A future for books in Egypt?

Is reading dead? Are books a relic of the past? In our modern digital age, the two questions are almost completely unrelated, as the physical presence of a book is no longer necessary to read.

The advent of online book selling, and the sheer convenience of having a thousand books saved on your ultra slim Kindle as you travel or commute, poses a existential threat to traditional bookshops and the sales of physical books. But the modest success of a famous UK bookstore chain like Waterstones over the last three years gives hope that the physical book is still alive, in spite of — or perhaps because of — e-books. This begs the question whether or not a similar renaissance in print book publishing could be replicated for the Egyptian reader.

The Guardian published an article on how Waterstones is finally breaking even, potentially signaling the return of books. However, James Daunt, the CEO who has completely overhauled Waterstones over the last three years, says that for a bookshop to make profits and grow today, it needs to sell a lot of things that are not books. It also needs to provide an “experience” for its visitors: in-store cafes so that visitors can browse and read over coffee, as well as offer a myriad of products like games, teddy-bears, children’s toys, cards, and upmarket stationary.

Waterstones’ deal with Amazon to sell Kindles in-store, and provide an opportunity for readers to download their books then and there completes this experience, where readers enjoy the pleasure of physical reading, with the convenience of buying their favorite titles online (and getting a discount on their e-books if they buy a physical copy of the book).

Waterstones gets a cut of the price when an e-book is sold, as well as the added bonus of having a potential buyer in-store, who hopefully could be lured to buy a physical book once they had the chance to browse, read a bit over coffee and download to their hearts’ content. Daunt believes that the boom in e-books sales, ironically, triggered a return to the physical book for those readers who like holding an actual book in their hands, and are simply excited by the aesthetics of print and paper.

Before coming to live in London more than two years ago, I was a regular at Diwan bookstore in Cairo. I remember that Diwan for me was successful in creating this “experience,” with its in-store cafe, where people could grab a book and enjoy skimming at leisure. I could also buy stationary and my favorite CDs there, as well as ask the shop to order any books I wanted that weren’t immediately available. Diwan created that ultimate “experience” for its visitors — with its friendly staff and wide array of book genres to satisfy a diverse audience — in the same way Waterstones is now, in order to capitalize on their physical presence in the book selling market.

The larger question is, however, whether there are enough people interested in reading to ensure the success of bookshops in Egypt. It seems younger generations are more interested in the visual than the written word; they are more interested in browsing and sharing on social media, or downloading songs and movies, rather than reading newspaper articles, let alone books (e-books or otherwise). And with so many people who would rather watch TV than read, is there a real future for books or newspapers in Egypt — especially considering books or physical newspapers are expensive compared to e-books or the free online newspapers?

My answer is yes, perhaps, if booksellers manage to provide a much-needed “experience” for the younger generations who may have never been traditional readers. What if bookshops like Diwan and Shorouk, not only provide in-store cafes, but also a space for young people with talent to meet and hold their own cultural activities in-store? These groups will then use social media to advertise the meetings to their friends and social circles, who will also attend, thereby creating PR for the bookshops, which could translate into business.

Another idea is to organize book clubs for the young, inviting renowned writers, TV presenters or popular artists to lead book debates. Sharing programs could be implemented to make expensive books more accessible to potential readers. Newspapers can organize live chats/debates with interesting public figures, to encourage audiences to go online and participate, thereby increasing the exposure of their websites and the number of visitors, who may then become regular browsers.

The publishing industry at large can no longer afford to be narrowly focused on sales, for they will only see them dwindling. It is only through creating an “experience” for their young readers that touches on their quality of life, through art, culture, exposure to different cultures and by creating debate, so that the publishing industry in Egypt, and perhaps the Arab world, can survive.

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