily on book fairs.
The pandemic has helped us all start thinking about alternatives for distribution.
More on the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair is here in our special landing page for all our coverage.
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More on Guest of Honor Germany and Frankfurter Buchmesse is here, and more on the United Arab Emirates’ market is here. More from us on book fairs and trade shows is here. More on translation is here, and more on Arabic in the publishing world is here.
Publishing Perspectives is the media partner of the Sheikh Zayed Book Award and the International Publishers Association. Our extended coverage of ADIBF 2021 is supported by the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair.
More from Publishing Perspectives on the ongoing coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic is here.