• Table of contents

    • [+]Preliminaries (3)
    • [+]Introduction (4)
    • [+]Latin America (13)
    • [+]Sub-Saharan Africa (9)
    • [—]Arab World (11)
    • [+]Russia (11)
    • [+]India (11)
    • [+]China (9)
    • [+]Conclusions (6)
    • [+]Appendix (1)

Arab World

The challenges of paper publishing: inefficient distribution and censorship

Now, while all these digital experiments are being carried out, what is going on in traditional publishing? The fact is that in the Arab world, the book sector has been facing enormous challenges for decades, with its main problem being the lack of a uniform distribution system. What is worse, there is no proper database containing abstracts, information on authors, ISBNs, prices, availability and other basic details. As Eschweiler and Goehler[1] explain, publishers always have trouble when it comes to organizing the invoicing and dispatching of books; for readers, book fairs are one of the few opportunities to find slightly more varied offerings. Recently, in a survey sent to 600 Arab publishers, Goehler discovered that only 2% of the interviewees were satisfied with their distribution.[2]

In 2005, Kotobarabia had conducted its own study on the paper book market in Egypt, which anticipated these findings. The company analyzed the reach of the distribution of 150 titles on various topics, including works by first-rate Arab authors and others by unknown writers. The conclusions were the following:

  • 10% of the titles were available in practically all the conventional distribution channels;
  • another 10% could not be obtained anywhere;
  • the remaining 80% were only available within a radius of 5 kilometres of the publisher’s office or the author’s house.

A book published in Cairo would therefore be difficult to find in Alexandria – and even more so in Amman or Casablanca.[3]

Another significant obstacle that affects traditional publishing in much of the Arab world is censorship. As the publishers interviewed explain, in the Middle East and North Africa, media like radio and television are totally controlled. Written communication enjoys a degree of freedom, but there are certain lines it is advisable never to cross, with the most delicate issues always being politics, sex and religion.

Writing on particular topics can lead to a newspaper being closed down or to a book being banned, although censorship can certainly take more subtle forms, as Ramy Habeeb points out:

In fact there is a very strong argument to say that the ISBN is a censorship tool… Because most Middle East ISBN agencies (the only exception I can think of is Syria) are run by the National Libraries, which are by extension a government organisation. They only issue you one ISBN at a time, and you have to get the book approved before you can print it. Now of course this book approval is under the disguise of being for standards (specifically the ISBN)… but the reality is that if you are talking about religion, or if you are talking about politics, or if you are talking about some of these sensitive subjects, the book won’t be approved for publishing. It’s the way for the government to keep control.[4]

  1. “Book Distribution in the Arab World”, in Publishing research quarterly, Heidelberg, Springer, 2010, vol. 26, nº3, pp. 193-201.
  2. Cf. Nawotka, Edward: “Abu Dhabi Launches Pan-Arab Book Distribution Company”, Publishing Perspectives, 3rd March, 2010.
  3. Cf. Rossetti, Chip: “Kotobarabia’s Arabic E-Books Extend Borders”, Publishing Perspectives, 18th June, 2009.
  4. December 2010, cited supra.

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