By Porter Anderson, Editor-in-Chief | @Porter_Anderson
‘Our Future Cannot Depend on Paper Publishing Alone’One of the most astute observers of Arab world publishing, Arab Publishers Association president Mohamed Rashad met with the Sheikha Bodour Al Qasimi of Sharjah in January, on her very first official trip as president of the International Publishers Association (IPA). Al Qasimi was opening a series of conference trips that she has continued all spring, and the importance of her selection as Cairo for her first stop was clear in her comments: the challenge and promise of young readers for the international publishing industry.
The first of her world meetings was with the Arab Publishers Association and the Egyptian Publishers Association, Al Qasimi said, because of “the unique opportunities that lie before the region’s book industry owing to the high percentage of youth in the Arab world, which is among the highest globally. The region’s youths are actively seeking knowledge. They’re highly receptive to new and creative content. This offers a unique incentive to publishers in our region.”
And the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic, Al Qasimi told her hosts in Egypt and the IPA’s world membership, “has offered the regional industry an opportunity to reevaluate current business models and replace them with more agile ones, with a strong focus on pushing the agenda of digital publishing.”
With this dichotomy in mind—that special combination of both challenge and potential—Publishing Perspectives is glad to have had a chance to interview Rashad about the experience of the Arab world’s publishers in the pandemic as so many of them gather in the United Arab Emirates for the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair.
We begin by asking just how difficult the pandemic has been for publishers in the region. And one of the most revealing points Rashad brings forward is that the rush to help publishers develop their online sales capacities has proven to be something for the long-term, not just for the moment.
Mohamed Rashad: Certainly, the spread of COVID-19 had a very large negative impact, and publishers were shocked by the cancellation of both book fairs and of many governments’ budgets for the purchase of books directed to the health sector.
The Arab Publishers Association conducted a survey during June 2020, and our results showed that 75 percent of our publishers’ sales decreased compared to 2019. In fact, 34 percent of the publishing sector actually exited.
The number of titles normally published annually decreased between 50 and 75 percent, and there were no longer any distribution ports.
Our association has focused its activities in our Professional Performance Development Committee’s workshops, so we could provide publishers with data on how to create online platforms. We thought that this would be temporary, but it seems now that the future will be in sales made online, whether a book is paper or digital.
We also were able, with the help of experts, to find some reliable e-commerce sites that our publishers can deal with—as well as in some cases having publishers create their own digital outlets. And in that sense, then, this has become, as we say, “a blessing in disguise,” helping us prepare for the future and develop the marketing of the Arabic book.
Some of our publishers had already achieved sales activity in e-commerce, up to some 10 percent in print books and 15 percent of sales in digital titles. But after a year of COVID-19, the numbers doubled, especially through global platforms such as Amazon and Google, and they had a great impact on the publishing sector.
Publishing Perspectives: As the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair goes forward, is it too early to see some signs of recovery in the market?
MR: I think that Arab publishers who are most interested in recovery are placing their attention on producing content whatever is the most effective medium, whether it’s paper, audio, digital, or any other medium that appears in the future—as long as that publisher is convinced that entering these sectors can achieve good rates.
“After a year of COVID-19, the numbers doubled” in online retail for Arab publishers, “especially through global platforms such as Amazon and Google.”Mohamed Rashad, Arab Publishers Association
The topic of recovery depends on the ability of Arab governments to allocate budgets for specialized authorities to acquire books such as ministries of culture and youth, education, information, universities, and schools. These disciplines can contribute to the recovery movement.
Selling through the Internet, whether in paper, digital, or audio, won’t achieve a great recovery in our region. The difference between us and publishers in advanced countries and Europe is that our publishers depend on official authorities such as public, school, and university libraries and cultural centers. This can mean 70 to 75 percent of the business. The rest depends on the readers, but in our Arab world, unfortunately, the publisher depends so much on official authorities, and these authorities don’t have large budgets for the acquisition of books.
The recovery can really only come about if publishers develop themselves to go into new fields, adapting with the new era, making deals via the Internet, and at the same time benefiting from the support of their governments in acquiring books.
PP: Do you feel that having the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair hold a physical exhibition floor this year can help the region’s publishers? We remember that the Sharjah International Book Fair was held in November in a hybrid format, and the Sharjah Children’s Reading Festival is going forward this year, too.
MR: Any book fairs held at this point are beneficial to publishers. At least the fairs can stimulate activities and give us a kind of revival to help achieve part of the industry’s income.
Of course, the Sharjah International Book Fair, thanks to the initiative made by His Highness Sheikh Sultan Al Qasimi, exempted publishers from renting, easing a great burden on publishers, in addition to the donation he provided of 10 million dirhams (US$2.7 million), relieved many negative effects.
For the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair, the Arab Publishers Association contacted its management and some positive agreements were reached on behalf of publishers. I think the fair will have a good effect, and that we’ll see some bright signs during the exhibition of publishers coming out happy and making some reasonable income from their book sales there.
PP: Finally, in looking ahead, what do you think are the main factors that the Arab world’s publishing community needs to focus on the most?
MR: First, our future cannot depend on paper publishing alone. Print must go along with digital publishing. The content now becomes the most important part rather than the format or the medium. The emphasis must be on conveying the thoughts and creativity of our writers, and all of these factors will need the support of the governments.
“Censorship must be reduced. In the Arab world, a book can face more than 20 censors. We have to deepen freedom of expression and freedom of publication. This is a human right.”Mohamed Rashad, Arab Publishers Association
Second, an effort must be made by our countries in protecting intellectual property rights, our copyright. And what’s most important there is launching social and media awareness campaigns that highlight the importance of respecting copyright and tightening penalties for violators.
Another point critical for the prosperity of publishing in the Arab world is an expansion of the reading population. Reading must be stimulated, and this needs national programs from the governments, especially where there’s illiteracy. We need programs that build and promote literacy.
Also censorship must be reduced. In the Arab world, a book can face more than 20 censors. We have to deepen freedom of expression and freedom of publication. This is a human right.
And Arab countries must intervene by reducing customs duties on production requirements. Our countries aren’t producing what the publishing industry needs locally.
We need to see a reduction in taxes on publishing houses in the Arab world because publishers have a role to play in trade and industry.
We also need to stress the importance of establishing more public libraries, as they can be centers of distribution for Arab books.
All of these factors can help the publishing community in the Arab world increase its presence and influence as publishers develop their levels of professionalism by training themselves and their staffers. This is, of course, is part of the role of the Arab Publishers Association, and that’s amplified by the work of the local associations.
In short, the Arab Publishers Association is working to keep pace with developments in the wider publishing world, so we can help our publishers be international rather than local.
More on the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair is here in our special landing page for all our coverage.
For your free copy of our specially produced 2021 Abu Dhabi International Book Fair Show Magazine, click here.
More on Guest of Honor Germany and Frankfurter Buchmesse is here, and more on the United Arab Emirates’ market is here with more on the German market here. More from Publishing Perspectives on book fairs and trade shows 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 us on the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on international book publishing is here.