My 5 market theories that explain the declining Lebanese book market

Great article in this week’s Economist:

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.





9 thoughts on “My 5 market theories that explain the declining Lebanese book market

  1. Interesting post. I’ve noticed that about half of the Arabic language books I’ve bought recently off Amazon in the US have a print-date of the date I ordered them- meaning print-on-demand has become totally seamless in the US book distribution system: the retail price is the same as pre-printed books ($12-18 paperbacks) and the physical paper/cover quality is generally indistinguishable to a lay person.

    Of course, what makes book distribution in the US so easy is the reliability of shipping. I can imagine that as the print on demand technology gets ever-cheaper and easier, countries with good postal systems may experience a resurgence of types of self-publishing. For instance, I just picked up a book called هناك by إبراهيم عباس published by the “League of Arabic SciFiers” يتخيلون – which, from what I can tell by looking at the physical book-object, was published in exactly this way- small publishing house that has more in common with self-publishing than traditional, print-on demand, and a comfortable mix between فصحى and dialect.


  2. Nathan

    Very interesting comment Brook about the print on demand. I wasn’t even aware of that issue.

    Where are these books being printed? My hunch is in the US. And the publishers have large, established publishing networks and systems in place, so their cost to print — both financially and in terms of time it takes – is minimal. So the economy of scale is at play, and favors the publishers.

    That Economy of scale doesn’t exist in Lebanon – because the market is so small.

    You’re absolutely right about the reliability of shipping being a decisive factor. The postal service in Lebanon is not especially reliable, although I never had anything mailed through the normal post. I always used DHL.

    Another issue hurting the Lebanese book industry is the lack of any real E-commerce system,. There is a strong aversion to using credit cards, paying for things online — it’s not a “trusting” economy. That could change over time, but likely not any time soon.



    1. Yes- the books are definitely being printed in the US.

      I think, based on my own experience with self-publishing, they are probably using the CreateSpace platform that Amazon owns…I have been pleasantly surprised at how cheaply CreateSpace can print: for example, a 150 page book with a full-color cover, costs less than $3 to print via CreateSpace. If you sell it through Amazon, they take around 30% of the list price. But I can buy physical copies for myself at the sub-$3 price, with no minimums.

      Most of the print-on-demand books I have bought say something like the following on the bottom of the first page:

      Made in the USA
      Middletown, DE (or San Bernardino CA)
      17 March 2016 (or whatever date they were printed…)

      Other example titles that I’ve bought print on demand include well-established names, such as:
      الجمعة السوداء- نسيم طالب
      2012 النهاية-ويلايام غلادستون
      مباريات الجوع- سوزان كولنز
      طعام…صلاة…حب- إليزيبيث جيلبرت

      (Basically I’ll buy almost anything that is contemporary because the selection of reading options in Arabic in the US is so slim in general, and I don’t enjoy reading newspapers…)

      I’m curious as to why paypal or something like it hasn’t taken off in the Middle East as a “safe” alternative to credit cards?


  3. Nathan

    Brook, This is really interesting practical/tactical information. I knew none of this stuff about the publishing so thanks.

    Good question about Paypal. It is available in Egypt but not Lebanon:

    My guess why it hasn’t really become a major factor?

    One factor security related. I think it has something to do with that.

    It’s probably the Scale issue as well. Similar to why Uber likely won’t make it much profit in Egypt, although saying they are in Cairo is a good marketing thing to say.

    After all, a taxi ride in Cairo costs maybe a dollar to go from one corner of the city to the other ( same distance would cost you $30 bucks in the US).

    Uber can provide that ride for – what 80 cents and then take 20 of it.

    Paypal can take 3% of what — small payments here and there….

    Not the hugest incentive to get into that market. All the work to set it up, the pay off at the end of the day isn’t that huge.


  4. Kelsey

    Thank for yet another great post Nathan. Though I have not been fortunate enough to travel to the Middle East, I must say I have an equally difficult time trying to find Arabic literature online while here in the states. I seem to have no problem finding Arabic language learning books that are clearly written and published on this side of the world, but when it comes to literature or finding Arabic authors/poets in print, it is surprisingly challenging. Even just today, before I read your article, I tried to search for Mahmoud Darwish’s works in Arabic and in print but of course nothing turned up. Would that be as a result of the decline you describe? This past year my husband was able to snag the full Harry Potter collection in Arabic for me but it took him months to find and he had to buy each book individually. That is a series that has been printed into many different languages so I was surprised at how hard it was for him. Another brush I had with this problem was a few months ago when I went to an Arab festival in Atlanta. There was a booth for a lovely little publishing company based out of Beirut called Dar Onboz. I bought one book from them because I did not want to carry around their whole shop while at the festival and I just naively assumed that I could buy more online. When I got home I looked up their site and there were no options to buy online at all nor did they have half of the books they had at their little booth (so you can only guess that I was kicking myself and wishing I had just filled my arms while I was there) Do you have any recommendations on how to obtain Arabic books (translated into Arabic or by natives) online? I’m assumed the online market would be slightly better than on the ground in the Middle East, but unfortunately my own searches have fallen short.


    1. hi Kelsey! I too have found it super-challenging to find arabic-language books of interest in the states. In fact, Amazon does have a large number of them, but the search functions basically don’t work because they are labeled with a combo of transliteration and arabic.

      Jamalon is a seller through Amazon that has mostly arabic language books:

      And this is Amazon’s own collection of arabic language books:

      generally, it just requires a lot of browsing to find something of interest, and flexibility: I’ve almost never found something I set out to find.


    2. Nathan


      Thanks for your comment and for sharing your experience.

      Unfortunately your experience in having trouble finding books online is not surprising to me.

      I would actually assume the opposite of this comment:

      “I’m assumed the online market would be slightly better than on the ground in the Middle East, but unfortunately my own searches have fallen short.”

      But it’s not just the Middle East. Even in many European countries, such as France, they don’t live on the internet the way people do here. So I suspect one if they were looking for French language books that aren’t totally mainstream might have similar problems to the ones you are having now.

      So generally, your experience is what I would expect.

      As for recommendations – I think in general, it’s just harder. So next time you go to that book fair and have good book targets in hand, buy and assume you’ll never get the chance to buy those books again!

      But the #1 way is definitely to get on the ground and go to the book stores in the Middle East. Even in Cairo there are a whole string of stores in the downtown area. One can just browse and inevitably find looks of good Arabic books.

      Brook’s advice is very good .. that’s your online solution for now!



  5. hi Kelsey! I too have found it super-challenging to find arabic-language books of interest in the states. In fact, Amazon does have a large number of them, but the search functions basically don’t work because they are labeled with a combo of transliteration and arabic.

    Jamalon is a seller through Amazon that has mostly arabic language books:

    And this is Amazon’s own collection of arabic language books:

    generally, it just requires a lot of browsing to find something of interest, and flexibility: I’ve almost never found something I set out to find.


  6. Pingback: What can be done to reverse “poor” Arabic test scores? – Real World Arabic

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s