Syrians Turn Away From Books

Publishers bemoan dwindling business as titles fail to attract readers.

Syrians Turn Away From Books

Publishers bemoan dwindling business as titles fail to attract readers.

Wednesday, 9 September, 2009
At the Damascus international book fair in August, one visitor told his friend that he wanted to check the stands of Syrian publishing companies.

The friend snapped back that the domestic publishers’ books were typically “boring and useless”.

This conversation at the book exhibition reflects the decline of Syrian publishing houses as they cope with readers’ displeasure at the conservative titles and the fact that they have other interests like the internet these days.

“We are frustrated. Every year we try to improve our situation but we end up having more problems,” said Wael Kiwan, who runs Dar Kiwan, a Syrian publishing house with a catalogue focused on religion, history, mythology and other areas.

Year after year, publishers complain about worsening business, issuing fewer titles in smaller quantities.

Most of the roughly 250 publishing houses in Syria release only the three titles per year that they need to retain their business licences while few others publish more than ten main titles, according to the dozen publishers interviewed.

Only a handful of the big companies, like Dar al-Fikr, issue more than 20 titles every year.

They typically release 1,000 copies of a book to sell over a five-year period. Books are rarely reissued.

Publishers say that they have had to adjust to the fall in the number of Syrian readers by issuing more superficial books or those in certain popular and relatively lucrative categories, like religion, academia and health.

One of the most popular books this year was “Love in the Koran” written by the cleric Mohamad al-Bouti and published by Dar al-Fikr, which specialises in religious and children books.

“Nobody buys books for culture or pleasure anymore,” said Kiwan.

He said that his company has focused, in the past two years, on publishing academic books for schools and colleges at the expense of poetry titles and novels in order to adapt to the needs of the market.

“There are fewer elite, cultured readers,” he said. “People derive their knowledge and information from television and the internet. They don’t need books anymore,” he added.

Some experts say that the book industry needs support from the state or from independent institutions to survive.

“Books in Syria are very cheap. Nevertheless, citizens prefer to have a meal or buy a shirt instead of acquiring a book,” said Souheib al-Sharif, an official of Dar al-Fikr.

Sharif said that the books they publish mostly cost between two and ten 10 US dollars.

He said publishing houses needed better marketing for their books and should chose titles and topics more carefully.

Most publishing companies in Syria are run as a sideline by certain writers or investors interested in culture.

Hussein Awdat, a prominent publisher, said that putting out a few books every year did not require a lot of effort but provided in return prestige and good public relations.

Most publishing houses do not survive on revenues from book sales but earn income from distributing works by other more prolific publishers in the Arab world, experts say.

Majdi Haidar, owner of Dar Wared, said that the majority of Syrian publishing houses resorted to translations of successful international titles or reprints of books popular in the Arab world without the approval of the original publishers and without paying royalties.

Books by the top-selling Brazilian novelist Paulo Coelho are often translated and republished without permission.

Laws protecting intellectual property rights are not seriously enforced in Syria, publishers say.

Omar al-Taras, owner of the Syrian publishing house Dar al-Rawad, said that after struggling to publish a book he is often surprised to see the work republished soon after by other publishers without his consent.

He added that the result was substantial financial loss and “a lot of frustration”.

Another major problem facing the development of the publishing industry is censorship.

Kiwan said that there were no clear criteria for censorship. Many say that religion and politics remain the most sensitive topics.

“Our censors are fickle. They might allow us to publish a book this year and then decide to ban it next year,” he said.

Sometimes they banned the publishing of a whole book because they did not like one idea, he said.

Publishers have to present the books they intend to publish to a committee of censors at the information ministry. The committee can ban a book entirely or ask the editor or the writer to change some passages, ideas or entire sections, publishers said.

Sometimes publishing houses seek the approval of the culture ministry when their books are rejected by the information ministry.

One book criticising the wearing of headscarves in Islam was banned for three years by authorities for fear that it would inflame the conservative Syrian public’s feelings.

But the book was finally published this year after winning the approval of the information ministry.
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