x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Arab booksellers hampered by weak distribution

Arab booksellers hope to see the establishment of a mature market that will support authors and publishers.

The Frankfurt Book Fair sets a standard that local publishers hope to see in the Middle East.
The Frankfurt Book Fair sets a standard that local publishers hope to see in the Middle East.

As a third-generation book seller and publisher in Baghdad, Ibrahim al Rajab grew up surrounded by books, but nothing prepared him for his first visit to the Frankfurt Book Fair in 2003. "It's a shock for many Germans as well but it's particularly a shock for Arabs to see how big the industry of books is, and how decent," Mr al Rajab said. "It has its own magic and its own glory, and I feel pity that we in the Arab world don't have such ethical manners and such strategies to market our books, to get them sold and to pay the author what he definitely deserves for his work." Mr al Rajab said his company, Al Muthanna Library, almost set a national record for royalties when it paid an Iraqi author US$300 (Dh1,101) for writing a book about the history of Baghdad's neighbourhoods, which was published in 2004. Today, 500 of the 1,000 copies printed remain stacked in the company's bookstore. "My goal is to pay the Iraqi author what he deserves, but I can't pay him if I'm not getting paid from selling these books," Mr al Rajab said. His desire for the kind of mature market he witnessed in Frankfurt brought he and his brother, the company's art director Malik al Rajab, to Abu Dhabi this week to attend a week-long publishers' workshop. It was organised by Kitab, which is a joint venture between the Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture and Heritage (ADACH) and the Frankfurt Book Fair, along with the Academy for the German Book Trade and the Goethe-Institut Gulf Region. The al Rajab brothers were among 18 publishers from eight Arab countries attending the session, most of whom expressed similar frustrations about the state of publishing in the Arab world. "The philosophy of publishing in the Arab world needs a drastic change," said Dr Lateefa al Najar, of Dar Al Aalam Al Arabi, a UAE publishing house that focuses on children's and educational books. "They need to understand that it is a trade." The instructor for the first session was Michael Freter, the chief executive of PSI Promotional Product Service Institute - Reed Exhibitions, who believed he could help the publishers with tips on marketing and sales strategies, but only up to a point. "In the West, we use a lot of distribution channels and a lot of marketing activities, which today in Arab countries are not so easy because there is no distribution system," Mr Freter said. "The Arab publisher normally is a printer, a publisher and is doing distribution as well, and that is not easy. The most important issue that they have here, in my feeling, is the distribution, the connection between the publisher and the buyer." Jumaa al Qubaisi, the director of the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair, agreed that distribution was the main challenge facing the industry. "It's a real obstacle," Mr al Qubaisi said. "Now any books published in North Africa we usually don't see except at book fairs. Access to books from all over the world is easier than to books from other Arab countries." For the past year, Kitab has been working on creating a distribution system for the region, a process that included software to keep track of Arabic books in print. The next stage is a research project to identify the status of various Arabic publishers, said Monika Krauss, the general manager of Kitab. Because few Arabic publishers use International Standard Book Numbers, or ISBN, data about the market have been hard to come by. "We have to do a lot of research in the market; very profound and very professional research," Ms Krauss said. "We have so many countries that are not connected to each other, so we will have to travel a lot and speak to a lot of publishers. Once we have this information, then we can continue working on the distribution system." Mr al Qubaisi said he hoped a system of some kind would be ready in time for next spring's book fair. In the meantime, publishers such as Mr al Rajab are concentrating on rofessionalising the industry through their own businesses. "There are no publishers in Iraq who are only publishers," he said. "They are always publishers and book sellers. My goal is to start a publishing industry as a separate department of our company." khagey@thenational.ae