Arab book fair battles a tough chapter
This year’s exhibition is hosting 244 publishers from the entire region
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.