Book publishing in Egypt: The system here doesn't follow any system
By Sarah Carr / Daily News Egypt
First Published: October 19, 2009
CAIRO: The Frankfurt Book Fair opened last week, with representation from Egyptian publishers. But participants and book traders interested in getting a handle on the volume of book sales in Egypt will be disappointed by the fair's website page on Egypt.
"There is no separate compilation or entry for the book trade in the statistics for industrial production and domestic trade put together by the Central Agency for Public Mobilization and Statistics (CAPMAS) in Cairo," the website reads.
"For its part, the Egyptian Publishers' Association does not record any data either."
As Daily News Egypt discovered, the absence of these statistics speaks volumes about the nature of the industry itself, and the often haphazard journey that manuscripts take before they become books.
This journey at certain points bears little resemblance to the publishing process used elsewhere, where agents and publishers take charge of the process.
Only one established literary agent (the Sphinx Agency) exists in Egypt, meaning that authors must approach and negotiate with publishing houses directly. Some publishing houses demand money from authors to publish. Others pay them in copies of books rather than a percentage. Publishing houses sometimes leave distribution and marketing of books to authors themselves.
Is it a system that works? Ramy Habeeb, co-founder of Kotob Arabia, the first Arabic e-bookstore, has some startling figures.
Kotob Arabia did a study on distribution which involved looking at 150 titles by Egyptian authors.
The study discovered that the top 10 percent of the sample – published along conventional distribution outlets in Egypt – was easily findable. The bottom 10 percent – works by authors who only have one title or don't have an aggressive publishing house backing them – was only available on the publisher's shelves or from the authors themselves.
Meanwhile, the middle 80 percent was only available within a 5 km radius of the publishing house – "so that basically meant where the publishers could physically carry the books themselves," Habeeb explained.
"You can imagine what this means for the industry if a book published by a downtown Cairo publisher isn't even available in bookshops in [the Cairo area of] Nasr City, let alone Alexandria or another Arab country," Habeeb added.
Habeeb joked that sometimes he thinks the book industry should be "surrendered to the Azbekeyya booksellers" – specialist second-hand booksellers in Cairo's Azbekeyya area whose extensive network of contacts means that they can get their hands on just about any book. "They'd figure something out," Habeeb said.
Habeeb attributes the failure to adequately distribute books to the fact that publishers who rely on the annual Cairo International Book Fair for the bulk of their incomes don't have "an understanding of the incentives" for wider distribution, adding that "the case for book sales needs to be made."
For authors, this can translate into their doing most of the legwork to promote and sell their work.
First-time author Marwa Rakha published her book, "The Poison Tree – Planted & Grown in Egypt," with Cairo publishing house Malamih.
"I didn't expect distribution to be that bad," Rakha said. "I ended up with 500 copies in the trunk of my car driving around Cairo, handing them over to bookstores."
Karam Youssef, owner of independent bookstore Kotob Khan says that distribution by authors themselves "is the norm."
"Authors bring me their books or they call me and tell me, "my book will be published by this publishing house, please make sure you have it. This is the norm. It's a pity."
Writers are also vulnerable in other ways such as royalty percentages and payments, rights disputes when their work is bought by international publishers, and contractual issues.
Ahmed Ramadan, another writer who signed with Malamih, says that he has doubts that his collection of short stories, "Aria," was ever published. "I think he [Malimih manager Mohamed El-Sharqawy] only published 50 copies to shut me up," Ramadan said. "There aren't any copies of the book in bookstores."
El-Sharqawy declined to comment on the allegations made by Ramadan and Rakha. However, in what may or may not be a coincidence, Youssef says that copies of several Malimih titles, including "Aria," were delivered to Kotob Khan this week, only a few days after Daily News Egypt spoke to El-Sharqawy.
Why are writers' agents – with the potential to protect authors' rights – distinctly absent from the Egyptian publishing process?
Habeeb suggests that their absence means "that they don't work. If there was money to be made by a middleman connecting authors to publishers it would exist in some form or another."
Youssef is even more blunt. "Agents are too advanced. The system here doesn't follow any system – for publishing, for anything. … The issue is we don't take things seriously."
Youssef says that Egyptian publishers "should invest more time, more effort, in getting books to sales points."
She pointed to the difference between international publishers, who "always keep you updated with new releases" and their Egyptian counterparts, "very few" of whom "care about updating you with their new releases."
Dalia Ibrahim, vice president of Nahdet Misr, the largest private-sector printing house in the Arab world, says that marketing and promotion of their titles through book-signing events and launches has been stepped-up in the past nine months. "In past years we used to do three or four events in a year. We have three events planned for next month."
Ibrahim maintains that a shortage of bookstores remains central to the distribution problem. "There are increasing numbers of stores like Diwan and Shorouk and so on but there are no megastores like Saudi Arabia's Jareer. A publisher like me who publishes around 400 new titles per year … nobody can absorb all this."
Khaled Abbas, general manager of the Sphinx literary agency, estimates that there are only around 200 bookstores in Egypt, with some 300-400 pavement booksellers. He identifies three factors as undermining the publishing process in Egypt: an inadequate number of sales outlets, the virtual non-existence of wholesalers and "the old values of monopoly, of controlling everything" espoused by the big publishing houses.
In practice, Youssef says, these values, combined with the economic realities of the business, mean that big publishing houses "set the rules" for small bookstores like Kotob Khan. She says that some big Egyptian publishing houses have recently started making bookstores pay up front for best-selling titles, and criticized the effect that this focus on profit has for her ability to stock a wider-range of titles.
Habeeb is adamant that the lack of a central database to store and track what he estimates is 12,000-16,000 new titles issued yearly by Egyptian publishing houses is at the core of the distribution problem.
Habeeb believes that the International Standard Book Number (ISBN), what he describes as "the lynchpin of the Western publishing industry," is key.
While it is used, the ISBN is not used as consistently in Egypt as in the West.
"I'll have debates with people on this and they'll say you need to get Arabs more interested in reading, or you need to improve the education system, or you need to give better incentives to authors or whatever … All of these points are valid but if you want one coherent most effective step forward, it would be the database.
"Why in a market of 300 million people do we not have Amazon? … We have a huge market with good spending power but these Western giants aren't entering the region in large part because there's no way they can measure sales."
A single database would encourage publishers abroad to purchase subsidiary rights to Egyptian titles, Habeeb says, because, "why would a Jordanian publisher buy the subsidiary rights to a book in Egypt without having some kind of sales data to know how the book is doing?"
Abbas attributes the absence of the ISBN to two factors; a "lack of knowledge" on the part of publishers and the fact that publishing houses must be registered businesses to acquire ISBNs: registration requires the approval of Egypt's state security investigation apparatus, empowered to interfere in almost every area of public life under the state of emergency in force for the last 28 years.
This process – which Abbas says can take several years – applies to all publishers regardless of the innocuousness of the titles they plan to publish. "It doesn't matter," Abbas says. "Books, newspapers, whatever. You are a publisher. You are dangerous."
After she discovered that people who wanted to buy her book couldn't find it in bookstores, Rakha decided to solve the problem by circumventing publishers altogether.
Earlier this year she launched her "Who Needs Publishers When They have Friends" campaign and put her book in PDF format on her website for free download. More than 5,000 copies of the book were downloaded in a month.
Other authors soon followed suit, including Ramadan, who was threatened with legal action for breach of contract by El-Sharqawy. Ramadan, who is currently working on a novel, says that he will be "very careful" the next time he seeks out a publisher in Egypt and may try to publish abroad directly, so disillusioned is he by his experiences. Rakha agrees. "The business is just bad."