Arab book fair bat­tles a tough chap­ter

This year’s ex­hi­bi­tion is host­ing 244 pub­lish­ers from the en­tire re­gion

The Daily Star (Lebanon) - - ARTS & CULTURE - By Maghie Ghali

BEIRUT: The 62nd edi­tion of the Beirut In­ter­na­tional Arab Book Fair, Maarad alKitab, opened its doors Thurs­day at the Sea­side Pavil­ion, amid piracy, tech­nol­ogy and the flag­ging econ­omy threat­en­ing the pub­lish­ing in­dus­try.

This year’s 12-day fair is host­ing 244 pub­lish­ers from around the re­gion, in­clud­ing Syria, Egypt, Jor­dan, Kuwait and Saudi Ara­bia. Of those, 167 Le­banese, as well as a sec­tion of Chi­nese and Ukrainian books trans­lated into Ara­bic.

“Sales have been de­clin­ing a bit over the past years, de­pend­ing on the eco­nomic state of the coun­try,” fair di­rec­tor Ad­nan Ham­moud told The Daily Star. “This year we’re hop­ing things will be bet­ter as we have more Arab re­gion pub­lish­ers.

“We or­ga­nize the fair but don’t in­ter­fere with what they sell,” he added. “Peo­ple com­ing to the fair know they’re com­ing to buy hard copy books and [the pub­lish­ers] don’t sell e-books at the fair.”

Co-or­ga­nized by the Arab Cul­tural Club and the Syn­di­cate of the Pub­lish­ers Union in Le­banon, the fair’s ex­hibitors cater to all types of read­ers, rang­ing from fic­tion nov­els to po­lit­i­cal his­tory books.

This year’s ex­hibitors turn out is higher than last year’s, but par­tic­i­pants are still suf­fer­ing from many is­sues and gen­er­ally agree that chil­dren’s books are what is keep­ing the in­dus­try afloat in this dig­i­tal age.

“There’s still room for books but we’ve piv­oted our di­rec­tion and are do­ing dif­fer­ent books than we were five or six years ago,” Beirut-based pub­lish­ing house Turn­ing Point’s man­ag­ing di­rec­tor Char­lotte Ha­maoui said. “More nov­els, less in­for­ma­tional books and a lot of qual­ity chil­dren’s books in Ara­bic.

“E-books have taken a big bite out of phys­i­cal novel sales but with the dig­i­tal age, fam­i­lies, and moth­ers par­tic­u­larly, want their chil­dren to read phys­i­cal books,” she added. “We’re also finding that fam­i­lies want their chil­dren to learn and be strong in Ara­bic.”

E-books are eas­ily ac­ces­si­ble, gen­er­ally cheaper and por­ta­ble, mak­ing them pop­u­lar with avid read­ers on a bud­get. How­ever, like ev­ery elec­tronic file, piracy has be­come a large prob­lem for e-book dis­tributers and has vastly af­fected the sales of both e-books and phys­i­cal copies, with whole web­sites ded­i­cated to free ebook down­loads.

“Tech­nol­ogy has be­come in­te­gral in peo­ple’s lives and phys­i­cal books are no longer a pri­or­ity,” Beirut and Lon­don-based Dar alSaqi’s sales rep­re­sen­ta­tive Hicham Karam told The Daily Star. “The main prob­lem in the Arab world is pi­rated copies. I re­lease a book to­day and the next day it has been copied and is be­ing sold.

“It costs me $5 to make the book and sell­ing for $10, the other guy has spent $1 copy­ing the book as a PDF, sell­ing it for $2, and is mak­ing a 100 per­cent profit,” he con­tin­ued. “This is mak­ing us, as pub­lish­ers all over, lose revenue.”

De­spite the eco­nomic dol­drums mean­ing peo­ple have less and less to spend on books, pub­lish­ers still con­sider book fairs to be es­sen­tial, whether they make good sales or not.

“It’s very im­por­tant for sales and vis­i­bil­ity [to be at the fair] … as a way to un­der­stand what the reader wants,” Ha­maoui ex­plained. “It en­ables us to in­ter­act with our clients, gage price points and this year we’ve re­duced the price of our older books as we’re aware peo­ple are very price sen­si­tive these days.”

A pub­lic pro­gram of daily events – in­clud­ing book sign­ings, po­etry read­ings, talks, trib­utes to great authors, work­shops and more – will take place dur­ing the fair, hop­ing to make it a more en­gag­ing ex­pe­ri­ence.

“We have 44 events on dif­fer­ent things, with about four a day sched­uled,” Ham­moud said. “We have a fo­rum about Pales­tinian [lit­er­a­ture] led by the Pales­tinian and Le­banese cul­ture min­is­ters and a whole day ded­i­cated to Ka­mal Joum­blatt, with a film screen­ing, po­etry read­ings and a fo­rum about him and his books.”

Maarad al-Kitab is run­ning at the Sea­side Pav­il­lion, Water­front, from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. un­til Dec. 17.

This year’s 12-day fair is host­ing 244 pub­lish­ers from around the re­gion, in­clud­ing Syria, Egypt, Jor­dan, Kuwait and Saudi Ara­bia.

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