A Moroccan Publisher Reflects on the Struggles Independent Presses Face

The Frankfurt Book Fair, held in October, is the most important international fair dedicated to books and book rights. It celebrated its 70th anniversary last year, although its origins date back to the Middle Ages. I attended in the fall for the third time since I created the publishing house En Toutes Lettres in Casablanca.

For the past 50 years, the fair has offered programs to international publishers to strengthen their networks and the fair’s international presence. In fact, 170,0000 professionals attended the latest fair, coming from 192 countries—two thirds of those attending didn’t come from Germany.

The fair’s Invitation Program, which hosted me this past October, is dedicated to independent publishers from countries in which the publishing industry is weak.

This invitation was a chance for me to make my work more widely known and to gain professional expertise. For three days, my fellow participants—20 publishers from Latin America, Africa, Eastern Europe, Asia and the Arab world—and I attended workshops on the granting of copyright and book design; prepared our stands for displaying our books; and above all discussed our respective markets, practices and the difficulties we face.

Artisans Versus Conglomerates

The experience shed light on the enormous gulf, in all countries, between independent publishers and big international ones. The former struggle to make a living in this industry. Among the independent publishers invited to attend the fair, many are also journalists and teachers, and many work together as couples or are part of an association or a cooperative structure.

Independent publishers give great importance to the artisanal side of the profession. They work minutely on the text (often poetry) and the format of the book itself, and their offerings in the field of children’s literature and graphic novels are very creative.

But when a small book stand at the fair costs $2,600, independent publishers often have no choice but to come as part of a national pavilion–if their countries cover that cost. Of the Maghreb countries, Morocco is the only one to have undertaken this investment.

As for the big publishing groups, one finds their large and expensive stands across the fair’s halls. Their directors meet at roundtables to announce the latest trends and figures, discuss licensing and the possibilities opened by new technologies like artificial intelligence.

The fair’s Young Talents program rewards projects that are often connected to the world of entertainment, in which a book is just one element of a universe that includes comics, cartoons, video games and educational platforms.

Coming from a country where publishing is a struggling industry, the chasm strikes me as enormous. In Morocco, the book sector represents less than 1 percent of all industrial transactions. The most active publishing houses are of medium size and don’t produce more than 100 titles each.

In Morocco, we struggle to have about 2,000 titles a year reach readers, because of a lack of libraries (there are 600 for a nation of 34 million people) and bookstores (about 800). Germany publishes 72,000 new titles a year and publishers there face a different challenge: overproduction, which means designers need to create book covers that can capture a reader’s attention in less than three seconds.

The seriousness with which the book sector is viewed in Germany is also light-years away from practices in Morocco. The Frankfurt fair has already made public the list of countries that will be guests of honor through 2023. At the International Publishing and Book Fair of Casablanca, the guest of honor is often announced in a news conference 15 days before the opening.

Finally, the dynamism of many of the countries present at Frankfurt stands in sharp contrast to the fossilized image projected by Arab countries as a whole: empty national stands; no participation in debates (out of 4,000 events over four days, not one was proposed by an Arab country); celebrations not of great Arab writers but of political figures. Instead of commemorating the 30th anniversary of the Egyptian writer Naguib Mahfouz’s Nobel Prize for Literature, or the 10th anniversary of the death of the esteemed Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish, it was the 100th anniversary of the birth of Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, founder of the United Arab Emirates, that was marked.

Puzzling Out Solutions

The Frankfurt Book Fair made me realize that the structural problems the book sector faces in Morocco are shared across continents.

First of all, distribution is a real headache everywhere. Several roundtable discussions between independent and African publishers addressed this topic.

A publisher from the Mauritius, an Indian Ocean island nation, explained that it is less expensive to send books to the nearby Ile de le Reunion from Paris than it is from Mauritius itself.

A publisher from Ecuador told us that he has to drive 10 hours round-trip to retrieve unsold books from bookstores, and that if he doesn’t they are burnt! Latin America, like the Arab world, suffers from closed borders despite having a shared language.

Publishers from Nepal and Rwanda explained that for many countries that don’t make their own paper or have their own printing presses, and who depend on imports, exchange rates have troubling effects on the price of books.

A publisher from Azerbaijan denounced the bootleg copies abundantly produced in Iran and Arab countries.

In Rwanda, Ethiopia and Nepal, publishers complained of unfair competition from big educational publishers, and even of the fact that international nongovernmental organizations distribute schoolbooks for free, without supporting local production.

The question of freedom of expression and of censorship varies according to our different contexts, but the lack of policies to support publishing is a shared concern.

Under these conditions, everyone cobbles together their own solutions: book clubs, readings, more affordable formats, book bags distributed in class, and most of all the construction of networks, to imagine new roads for books to travel, alongside the mainstream highways.

Kenza Sefrioui is a cultural journalist and literary critic and a founder of the Moroccan publishing house En Toutes Lettres. Her book, Le Livre à l’Épreuve, Les Failles de la Chaîne au Maroc, was published last year.


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