23 March 09 | Chad W. Post

This post originally appeared at the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair blog.

Bachar Chebaro, general manager of Arab Scientific Publishers and Secretary General of the Arab Publishers Association, kicked off this year’s professional program with his presentation on “News from the Arab Book Market.” As a member of the younger generation that’s unfamiliar with the history of the Arab book market, this was invaluable, providing a very interesting overview of the state of publishing in the Arab world.

There were a few major themes that Chebaro drew on throughout his speech: that Lebanon and Egypt were the two “publishing hubs” of the Arab world, that distribution (especially across borders) is a huge problem, and that copyright infringement is another massive problem (and is related to the aforementioned distribution difficulties).

Unfortunately, there aren’t any reliable statistics about publishing in the Arab world. ISBNs haven’t been assigned properly, books haven’t been sent to a central recording office, etc., and as a result all figures are approximate and inexact. That said, Chebaro used data from neewlafurat.com (the largest Arab online bookstore) to compare production among a number of countries and across a few subjects.

In terms of production by country, Lebanon and Egypt were the two leaders, with Lebanon producing 3,121, 4,165, and 3,330 books over the years of 2006, 2007, and 2008, and Egyptian publishers bringing out 3,016, 2,960, and 2,310 titles over that same period. (In contract, Syria brought out 889, 886, and 1,170 books during that same three-year time period.) The importance of Lebanese and Egyptian publishers is even more evident if you look at the recent shortlist for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction. Although the six finalists hail from Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Jordan, and Tunisia, five of the titles were published by Lebanese publishers and the sixth by an Egyptian house.

According to Chebaro, the influence of Egyptian and Lebanese publishers can be attributed to the more advanced distribution systems in both countries. There is no “mega-distribution” system in the Arab world, so getting books across borders and into other countries can be quite difficult. Addressing this is one of the main priorities of the Arab Publishers Association, and could go a long way in cultivating a larger audience for some of these works (Chebaro lamented the fact that the print run for most Arab books is between 2,000 and 3,000 copies for the whole Arab world and its 340 million plus inhabitants) and in solving some of the region’s piracy issues. The way Chebaro described it, in place of an international distribution system, there exists a network to pirate best-selling books and academic texts, bringing these titles to other parts of the Arab world sans copyright agreements.

This is a big issue for the Arabic publishing world, and in fact, at last year’s ADIBF, a number of publishers weren’t allowed to exhibit because of known instances of copyright infringement. The number turned away this year is apparently much lower (due in part to past rejectees opting not to reapply), and to encourage a greater awareness of copyright issues, this year there’s a special “Focus on Rights” session and a $1,000 subsidy offered to publishers who negotiate and purchase rights at the fair. (More on this tomorrow.)

Going back to figures for a moment, in terms of publishing categories, there were 7,230, 7,080, and 5,910 books written originally in Arabic and published across the Arab world in 2006, 2007, and 2008 respectively. In comparison, there were 1,480, 1,880, and 1,650 works translated into Arabic came out over that same time period.

In terms of translation, the subsidy programs from the Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum Foundation and Kalima that are responsible for at least some of these titles published in translation. According to Chebaro, most translation are academic, techincal, and scientific works, but there is a more recent movement to publish novels, children’s books, philosophical works, and current affairs titles. Of course, Chebaro pointed out that translation should go both ways, both into and out of Arabic, but that typically there are more translations into Arabic than out of it.

Overall it seems that in spite of the problems, there’s a great opportunity in the Arab world. There is a strong interest in continuing to translate more foreign works into Arabic, and there are a lot of interesting books to be uncovered. And as the distribution system continues to develop (maybe e-books could play a role in this?), the book market should continue to expand.

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