LONDON: A picture of Bill Gates holding a pile of volumes captioned “switch off your phones and read books” in English and Arabic is displayed on the wall at Al Saqi Bookshop in West London.
Amin Saad Jwad tore it from a magazine and pasted it over the counter he has worked behind for more than 25 years in the hopes of steering customers away from their smartphones.
“People don’t read books enough,” the 70-year-old said, paraphrasing the poster with a shrug. “Leave the iPod, leave the telephone and keep the books.”
Low readership rates are a constant source of frustration for Arab authors and their publishers as they struggle to find space for new releases in a market where books rarely sell more than a thousand copies.
It is one of the many challenges facing the beleaguered Arabic publishing industry which, despite an influx of talented writers and rising demand for content from the Arab world, has reached crisis point.
“The situation deteriorated with what is called the Arab Spring,” said Rania Al-Moallem, commissioning editor at Dar Al Saqi, the bookshop’s publishing arm in Beirut.
But the underlying problems, which include piracy, distribution issues and crippling censorship restrictions, have long made holes in publishers’ pockets and eroded author incomes.
Ghassan Fergiani, who founded Darf Publishers in the UK and whose family owns three bookshops in Tripoli, said it is an ongoing struggle for smaller outfits to turn a profit on new books in a market that is constantly undercut by counterfeit copies. Publishing books is “prohibitively expensive,” in the Middle East, and customers go for the cheapest copies available, he said.
Yet while many of the small-time operators appear “destined for the grave,” the industry, amazingly, endures, propped up by government grants and persistent publishers who go from book fair to book fair plying their writers’ wares across the region.
“They are still going strong, long after their physical stores and facilities have, in some cases, been destroyed,” said Charlie Scott, general manager at Motivate Books in Dubai.
With Arabic bookshops struggling worldwide, book fairs provide a vital point of sale for publishers and often attract huge audiences.
More than 500 publishing houses participated in the Riyadh International Book Fair in Saudi Arabia this year, while the annual Emirates Airline Festival of Literature in Dubai draws more than 44,000 visitors with its line-up of high-profile literary figures.
It is testament to the demand from readers across the region, where a longstanding literary tradition is belied by poor sales figures.
Samah Idriss, whose family runs the well-known Dar Al Adab publishing house in Lebanon, disputes the oft-cited claim that Arabs read on average for just six minutes a year. The issue is complicated, explained Idriss, who is the editor-in-chief of Beirut-based cultural magazine Al Adab. “It’s not just a matter of Arabs loving to read or not.”
He blames the Internet, social media and television series. “All this stuff is distracting people; it’s also not allowing them to read long books, they’d rather go for quick answers to specific problems than dwell into the world of novels or books.”
Lack of data makes it difficult to assemble an accurate picture of literary uptake among Arab audiences but the Arab Reading Index conducted in 2016 by the Mohammed bin Rashid Al-Maktoum Foundation (MBRF) in Dubai in collaboration with the UN Development Program (UNDP) revealed that the average Arab citizen gets through around 17 books and reads for 35 hours per year.
Efforts to instil a culture of reading by some Middle East countries, including the UAE, which launched a “Year of Reading” in 2016, have targeted the younger generation growing up in a digital age.
Many authors and publishers welcomed Amazon’s recent decision to launch 12,000 Arabic language books for Kindle devices as a positive move that will open up access for Arab authors to a wider readership at home and abroad.
Salwa Gaspard, who owns the Al Saqi Bookshop, said that the impact of e-books on Arabic booksellers is very minimal at this stage but welcomed it as a “potentially very exciting” step.
Speaking to Arab News last month, best-selling Algerian author Ahlam Mosteghanemi said: “I am thrilled that Amazon has opened this service, breaking the distances between the Arabic book and its readers.”
With more works being translated and published in digital formats, Arab authors are increasingly accessing wider audiences overseas, where the appetite — for Arabic fiction in particular — is being fueled by the success of writers like Iraqi novelist Ahmed Saadawi, whose award-winning novel “Frankenstein in Baghdad” was also longlisted for The Man Booker International Prize this year.
“Arab artists are pushing into the mainstream,” Eckhard Thiemann, artistic director at Shubbak, a biennial festival of contemporary Arab culture in London, told Arab News.
This year’s edition featured a range of writers working in the Arab world and diaspora communities, including Syrian-British writer Robin Yassin-Kassab, journalist, novelist and psychiatrist Basma Abdel Aziz, novelist and editor Mohammad Rabie, and New York-based poet and translator Mona Kareem, among many other prominent names.
But in the Arab world, digitization has yet to catch on in the publishing industry.
“E-books do not garner as much interest as the vast majority of readers prefer paper books, and because of the fluctuating price of the dollar or euro, they end up costing too much anyway,” said Fadi Jaris, owner of Anglo-Egyptian House.
Publisher Mohamed Hisham Abieh, director of Delta Printing and Publishing House in Egypt, said that because of the increase in forgeries, as well as a rise in the cost of printing, “the publication business in the Arab world is on the decline.”
The Arab Publishers’ Association launched a “No Forgeries” campaign to tackle the issue but fake copies continue to circulate in countries across the region.
Journalist and novelist Wajdi Al-Koumi told Arab News the factories that produce counterfeit copies are “draining the publishing industry.”
“They need to control the counterfeit bookstores and arrest the well-known counterfeiters who display their goods in known places,” he said.
It’s not only in the Middle East. Salwa’s daughter Lynn Gaspard, who runs the UK publishing arm Saqi Books, recently came across pirated copies of one of their publications on sale in London’s Edgware Road.
On a global level, the rise of the e-book and online sales through corporate giants like Amazon has changed the shape of the industry, with independent retailers struggling to turn a profit and even big chains, including Borders, going into administration.
Every few weeks a small-scale bookseller will tweet to say they have made little over $10 in one day. “It breaks your heart,” Lynn said.
From her office at the back of the shop, she can see people coming in to browse the shelves before taking a photo then “presumably buying it online,” where they can access deals that independent stores can’t afford.
Catering to an Arabic-speaking clientele in the UK, Al Saqi occupies a niche, which has “sustained us,” she said, in the face of mounting market challenges.
There are just a handful of places in the UK where readers can source books in Arabic by Middle East and North African writers, which is one of the reasons why late author and artist Mai Ghoussoub, who founded the store with Salwa’s husband Andre Gaspard, decided to set up shop in London, rather than Paris.
At the time, Westbourne Grove was a hub for the Arab community but gentrification has pushed up prices and changed the demographic over the years. Today a BoConcept furniture branch occupies the space once used by an Islamic book shop a few doors down.
Then, as now, the bookshop provided a safe haven from the censorship restrictions in the Middle East. “We used to joke about having a banned books section,” Lynn said.
Behind the counter, a colorful poster advertising “Don’t Panic I’m Islamic: Words and Pictures on How to Stop Worrying and Learn to Love the Alien Next Door” — a satire collection with contributions by 34 authors and artists — offers a glimpse into current tastes.
Comedy, as well as self-help and religious books are the only steady sellers in a climate where people are looking for “guidance, humor and entertainment,” rather than political commentary and current affairs, Lynn said.
In these troubled times, her focus is on finding “new voices” that remind readers of “our shared humanity” and encourage people to embrace other cultures, something Al Saqi has advocated across the decades from its cosmopolitan corner of West London.