TO JUDGE by Librairie Antoine in Beirut, books are faring well in the Middle East. The bright, airy branch in Beirut Souks, a shopping centre, has ceiling-to-floor shelves on all three levels. Yet even if the bookshop is as swish as any on a British or American high street, publishing in Arabic is struggling.
One reason jumps out: most of Antoine’s books are in foreign languages rather than Arabic. French and English each account for about 40% of sales; Arabic, for only 20%, according to the company. “People aren’t reading as much in Arabic, not just here but across the region,” says Emile Tyan, Librairie Antoine’s commercial director, who also heads HachetteAntoine, a joint venture with a French publisher.
I was especially interested because I’ve been to all of the stores in the article.
I’ve found the same situation in various bookstores in Egypt and Saudi Arabia.
My 5 Theories on Why:
(1) The Rise of English as the language of “sophistication” made it harder for the Arabic publishing industry to make money
Before the 1990s in Lebanon there was one or at most two markets for books in Lebanon, one heavily Arabic, with a French market probably a close second. The number of people seeking out books in English was statistically small by comparison.
Generally speaking, the Muslim communities were reading books in Arabic, Christians in French.
However, the game changed with the post-Civil War generation coming of age in the era of Globalization/Americanization, fueled by the rise of the internet, social media etc.
Today’s under 40 generation of Muslims in Lebanon is far less likely to be reading Arabic books than their parents or grand parents. (Reading patterns of Christians under 40 haven’t changed as much – they still read primarily French, English only slightly more than their parent’s generation).
Much of this is an identity thing as well. 30 years ago, the Sunnis of Lebanon saw their identity as Sunni, or Shia as Shia. They generally spent more of their time thinking about what that meant within the context of regional “Arab” issues.
After all – in the pre-Globalization/internet era media – there were no other topics being discussed. The only media people in Hamra or West Beirut had regular access to was Arabic radio, newspapers and to some extent television.
Equally important, the amount of study abroad type programs was 10% of what it is today.
So that generation that has come up in the last 10 to 15 years, because of the internet, social media, tends to identify more as American-minded, or perhaps “global” than part of some greater Middle Eastern community.
Many people don’t understand just how “game-changing” the rise of the internet has been. I strongly recommend this article by Thomas Friedman on how the sudden explosion of “Hyper-Connection” has changed everything about human interactions, for better or for worse. This is certainly true in the context of this post.
When I was in Beirut I had a bunch of interns and I always had them read this article because I thought it was that important.
In Lebanon there is far far more “competition” for identifies than ever existed before because of the Internet and Social Media age. That without questions hurts Demand for Arabic books (although I suspect the French-language book market hasn’t changed much – for the same reasons).
Now, there are effectively 3 markets: French, English, and Arabic.
Before there was maybe 1.5 markets. Far more ideal to make money selling books.
It is what it is. But publishers can’t make the same amount of money with 3 smaller, decentralized markets, they they could in the pre-Internet era of 1.5 markets. Especially when so much content is available for free on the internet.
(2) The Import Taxes on Books – Too Expensive to Make Money
There is some kind of Lebanon-specific tax that makes foreign books very expensive, too costly to make significant money.
I’ve been to most of the bookstores in central Beirut and the markup in foreign books (which in practice usually means American) is shocking.
Usually 2 or 3x what they retail for in the US.
For example, I remember seeing President Obama’s memoir going for $50. The book would cost maybe $20 brand new in the US.
How many people can afford to pay $50 bucks for a book in a country where the average salary is $1,200 per month?
On the other hand, I never saw foreign books with that level of markup at Jareer in Saudi Arabia, or bookstores in Egypt. Unless my memory is wrong, the foreign books sold at close to US retail rates.
Some might say well the book stores in Lebanon are just being sharks. Not true.
It’s the price they need to sell to make profit.
Here’s a telling example:
There’s a used-bookstore near AUB with piles and piles of old books, mostly in objectively “average” or “poor” condition. I suspect many have probably been sitting in these piles for 15-20 years, unsold. A good portion would go for $1 in the US.
Or, given their poor condition, likely given away, if not thrown away.
At this store, they are all sold for $10 to $15.
One day I was browsing. I found an interesting 1980s era book on the Second World War with a cover falling off, in terrible condition.
I wanted to buy it because I was bored and looking for something to read — but didn’t want to spend $10 bucks for it.
I tried to bargain with the cashier — but she insisted ( although to be fair, I don’t think she was authorized to negotiate) that “the value of books goes up – not down – with time, the older they get.”
Yes, I can see that for an autographed original edition of Hamlet or Macbeth signed by William Shakespeare himself, not for a non-descript, totally forgetten about book that would sell for 50 cents on Amazon.
I didn’t buy it.
(3) The Ease of Foreign Travel Disrupts the Local Industry
Compared to 30 years or more ago, you don’t need to go to Antoine in Central Beirut or any of the other nearby book stores to buy foreign books.
If you are Lebanese and you want to buy X American book, chances are you will either go abroad at some point, or you can find someone who will to get it for you.
Why would you pay $50 for an English language book, when you get get it for $20?
(4) Arabic Books – Harder to Make Significant Money
There are clearly exceptions – but as a general rule – those who are reading exclusively in Arabic, tend to have less income, than those reading English or French at a high level. If you are a publisher, this means less profits to be made.
Although this is not true in Egypt, due to the population size.
Let’s say that 5% of each population will buy at least one Arabic book per year at a cost of $10
In Lebanon that is 150,000 people. In Egypt that is 4.5 million people. With that kind of volume in Egypt that is a $46 million dollar industry. In Lebanon it’s a $1.5 million industry.
$1.5 million is nothing, and probably covers the total sales of each of the book stores profiles by the Economist. Considering the rents of central Beirut – it’s hard to see how they can make much money.
(5) No Public Libraries in Lebanon (and elsewhere in the Middle East)
This is a huge factor.
One unequivocally good thing that US government – at the local levels – does is provide a high-quality public library system.
Pretty much every town over 2,000 people in the US has one.
Since the books are “free” to check-out – there is no opportunity cost to check it out and reading a few pages and then returning it.
Because of that system people are exposed to books.
For example, last week I read this great book on Michigan football that I never would have even known existed if it wasn’t on the display case of my local library.
Nor would I have likely paid for it out of my own pocket.
But because I had free access to it, I might be more likely to buy books on this topic in the future.
There is no question in my mind, reading would be less in the US without public libraries, an institution founded by Ben Franklin even before the Revolutionary War. . I suspect more reading goes in the US per capita than any other country because of this.
And no question also – that the US book market is more profitable because of the public library system.