The Pandemic Comes at a High Cost for Egypt’s Publishing Industry

Staying at Home Has Revived the Fortunes of the Ebook
Egyptian and foreigners gathering at weekend in the 50th Cairo International Book Fair in Cairo, Egypt on January 25, 2019. (Getty)

The coronavirus pandemic has, and continues to affect almost every industry worldwide, including the publishing industry where widespread impacts have left publishers, writers, and readers wondering how they will ride out the economic downturn.

Many bookworms have been forced to opt-out of annual book fairs that were once solid features of their events calendar due to the pandemic's financial pressures.

Youssef Hussein, an Egyptian publisher, told Majalla that the pandemic is impeding book publication and distribution, with supply chain obstacles ranging from flight restrictions and book shipping delays to difficulties in getting hold of printing materials such as paper.

"We have faced several challenges as most of our readers are based abroad. We couldn't afford to ship our books by air," he said.

While e-publishing is less complicated, Hussein noted that it had led more books being published at less quality. He urged government institutions to tighten publishing regulations to print only quality books, highlighting that publishing houses prioritise profit over quality.

Hussein emphasised the critical role the publishing sector plays in disseminating knowledge and appealed to the government to back this industry amid the uncertainty caused by COVID-19.

Teacher Mahmoud Sayed told Majalla that he is an avid reader with a small home library but hasn't bought any books since the onset of the pandemic.

"Since the outbreak of coronavirus, I haven't bought any books as I have other essential priorities. I'm the breadwinner of my family; therefore the money spent on buying books now goes towards feeding my children and meeting their needs," he said.

"How can people buy books during these difficult conditions? Coronavirus affected everything and claimed millions of lives worldwide; therefore, buying books is no longer a priority for most people," he added.

However, other reading buffs say that the pandemic hasn't impacted their book consumption.

"Nothing changed for me, I buy books as usual, but I prefer ebooks as I'm staying at home," Nehal Al-Najjar told Majalla.

Hend Moawad, an Egyptian writer, lost her job at a big media production company during the pandemic, leaving her in financial difficulty. 

"This year, I signed a deal to publish my first book, which had been subject to delays due to the pandemic. I took it as a chance to distribute the book until the next book fair is held," Moawad told Majalla. 

"My marketing campaign involved making deals with readers to promote and distribute the book in exchange for financial remuneration," she noted. 

Moawad's plan paid off. The first edition of her book sold out and the second edition is likely to follow suit, she told me proudly.

"Staying at home due to the pandemic preventive measures is a golden opportunity for fresh writers to market their books in collaboration with publishers," she said, adding that authors can share their work on social media groups for writers and avid readers.

A government employee shared their sentiment on the issue on condition of anonymity.

"Do you think that people can give up basic life necessities?" he told Majalla. "Book fairs have not been held due to the pandemic. I used to visit all the pavilions of the Cairo International Book Fair to pick up my favourite books," he noted, adding that he no longer buys books from bookstores amid safety fears.

Marah Abdel-Bar, an associate professor at Ain Shams University, says that she is a keen reader and used to own books from various genres, but is seldom in the mood to read these days.

"The general atmosphere of the pandemic has affected everyone. We want to do many things but have no enthusiasm," she told Majalla. 

Coronavirus safety measures such as the wearing of facemask and the frequent use of hand sanitisers are additional expenses that mean many families have less money to spend on books, she added.

Marwa Hafez, a journalist, said that some Arab publishers sell expensive books that are typically priced in US dollar and therefore unaffordable to many.

"I work as a culture editor, so I'm given many books from writers, friends and publishers. This helps me read more books and coronavirus pandemic gave me a chance to read even more," she told Majalla. 

However, Hafez also highlighted that many people have had to rearrange their priorities in light of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Doha Al-Refae, director at a UAE digital book distribution company, told Majalla that staying at home made people yearn to read more books, reviving the fortunes of the ebook.

She noted that her platform has more than 22,000 Arabic books - half of which are free, and the rest are sold at low prices to attract more readers. Her platform also adapted to the restrictive measures by integrating a digital contract signing process.

"We offer a monthly subscription to encourage people to read more. Despite the restrictions, we delivered more ebooks to readers in 2020," she confirmed.

She also implemented a discount pricing strategy that resulted in a significant increase in traffic during February and March last year, demonstrating the value and importance of ebooks for people in lockdown.

Many publishers launched social media marketing campaigns to revive the literature scene and overcome the industry's crisis. Others signed deals with digital marketing experts to launch platforms on social media to engage with readers. The platforms helped them to reach a wider audience, and they began to see results.

The Cairo International Book Fair was scheduled to occur in January 2021, but the fair's Supreme Administrative Committee postponed the event to June 3 amid fears of increasing Covid-19 cases. The move disappointed many publishers who were hoping the fair would help compensate their losses caused by the pandemic. Moreover, some publishers said they took part in other book fairs in Iraq, Egypt, and the UAE, but found low turnout due to the pandemic. They hope that the industry will regain momentum in the summer.