Young Egyptian writers have a tough time publishing their work

Deprived of financial resources, public publishing agencies are far from able to compete with private publishing houses.
Sunday 19/08/2018
Troubled times. A man looks at a book outside of a bookshop in  Cairo. (Reuters)
Troubled times. A man looks at a book outside of a bookshop in Cairo. (Reuters)

Ahmed Kamal is a 27-year-old writer who has just completed a lifelong dream: writing his first novel. It took him years of writing and rewriting. His dream seemed to sometimes fade as he tinkered with his text but, finally, he had a novel under his name.

All he had to do was have it published but Kamal was in for a big surprise: The publishing world was an unfriendly and obscure world, more like an unsolvable riddle.

Publishing means and opportunities did not seem to be lacking. Public and private publishing houses compete with digital media for new works to publish and their numbers are growing. Yet the process of breaking into this closed world for Kamal and other literary creators seemed daunting.

The Egyptian government has stopped publishing and promoting serious cultural work. It was thanks to government support that 20th-century literary giants such as Ihsan Abdel Quddous, Youssef el-Sebai and Yahia Haqqi had the chance to make their work available to the public. For the new generations of young writers, that opportunity does not exist.

Public publishing agencies are still in the market in Egypt and carry the lustre of their former glory. Deprived of financial resources, however, they are far from able to compete with private publishing houses. When the government withdrew from promoting culture for culture, scores of publishing houses appeared to fill in the void but with a profit motive. The lofty purpose of disseminating creativity and science quickly shifted to doing business according to market dynamics.

There are exceptions to the pattern. Some publishers have a genuine interest in revitalising the world of books but the majority of private publishers are interested only in maximising profits; culture is secondary.

Today, a writer faces three choices. The first is to finance the printing and distribution of his or her book. This would be the quickest way to get published even if the work is of low quality. The second is to split costs with the publishing house.

The third is to have the publishing house shoulder all costs. In this case, a reading committee might take months to evaluate the work submitted and sometimes it simply doesn’t bother to answer.

Kamal said that “despite the apparent easy choices, a young writer is, in fact, pressured into either bearing the unexpected cost that most young people cannot afford or fall into the trap of sharing 50-50 the costs and profits.”  He said that many publishing houses pretend to share the cost and charge the writer the full cost and claim that that was his share only.

“The crisis of a rising writer is not just to find a publishing house that believes in his experience and is willing to finance the printing and distribution costs of his work but it lies in the fact that the author remains the weak side in any contract with the publishing house, said Ahmed Samir, a young writer who has published three sarcastic novels. “There are really no guarantees for him to know his share in the profits or to have a say in the distribution or even the cover of his book.”

Samir said the biggest scandal was that there were no authorities or agencies to consult to determine the true figures for sales or printed copies. Publishing houses have a monopoly on that information.

Experts said the weakest link in the operation for young writers is the absence of legislation protecting their rights and copyrights. Law 82 of 2002 guarantees copyrights but writers lack the means to enforce it.

The weak position of writers is compounded by the absence of a protective structure or trade union. There is a writers’ guild in Egypt but joining it is complicated so it is usually ignored.

Private publishing houses opt for works with the most profit potential and that are the least costly to publish. That means they will usually publish works by well-established authors with a solid base of readers or go for books for general readership, such as religious ones, horoscopes, sentimental novels, horror stories and, of course, parodies and sarcasm.

Hani Abdallah, manager of Riwak Publishing House, said publishers are not professional in dealing with authors. Publishing opportunities for young writers are more available now that there are many young publishers in the market. He said many publishing interests have selection and reading committees and are willing to cover the printing and distribution costs of selected works.

He said a good reputation is the most valuable asset for a publisher, so publishing houses are keen on selecting the best content and not swindling writers. Promoting a new generation of excellent writers does work to the advantage of publishers as well.

Internet platforms for publishing digital books have become an attractive alternative for young writers in search of an audience. Online platforms such as Our books and My books select works, revise them and publish them for a small fee or sometimes for free.

Online publishing, however, is far from replacing printed copies. For most publishers in Egypt, online sales do not exceed 1% of paper-based sales. Readers still find pleasure in reading printed books. Readers also say online works are of a lesser quality and literary value than printed ones.