October 31, 2010
Shopping spree at Sharjah International Book Fair – who said Arabs don’t read?

Shopping spree at Sharjah International Book Fair – who said Arabs don’t read?

By the year 2002, two key studies linking Arab human development to the book industry had been published: The UNESCO report on Arab book production and the Arab Human Development Report, ADHR.

Both reports are alarming regarding the small volume of the production (1.1% of the world production although Arabs constitute 5% of the world’s population according to the UNESCO report), the lack of artistic and creative productions (0.8 % of the world’s production in 1996), and the very little number of translations, suggesting that Arabs’ did not read enough books. In 2005, another survey by Next Page Foundation on Arab readership confirmed that although a substantial percentage of the tested Arab populations considered themselves readers, still very little time was spent reading books.

Other numbers seem to suggest that the Book is in a crisis in the Arab world. For example, the Arab publishers’ association explained that on average, a book that does well, sells 3,000 to 4,000 copies. For a market of 320 millions speakers, 115 millions of which are potential readers (i.e. are literate and older than 15 years old), this number is stunningly low. In France, where there are 48 million of potential readers, an average good sale amounts to 8,000 copies, all type of books included. These numbers may not be specific enough, but they clearly express why publishers may be reluctant to publish more, or to invest in translations and in fiction or creative works. These figures also give a rough idea of the market’s atrophy: in a nutshell, in a market at least twice as large as France, sales are roughly half the volume.

Still, according to Next Page Foundation’s survey, when asked what would make them read more, 64% of Egypt’s non readers, 66.7% in Lebanon, 25% in Saudi Arabia, 39.5% in Tunisia and 83.3% in Morocco, said that they would read more if there were more interesting books to read. Admitting that the participants to the survey felt the need to justify their non reading habits by positively answering to the question ‘Would you read more if there were more interesting books to read?’, it would be hard to say that in such a large sample (1,000 participants across 5 countries), all non readers were compelled by the same feeling of guilt. At least a portion of these non readers must have been sincere.

But how exactly can we understand these numbers? Does this mean that there are no interesting books out there? That the quality of Arab books is found to be wanting?

Let’s look at this the other way around. In the AHDR and UNESCO studies mentioned above, the absence of reliable statistics and numbers on the book production has been regularly evoked: “There are no reliable figures on the production of books” is the mantra. The absence of figures on the book production actually results from an absence of logistical structure in the book industry. ISBN numbers, for example, have only recently started to be used in most Arab countries, and are not systematically used by all publishers. There is also no distribution network and no diffusion, or more generally no independent information whatsoever on the Arab book industry. The main distribution channel in the Arab world consists in the book fairs. There is approximately one book fair a month in each main city of the Arab countries, and publishers use this opportunity to physically transport their books from their country to another, and sell their books to readers and book sellers alike. Anyone who took a walk at the Sharjah International Book Fair last Friday evening, could see people massively buying books. In fact, people so massively buy books at book fairs that the organizers of the Sharjah Fair offered shopping caddies to its visitors, most of which were amazingly full.

This shopping spree for books contradicts the image of the Non Reading Arab that has been haunting us for the past years. Something does not fit. If Arabs do not read, then why are book fairs so crowded? Why do people buy books so massively that they would need shopping caddies to be able to walk around the fair more easily, if they didn’t read? Can it be that people literally stock up books to which they do not have regularly access? What if people had more regularly access to books? If their attitude towards books during fairs is so positive, why wouldn’t it remain positive throughout the year? Can it be that when non readers say that they would read more books if they were more interesting books to read, it is because they do not have access to the existing interesting books? If there are more interesting books on the Arab market, but Arab readers don’t have access to them, or don’t even suspect their existence, how would they even want to read them?

The point is, as long as readers cannot buy more books, publishers will not publish more books or take many risks in publishing new kinds of books or in translating. If readers do not buy more books, it is not necessarily because they are not interested in reading, but maybe simply because they do not have access to books, or to information on books. To this day, nothing allows us to confirm that Arabs wouldn’t read more if more books and information on books was available.

Such is the challenge we decided to take up by building a web collaborative platform for the Arab book industry – Mubtada wa khabar. More on this at a conference at the Sharjah International Book Fair, Tuesday November 2nd, 2010, at 5:00 pm, where a beta version of the platform will be presented.