Magazine article The Middle East

A Rich Heritage Revisited: Publishing Is a Far from Secure Industry in the Middle East Region and Yet with Such Proud Antecedents, Business Opportunities Might Be Expected to Be Booming. in the First of a Series on Media Activities, the Middle East Looks at Who and What Might Help Turn the Situation Around

Magazine article The Middle East

A Rich Heritage Revisited: Publishing Is a Far from Secure Industry in the Middle East Region and Yet with Such Proud Antecedents, Business Opportunities Might Be Expected to Be Booming. in the First of a Series on Media Activities, the Middle East Looks at Who and What Might Help Turn the Situation Around

Article excerpt

THE MIDDLE EAST REGION HAS A RICH literary tradition. Both Arabic and Persian literature with its epic tales and ornate poetry are world famous, as is the early Islamic passion for book knowledge. Indeed, the western world as we know it owes its existence to the scholarly translation by Muslims of Greek texts that would otherwise have been lost to us.

Yet in modern times, the region's book publishing industry is still, to put it charitably, bristling with potential for growth.

The industry suffers from one startling fact more than it does any other. A UN report published in 2008 showed that the average Arab reads only four pages of literature per year. This contrasts with the average American reading 11 books over the same period, and the average Briton reading eight.

But why do the region's people read so little? The rise in visual media and the Internet is blamed by many for the decline, though not all think it is so simple. Publishers blame government censorship for restricting creativity, their failure to protect copyright and restrictions in distribution across borders for the lack of material that people actually want to read. The public, it would seem, agree; there are few books that grab their interest and also they point out that books are too expensive. Others, however, say Arabs just don't want to read.

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Literacy rates in the region for those aged 15 and above stand at 75%, which compares poorly with Europe at 99%. Studies elsewhere show, as expected, that if a country's literacy rate is not high enough, the book publishing industry cannot grow to a mass market model, which would thus allow it to bring down costs and prices.

So disorganised is the industry in the Middle East that reliable figures are not possible to source. But according to sales figures from neelwafurat.com, the online book store, Lebanon is the region's most prolific producer of books with over 3,000 titles in 2008, with Egypt close behind, compared to just over 1,000 in Syria.

However, print runs for even the most popular titles are limited. With only around 3,000 books printed per title in a region with a population of almost 200m over the age of 15, there is clearly a problem of distribution.

Most publishers print their own titles and sell them in their own shops. There is simply no structure in place for distributing titles nationwide, let alone across the region, so the chances of a book selling more than just a few thousand are slim.

It is surely not a coincidence that in Lebanon and Egypt, the two countries where the book publishing industry is most healthy, systems of distribution are more advanced.

State control

Such is the ramshackle nature of the industry in the Middle East, publishers find themselves making business decisions on instinct rather than solid data. If a book seemed to sell well in the past, they might reprint it. And with little way of knowing what the book-buying public wants, investing in first-time authors becomes a prohibitively risky endeavour.

Since publishing across the region was state owned and tightly controlled until around 20 years ago, the industry perhaps can be forgiven for not having developed as much as its counterpart in the West.

Currently, publishing in the Middle East is mostly made up of family-owned firms that deal with all aspects of the business from publishing, distribution and selling with little or no cohesive, industry-wide planning. There is frequently no reliable ISBN system, and a lack of official statistics, and concerns over censorship make investors reluctant to come forward. (Lebanon's more liberal attitude to censorship has helped it overtake Egypt as the region's largest publisher of books.)

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There has, however, recently been a recognition that the industry needs to become more professional if it is to survive and grow. …

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