By Olivia Snaije | @OliviaSnaije
‘We’re Trying To Be as Price-Conscious as We Can’The 54th Cairo International Book Fair opened to the public on January 26th against a backdrop of a plunging currency, an inflation rate of more than 20 percent, and an added concern for publishers: the price of imported paper has skyrocketed.
But beside signs advertising discounts on books from 20 to 75 percent, the country’s financial crisis wasn’t outwardly apparent at the book fair. More than 1,000 publishers from 53 countries were part of the fair, with Jordan as guest of honor.
Egyptian publishers’ stands were well stocked with new releases, and they breathed a sigh of relief as the public came in droves, buying armfuls of books as is the custom at book fairs in the Arab world. In the first few days, an estimated 500,000 people made the pilgrimage, mostly by bus, to the fair in New Cairo where it has been located since 2019, far from the city’s downtown area. The fair runs until Monday (February 6).
‘A Very Important Market’
Aliaa Youssef rested on a blue stool she had brought to the fair as she waited for her 14-year-old daughter Zeina who was buying a pile of books. Her son Omar was around the corner buying his stock of books.
For the past five years, Youssef has driven the 100 or so miles from Alexandria to Cairo with her two children just to attend the book fair. Like many others fair attendees, they bring a suitcase with wheels to carry the numerous books they buy.
“Egypt is still our largest market overall, even if Saudi Arabia is our largest export market,” says Ahmed Bedeir, general manager of one of Egypt’s biggest publishing houses, Dar El Shorouk, which has three titles on the International Prize for Arabic Fiction’s 2023 longlist.
“We’re trying to be as price-conscious as we can, given the terrible economic situation. Price increases are a force majeure, but we’re offering discounts on our books and even bigger discounts on our backlist. We concentrated on presenting a good collection and are doing creative marketing. We’re betting on the appetite of the reader.”
Another big publisher, Al Masria Al Lubnaniah, with 120 employees, in order to weather hard times has been focusing on media buying, selling content to television producers, and selling books directly to readers rather than in bookshops, says Ahmed Rashad, who with his three sisters Nourhan, Nermeen, and Mina, runs the company his father Mohamed Rashad founded. Sales of ebooks are five times higher than in the previous year, he added.
Karam Youssef, who runs her significantly smaller Al Kotob Khan and its bookstore, says she has also seen ebooks take off. “They’re booming,” she says, “even if in the Arab world we are resistant to change. With the high cost of paper and the economic crisis, a solution is the ebook. Of course, we print paper as well, but you have to calculate very carefully before you print because the price has tripled since last year.”
Another problem faced by Egyptian houses which publish translated literature, such as Ranya and Sherif Bakr’s Al Arabi Publishing, is that western publishers have trouble understanding their everyday difficulties.
“A western publisher,” Sherif Bakr says, “won’t accept selling rights for print runs less than 1,000 copies. But for us, it’s a lot, with the price of paper. If you’re trying to buy a Nobel Prize-winner, you’re always at the bottom of the list, because you can’t afford to pay more, even if I know that agents need to make money. A publisher [or agent] might accept to sell you the rights because the author pushes for it.”
Moreover, he says, once a book in translation is published, in order to send the required copies to the original publisher, the Egyptian publisher needs to get permission from the government because it’s considered an export, and the price of shipping books is exorbitant. Bank transfers have become a major headache, too, because of foreign currency shortages, not to mention increased bank charges.
The book fair ends on a happy note for Al Arabi, though, as their only Arabic-language novel won the fair’s first prize for author Amr Afia’s book, After the Curtain Comes Down, about Alexandria in the 1960s.
And on the positive side, Egyptian publishers continue to innovate in what they publish, the way they market their books, and in efforts to buy and sell more rights.
Al Rewaq Publishing recently hired Khamila El-Guindy to head its newly created translation and rights department. Al Rewaq is increasing the number of titles it translates and is interested in selling rights, as well.
“We have remarkable titles in the Arab world in both fiction and nonfiction and it can be very interesting to other countries, in particular to the West—we have lots of historical bridges,” El-Guindy says.
“I’m trying my best to sell titles and I’m trying to figure out where the gap is. Is it because there are no agencies? We only have Fatimah [Abbas of FALA Agency] and she’s doing great work, but she can’t do it on her own. We’re not well-represented abroad, and I hope the programs held in the Arab world will help us know more about others and others about us.”
The current iteration of Cairo’s book fair also saw the sixth edition of “Cairo Calling,” a program designed to encourage exchanges between international and Egyptian publishing professionals.
Launched in 2012, just a year after Egypt’s revolution, and spearheaded by Sherif Bakr, this year’s program has 22 participants from 18 countries including Malaysia, Rwanda, and Brazil, making the journey to Cairo.
Vanessa Haughton, a Penguin Random House USA editor, was also present, and was able to meet with her Egyptian comic book author Deena Mohamed a month after Mohamed’s graphic novel Shubeik Lubeik—originally published in Arabic by , Egypt—was released by the Penguin Random House imprint Pantheon, and in the United Kingdom by Granta.
Sabry: ‘We Can’t Back Down’
Kayan Publishing‘s consistently packed with a younger crowd of readers showing a decided appetite for genre fiction, whether romance, high fantasy, or science fiction.
Nevine El-Tohamy and her husband and partner Mohamed Sabry run the company and are constantly looking for ways to innovate. Having been part of Frankfurter Buchmesse’s Invitation Program in 2019, Sabry decided to publish books in translation, hooking up with Bassem El Kheshen who now runs a marketing and literary agency called Bears Factor.
Through El Kheshen, Sabry began to publish American high fantasy and science fiction author Brandon Sanderson, for example, and is the Arabic-language publisher for bestselling American novelist Colleen Hoover. One of Kayan’s top-selling authors is the Tunisian Khawla Hamdi, who writes in Arabic, but Sabry has plans to have her translated and published in French so he can distribute to Francophones in the North African market.
El-Tohamy, the only woman on the board of the Egyptian Publishers Association, has worked on raising awareness of piracy, which has a serious impact on publishers in the Arab world.
She spoke at a conference on piracy, participants expressing hope that a law enacting protection for intellectual property will be passed. El-Tohamy says that pirated books are a parallel industry and readers often are unaware they’re reading pirated books.
“They don’t realize that they’re destroying an industry,” El-Tohamy says, pointing out that at some book fairs, pirated material has been sold on stands. She says that measures should be taken to ensure that only legally published books are sold at fairs.
Commenting on the readers thronging Kayan’s stand, Sabry says, “We’ve grown because we believe we have to push on and we can’t back down in a time of crisis.”