Iraqi publishing industry faces challenges in fast-moving landscape

Book publishing in Iraq has gone through many changes in the last two decades.
Saturday 13/07/2019
A passion for books. Owner of Dar Shahriar Publishing House and Bookshop in Basra Safa Diab. (Al Arab)
A passion for books. Owner of Dar Shahriar Publishing House and Bookshop in Basra Safa Diab. (Al Arab)

BASRA, Iraq - Safa Diab, who owns Dar Shahriar Publishing House and Bookshop in Basra, said there is still room for book publishing despite challenges posed by digital publishing and copyright infringements.

Diab rejected the notion that digital publishing would replace paper publishing. “The smell of paper and its touch,” he said, “the ways of holding and reading a paper edition, the aesthetics of the cover and print and the intimate relationship that a reader has with a print copy can never be replaced by a digital copy.”

If the Arab world, which is far from being subjugated by digital technology, does not offer a measure of where the future of book publishing lies, technologically advanced countries are far from abandoning paper-based books, he said.

Diab said book publishing in Iraq has gone through many changes in the last two decades. Before 2003, there weren’t many publishing house, other than official ones devoted to presenting official discourse and official viewpoints.

2003 was a turning point for the publishing industry in Iraq. In just a few years, hundreds of publishing houses were established, some of which were geared towards certain editorial and literary agendas while others were focused on making a profit.

“Yet,” Diab said, “it is impossible to predict the future of publishing in Iraq. We have to wait to see who remains standing in the cultural arena a few years from now and that would depend on the prevailing economic, cultural and even scientific conditions of the country.”

Diab said non-fiction analytical books have been the bestsellers for his publishing houses since it opened two years ago.

The Iraqi publisher said short stories have also sold well. Since its inception, Dar Shahriar has promoted short stories, publishing more than 20 short-story collections. Some of them were written by Arab or Iraqi writers and others were translated into Arabic.

Diab said some of the figures publishers post about the number of copies printed are true and some are “either meaningless or pure fabrication.”

“Some books are so superficial and their authors unable to even put together a correct sentence. Yet, their books are widely known thanks to Instagram and Facebook so each new printing of these books runs out of stock in no time,” Diab said. “On the other hand, there are important books that actually run out of print but not necessarily the ones advertised.”

On whether publishing houses in Iraq prefer to publish novels rather than poetry, Diab said: “We cannot really say that publishers intentionally turn their backs on poetry in favour of the novel. This reality is the result of what readers want. There is no market for poetry now, not even for well-known poets. If a poetry collection achieves success and sells well, it is by pure chance, no more.”

He said novels were “currently losing a bit of their lustre” because of declining quality.

“Some books just carry the phrase ‘A Novel’ on the cover. The best proof of the loss of popularity of the novel is its dwindling sales at book fairs in the Arab world during the past two years,” he said.

Diab said book piracy “infringes on the rights of the author and the publisher.”

“Piracy itself remains a form of public theft, whether it is converting a book to a downloadable PDF format or by photocopying it and selling it cheaply. This eventually causes great problems for readers themselves, he said.

“A legitimate publisher deals directly with the authors and their problems and efforts, proofreads and edits the submitted versions, takes care of the book’s final design and cover, pays author royalties, distributes it in bookshops and book fairs, pays translation royalties and costs and foreign publication rights, et cetera.

“A book pirate does none of these things. His investment does not exceed the price of the paper. So, what these acts of piracy are doing is basically killing books and publishers altogether.”