Ebooks Gaining Traction Among Arab Publishers?

Literary agent Yasmina Jraissati writes in Book Brunch’s Spotlight on Arab Publishing (Sharjah International Book Fair Special) about the precipitous drop in sales that publishers have seen in 2012 and 2013. But this isn’t the whole story:

spotlightJraissati, in “Reaching out to Invisible Readers,” notes five key problems that have been facing Arab publishers for the last several decades: “piracy, lack of systematic distribution channels, censorship, and differences in purchasing power across countries.”

Add this to new troubles in the last two years. For one Lebanese publisher:

In 2012 and 2013, sales appear to have dropped by 20%. To take two different examples, sales have dropped by 90% in Syria and 40% in Egypt. Although the Syrian figure can be accounted for by the ongoing conflict, the Egyptian case is more complex. Before 2011, some 70% of sales during the Cairo Book Fair came from foreign cultural institutions replenishing stocks. Such buyers included European libraries and bookstores, as well as neighboring Sudanese and Libyan cultural institutions. The Egyptian National Library accounted for 15% of sales, and Egyptian readers — for whom Lebanese books are often too expensive — the remaining 15%. With the turmoil in Egypt, none of these foreign buyers visited the Cairo Book Fair. Thus, while the Egyptian unrest did not prevent publishers attending, it did discourage foreign buyers.

Still, Jraissati writes, this drop in sales does not worry publishers as much as illegally copied books. It’s difficult to estimate the number of pirated copies sold regionally, but some estimates have put the number around 40 percent. Initially, hostility toward ebooks was fed by publishers’ hostility to this unlicensed copying.

But recently, she writes, Arab publishers have been changing their attitudes toward ebooks, specifically mentioning those working with Qordoba. While ebooks don’t address the issue of illegal copying or differences in purchasing power across countries, they do tackle the a lack of systematic distribution channels and censorship.

Also, Jraissati said, publishers shouldn’t forget there is a positive side to illegal copying: “If books are being pirated, it surely means there are more readers out there than we think.”

Ebooks also have garnered more publicity, just from being listed in a general online platform. Jraissati further noted that she believes one of the keys for expanding reading in Arabic is greater information. To that end, she and a few partners have launched a new new website, Mubtada w khabar.

More on that tomorrow.