Author: 
Lisa Kaaki, [email protected]
Publication Date: 
Wed, 2012-01-11 01:10

For nearly two decades, Mark Linz has presided over the destiny of the AUC Press, the leading English language publisher in the region during these exciting times. At the eve of his departure as director (he will remain as a consultant), Linz, with his usual infectious enthusiasm, looks back on the recent events:
“This revolution time has been very close to us, physically because we are 20 meters from Tahrir Square, and because we have been vandalized and inspired at the same time. This is, of course, an exciting time for publishing, and we have published a lot of books about Egypt and the Middle East on politics, economics and social issues over the last 20 years. We are in a post-revolution period, which is interesting from an editorial point of view, but miserable from a sales point of view. However, international sales in Europe, America and Asia are up because of a higher interest.”
Linz has nothing to regret and much to celebrate. Since 1961, 100 new books have been published every year and there are 1,500 books in the complete backlist catalog, which carries 20,000 different titles in English. In the last 25 years, the business of the AUC Press has increased from 400,000 publications to 40 million. In publishing, times are always challenging — revolution or not — with new developments in the region’s politics and economics, exciting discoveries in archeology, a large catalog of 150 Arabic novels translated into English and the birth of Naguib Mahfouz, which is being celebrated through a centennial this fall.
With the exception of novels by Naguib Mahfouz and Alaa Al Aswany, most novels have moderate and sometimes very modest sales. Not everything is done on a commercial basis, but what is unique about the AUC Press in Cairo and in the Middle East, as opposed to university presses in North America and Europe, are the educational and research dimensions to publishing works that reflect and support the mission of the university.
The case of Naguib Mahfouz is particularly telling. “The literary Nobel prizes have been awarded to all kinds of writers during the past century; many of them are very surprising and some have been given to obscure authors, while others are very predictable. Naguib Mahfouz was unknown, except in Egypt and in the Arab world, and then all of a sudden, he became known throughout the world on a huge scale, that is from practically zero to more than 600 foreign languages editions in more than 40 languages. This is quite unusual for a Nobel Prize,” said Linz.
This summer, e-books have sold strongly, marking a turning point for publishing. Penguin reported in July that its global e-book sales in the first half of 2011 were up by 14 percent, while in April, the Association of American Publishers had already announced that for the first time, e-books had outsold all other traditional formats. AUC Press’s first e-books will be on sale next year.
However, digital publishing is not a way of killing print books, but of supporting them. In the end, it is the content that matters the most. Physical books, far from obsolete, are competing with their digital counterparts. Many feel that, as digital culture becomes more prevalent, the value of specialty cultures will increase. We shall definitely see more limited and numbered editions, as the book acquires a special status, a sort of collector’s item. As for bookstores, there is still a demand for small stores that are quirky or localized. Consumers like to be entertained as they shop and feel good about purchasing their goods.
The main problems facing digital publishing are the issues of royalties and piracy. How much will the writer get of the electronic pie and how can he protect himself from having his work distributed for free? However digital is here to stay and publishers and writers must adapt to survive. Any writer or publisher has to promote his or her books online, as the market is growing so quickly it cannot be ignored.
“Our region’s future is fascinating to participate in and nobody knows where it is going but we are making contributions. We already have a list of 10 books relating to the Tahrir events and another dozen books pending publication. We hope to include more Saudi writers. The books reflect the changes affecting the world, society and ideas, so it is good news that things are changing. Hopefully, they are not changing for the worse. Economically, things are going to be tough and challenging in Egypt and in the Middle East. But, to me, the promise is bigger than the problem,” concluded Linz.
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