Egypt’s publishers fear their industry is dying

Sunday 12/06/2016
An Egyptian man browses in a bookshop in downtown Cairo.

Cairo - For Islam Abdel Mo’ety the last five years have been about uncertainty and fi­nancial loss. The 53-year-old former civil engineer went from being a successful pub­lisher to someone who does not know which way to turn.

“Publishing, as an industry, is go­ing through the toughest crisis in its history in this country,” Abdel Mo’ety said. “Apart from the chal­lenges facing it at the external lev­el, there is no support whatsoever from the state.”

Abdel Mo’ety has seen declining demand for printed books, forc­ing his Rwafeed publishing house to turn down requests by authors, playwrights, novelists and poets, some of them among the most well-known in Egypt. He publishes few books now and expects to close shop — like many other publishers — soon.

This is less about a drop in de­mand for printed books and more about the devastating toll political, economic, social and technological changes affecting the Arab region and the book industry. Egyptian publishers said the industry is a prime victim of the political changes in the region since the “Arab spring” erupted.

“As civil wars and terrorism tear several Arab countries apart, the same countries get out of the printed book market for publishers here,” said Adel al-Masry, the head of the Egyptian Publishers’ Federa­tion. “This means this market is no longer as it was in the past, which also means less demand for printed books.”

For years, Egypt was the cultural powerhouse of the Arab region. With scores of writers in the coun­try, Egyptian publishers had valu­able cultural material to offer read­ers.

Egypt’s book industry had its heyday in the 1990s with the emer­gence of the Reading for All pro­gramme, which was sponsored by the wife of former president Hosni Mubarak to promote printing liter­ary and scientific books. Hundreds of public libraries were established throughout the country to encour­age people to read. The programme created an unprecedented demand for books.

This was when Abdel Mo’ety was drawn to the publishing business. Like many other publishers, Abdel Mo’ety’s publishing house has its flagship store in the centre of Cairo. The store is, however, a shadow of its former self and often appears empty of book buyers.

“Those who think of joining the publishing business should think twice,” he said. “It is now full of fi­nancial risks.”

His publishing house is one of about 200 that remain in Egypt, which used to boast about 600 pub­lishers.

Losing markets in war-torn Arab countries is only the latest factor affecting Egypt’s book industry. Be­fore the fighting erupted, the inter­net took its toll on book publishing. Apart from offering readers alterna­tives to printed books, the internet gave millions of Egyptians access to pirated copies of books, which is why few clients show up at Abdel Mo’ety’s store.

Masry said internet piracy has dealt a huge blow to publishing.

“The absence of strict anti-piracy laws just increases this phenome­non and contributes to the destruc­tion of the book industry,” he said.

A person found guilty of pirating a copy of a book is fined about $100.

There is no data on the number of books sold in Egypt but Abdel Mo’ety says book sales are decreasing.

Mohamed Rashad, the head of the Arab Publishers’ Association, said for Abdel Mo’ety and others in the industry to survive the downturn, they have to turn to e-publishing.

“Arab publishers need to take stock of the rising popularity of the internet,” Rashad said. “The book industry in its present form may disappear for the sake of digital publishing.”

Abdel Mo’ety said he knows that he will have to ditch printing and turn to e-books but he is not pre­pared to make the change.

“I am sure that developments on the ground here and in other Arab countries will make the book indus­try shrivel up and die very soon,” he said. “This will mean that people like me will be losing everything.”