As in other parts of the world, Covid-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, has spread unevenly across the Middle East and North Africa, hitting some areas hard while sparing others almost entirely. Yet in the interconnected world of Arabic publishing, all of the region’s publishers have been jolted by the coronavirus shutdowns, from Morocco to Oman and Bahrain.
A “Publishers Without Borders” panel held May 2 over Zoom addressed the particular challenges Arab publishers are facing as countries struggle with how to respond to this pandemic.
Publishers on the panel noted that the cancellations of regional and international book fairs since early March have posed a key challenge. Fairs sit at the heart of the Arabic book business. In the absence of reliable distribution networks, many Arab publishers stay afloat by carrying their books from one fair to another around the region. “This stopped,” said Sherif Bakr, head of Egypt’s Al Arabi Publishing and Distributing. “So everything stops.”
The book fairs that are traditionally held in January and February went on as scheduled. But after the Muscat, Oman, fair ended on March 7, the cancellations began. The mammoth London Book Fair, set for March 10 to 12 and where Sharjah’s publishing industry was set to be the “market focus,” was canceled. The Bahrain International Book Fair (March 25 to April 4) followed, as did the enormous Riyadh (April 2-11) and Abu Dhabi (April 15-21) fairs. Specialized and regional book fairs were also canceled or postponed.
[Enjoying this article? Subscribe to our free newsletter.]
Even before the coronavirus pandemic, some countries’ publishing industries were already in a state of crisis. The 2019 Beirut Arab International Book Fair had been postponed because of the country’s waves of anti-corruption protests. Rania Moallem, editorial director of the publishing house Dar al-Saqi, in Beirut, was not optimistic about the future.
“The publishing crisis existed before the epidemic, but it has worsened today, with sales stalling completely, the printing and publishing ceasing, all book fairs canceled,” Moallem said in an email. “Added to this is the economic crisis we face in Lebanon and the banks’ blocking of funds. Today, we are trying to focus on sales of e-books and audiobooks, but sales are very small and won’t allow us to continue if the situation remains as it is.”
When Will Things Reopen?
Uncertainty about when fairs might resume and bookshops reopen has further complicated publishers’ plans. The Abu Dhabi Book Fair’s website still promises it will be back at the end of May. The Baghdad International Book Fair posted a statement announcing that it will be postponed to a later date when “the coronavirus crisis has passed,” while the Riyadh International Book Fair’s website says only: “coming soon.” Most Arab publishers still hope the big fall book fairs—Amman, Algiers, Kuwait, Jeddah—will go forward as planned.
Salim Brahimi, of Algeria’s Z-Link Editions, said that if things reopen “before the Algiers International Book Fair, which takes place in October, then there is a chance that recovery will take place. If the Covid-19 crisis persists beyond that, then the consequences will be dramatic.”
Some countries have allowed bookshops to reopen, such as Lebanon and Egypt, while in Morocco, for instance, nearly everything remains shut. A few bookshops continue to deliver in Morocco’s biggest cities; however, purchasing patterns have changed. Kenza Sefrioui, co-founder of En toutes lettres, said that bookshops aren’t asking for new books from her, “because people mainly ask for romance, detective stories, feel-good books (and not, especially in these dark times, for narrative journalism about dark social issues).”
“The publishing crisis existed before the epidemic, but it has worsened today, with sales stalling completely, the printing and publishing ceasing, all book fairs canceled.”Rania Moallem
Editorial director of the publishing house Dar al-Saqi, in Beirut
At the “Publishers Without Borders” panel, Egyptian publishing consultant Ali Abdel-Moneim said that he too had seen genre works—such as romance and thrillers—selling better, along with personal-development and business titles.
Many literary events have responded to the shutdown by going online. Organizers in the United Arab Emirates been among the quickest to announce online events. The Sharjah Virtual Reading Festival is set to run from May 27 to June 5, and the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair recently hosted a professional-development webinar titled “Audio and Electronic Publishing: Alternative Platforms.”
In the past, many Arab publishers had been slow to adopt digital solutions, citing piracy as well as technical challenges. That has now changed.
“Many realized that they were not savvy regarding e-books,” Jordanian publishers Taghreed Najjar and Salwa Shakhshir of Al Salwa Books said in a joint email. “The Jordanian Publishers Association did a study to find out how many publishers have electronic books, and they realized that many had none. They offered a virtual seminar on the importance of that.”
Some publishers, like Sherif Bakr, said they were pushing even harder on digital. “We’ve tried with e-marketing, we’re giving free chapters on our websites and in newspapers, we’re doing a lot of offers for e-books.” Yet he added a caution, noting that with the start of the Ramadan season, “everything stops. … It’s a time when we expect things to drop, so you can’t really compare with Ramadan around.”
“We’ve tried with e-marketing, we’re giving free chapters on our websites and in newspapers, we’re doing a lot of offers for e-books.”Sherif Bakr
Head of Al Arabi Publishing and Distributing, in Egypt
Moroccan publisher Kenza Sefrioui was less optimistic about e-books. “We are now developing our digital catalog, but we don’t expect fantastic sales, as people are not in the habit, and this has no chance to change soon.”
The Post-Lockdown World
Sefrioui added that the main challenges will come after the lockdowns are lifted. “The economic impact will be very strong. When a lot of people lose their jobs and lack essential products, how will we be able to interest them in buying books?”
According to Algerian publisher Salim Brahimi, several local publishers have already furloughed staff, “putting their employees on non-optional leave or partial unemployment.”
Another unknown is how belt-tightening in schools and universities will affect the industry. “The fear is that schools and universities will also be suffering from economic hardship and may not allocate funds for books,” said Jordanian publishers Taghreed Najjar and Salwa Shakhshir. “There is growing fear among publishers that, with schools going to online learning, the need for physical books will decline.”
Nearly all publishers who spoke with Al-Fanar Media said they were working to change their business model in some way. Sherif Bakr said his publishing house was using this time “to do an internal makeover on every level.” Perhaps, he said, the pandemic would push permanent changes in Arabic publishing. “Maybe the whole business model will change.”