By Omar Khedr
Beginning on 28 January, Cairo will play host to publishers, authors, literary agents, as well as avid readers from around the world. Brought together by the Cairo International Book Fair, the oldest and largest book fair in the Arab World, these participants will explore potential partnerships, learn best practices from each other, as well as discuss trends that are shaping the industry.
With economies around the world increasingly based on knowledge, the creation and management of intellection ecosystems is of paramount importance. A vibrant and expanding Arab Publishing Industry should be a priority for stakeholders in the region as books remain an important medium for the transfer of ideas. Unfortunately, this industry at the moment is experiencing several challenges. These obstacles include cost structure pressures, limited disposable income in key markets, as well as limited clarity from government officials on issues such as copyright protection, and online piracy. Furthermore, public library systems around the region require a strong modernization plan to maximize benefits to users. Unfortunately, many public libraries in the region remain underfunded, with little digitization occurring. In addition, public library collections are heavily skewed in favour of fictional books such as novels over non-fiction subjects like biographies, science, mathematics, and technology.
If these issues are not properly addressed, they can put a halt to the gains that policy makers across the region have been able to achieve with respect to intellectual growth and creativity. In the five years to 2013, the number of patents granted in the United States to Arab League countries increased at an annualised rate of 36.9% totalling 341 patents. While the increase should be applauded and given proper credit, there is still significant room for improvement. In 2013, the number of patents granted to Spain and Ireland reached 711 and 431, respectively. In effect, the combined Arab World despite its larger population size has been generating fewer intellectual strides than countries with significantly smaller populations. In fact, data collected from the SCImago Journal shows that Arab League countries produced in total 54,151 citable documents in 2013 while Spain produced 72,633 and South Korea reached 67,783 documents.
Exploring these statistics a bit further reveal insights that can be informative. In recent years, 80.0% of all patents granted to Arab League countries originate from Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries, despite the fact that they represent less than 10% of the total Arab League population. Although smaller in population, GCC countries (six original member states) all benefit from a literacy rate exceeding 90%. In contrast, the average literacy rate for non-GCC countries stands at 73.9% according to the latest data provided by the World Bank. Another differentiating factor between Arab countries is the average cost of buying a book. As figure 2 illustrates, the ratio of average cost per book over average per capita income is significantly higher in Arab countries, especially in non-GCC states. This has resulted in serious repercussions for the region since individuals, even those who can read, have difficulty affording new books in fields ranging from medicine to business. As a consequence, many Arab professionals lag behind on the most up to date developments in their fields which has an impact on the long-term economic growth rate for the region.
In order to address the current intellectual gap effectively, decision makers across the region need to take bold action. Among the key tools that should be deployed are private-public partnerships. Government officials and academic institutions across the region should work together with companies in the Arab Publishing industry to promote translation initiatives for important subjects such as medicine, technology, and business. Furthermore, academic institutions should encourage their staff to connect with their academic peers in other countries, especially those in leading research universities so that they can stay on top of the latest developments and point out which books should be a translation priority.
With private publishers in the region expected to continue facing cost pressures that require them to keep book prices at competitive levels, enhancing the public library system should also be a priority. Library acquisition budgets need to be allocated toward disciplines such as science, mathematics, and business. Furthermore, increasing the amount of electronic books available at public libraries will allow library patrons to access a wider collection of materials as well as freeing up shelf space for more books. In India, citizens have access to the Digital Library of India which allows anyone with a computer to read for free more than one million books. Countries across the Arab World have already begun to develop similar initiatives – the digital library project at the Bibliotheca Alexandria and the Dubai Public Library are two well known examples. However, these programs should be further expanded and accelerated in order to build upon the success that has so far been achieved.