The Struggling Lifecycle of a Book in Tunisia

A bookshop in Tunis, 2019. Photo courtesy of Max Ajl.

In 2016, headlines heralded that Arabs read far less than Europeans, based on a UNESCO-affiliated study. While the news reports misinterpreted the findings—which apparently referred only to Arab children rather than all Arabssubsequent reports alleged that even those numbers and the methodology behind it were dubious. Despite the lack of solid data on reading hours, data on literacy paints a clearer picture, with Tunisia seeing illiteracy at nearly 20 percent, while other Arab countries are even higher with Sudan nearing 40 percent illiteracy. Literacy levels aside, some commentators have speculated that another factor behind low reading levels is censorship.

And yet while the 2011 uprisings opened the door for more freedom of speech across the region, the situation of publishing, writing, and reading in the region hasn’t improved significantly. Meshkal spoke with people working in the book industry to understand the economic aspect of the issue rather than the cultural aspect.

Observing the low traffic of customers in a bookshop in Tunis raises several questions about financial viability for the owners as well as the employees. Except for a few periods of the year, especially during the winter which sees higher consumption, bookshops are not a major destination.

“Sometimes we close the day’s sales with zero books sold for two days in a row,” said Leila Abdallah, a sales agent in a major bookshop in Tunis.

The work of booksellers is complicated not only by the lack of hard data about reading hours, but also the lack of data on reading audiences and consumers in general, according to Fayez Allam.

“We do not possess any concrete numbers about anything. There’s a publisher who claims he now prints no more than 200 copies of poetry or short story books and yet faces a hard time selling them. However you can find another that says he prints 1000 copies and manages to sell them. How? And where?” said Allam, an editor of “Sard for Publishing,” a fiction-focused publisher founded in 2017 as a subsidiary of the Syrian Mamdouh Adwan Publishing House.

Allam explained that the lack of data leads to writers, publishers and bookshops all coming up with their own guesses or “illusions” about the root of the problems in the industry, with each sometimes blaming each other or translators. Allam also alleged that some publishing houses are fronts for illicit activities and that while every industry suffers from some level of corruption, “it probably affects the publishing industry deeply because, it is in fact very fragile.”

Intervention of the State: a double-edged sword?

Some argue that the State should intervene to support book publishing by creating programs and strategies to shore up the fragile industry. These could include encouraging book buying, and fostering a culturally rich atmosphere where collaborators can make a living. But some State programs turned into opportunities for corruption and fraud.

Houssem Ben Hamouda is a former editor and commercial representative of “Zayneb edition,” one of Tunisia’s biggest publishing houses and distributors based in Kelibia and which was founded in 2013. According to Ben Hammouda, the State, through the Culture Ministry, directly supports writers and publishers in two ways: by buying their books for public libraries and by subsidizing the paper that publishers use in the printing process.

He explained that the Culture Ministry’s book-purchasing committee previously would buy books according to a selection criteria it set up based on quality standards.

“Those standards were abandoned later, not in a legal way but rather implicitly, with pressure from the syndicate of publishers. This has led to a status where purchasing their products is an acquired right for everyone. The budget of the committee has become a cake to be shared between several,” publishers, he said.

According to Ben Hammouda, this dropping of quality standards meant that publishers no longer have as much incentive to publish high quality work that will merit purchasing by the State, and instead led to a focus on producing quantity over quality in a bid to get a higher share of the State’s annual purchasing quota.

“What matters now is the portion of money every establishment earns, rather than being the added value to literature and the thought scene. This, for example, explains why many new publishing houses applied to obtain their licenses during the Covid 19 quarantine,” he said.

Ben Hammouda said that it shouldn’t make sense for so many businesses to open in a fragile sector during the unprecedented economic crisis caused by the pandemic. Yet he explained it by noting that “the subsidy granted by the State has become a fixed source of income for everyone: for those who work hard to develop the industry of book, as well as those who are indifferent.”

“Policies like this without a doubt spoil the market’s competitive atmosphere, and lead to a sort of unhealthy quantitative production,” he added.

The reader: The last line of resistance

For readers, the classic issues of prices, supply, and demand are not the only important ones.

Hajer Rebei, who helps run the women’s book club Eve et les mots, is an avid reader of Arabic and foreign fiction. Meshkal asked her to compare her experience as a reader in both Tunisia and France, where she lived for many years.

It  “might seem strange, but I prefer my experience in exile,” she said, explaining that it was mainly because, paradoxically, she had more access to new Arabic literature releases there than in Tunisia. That was especially true in digital format.

“There is a huge development going on with online bookshops that enables me to purchase any new book written in Arabic and have it delivered in a matter of a few days. However, back in Tunisia I had to wait an entire year until the next international book fair. There are also new platforms of electronic and audio books,” she said, adding that annual subscription services for these online portals are relatively cheap.

Yet those online products for new literature are often unavailable to Tunisians because they require payment in foreign currencies, which are hard to access.

“I also believe that the new situation imposed by the political disorders of the Arab spring in several countries has led to a notable increase of Arab exiles in Europe, and consequently the emergence of bookshops that provide books for Arab readers, where I personally find novels I cannot find in Tunisia,” she added.

Hajer, like many other avid Arabic readers, is pessimistic about the future of the book industry, especially in her home country, where she says heavy bureaucracy is slowing down all aspects of innovation within the market, keeping it far behind in comparison to the rest of Arab countries, let alone wealthy countries.

“Tunisian publishers are completely absent on electronic reading platforms, which I find really strange since all the statistics are confirming that the reading habits have changed, and electronic books—of course I’m talking about legal books not pirated ones— do not compete with the physical book, but rather complete it, “she said. “These legal platforms are playing a major role in promoting new literature and bringing it close to readers all around the globe.”

The struggles of the Tunisian book industry has led to a phenomenon we might call “Pen Immigration.” The low quality books (in both content and form) that the country has been flooded with, has made many well-reputed writers reconsider handing their manuscripts to local publishing houses. Tunisian novelists Hsouna Musbahi and Habib Selmi, and Tunisian poet Moncef Wheibi had their recent books published in Lebanon, Egypt and Emirates.

Younger writers also prefer dealing with publishers who respect their material and intellectual rights, separating themselves from untalented writers who are willing to publish their works at any price with the first publisher they have the opportunity to communicate with. For example younger Tunisian novelists and poets like Soufian Rjab, Mouhamed Lehbecha and Mounir Alimi earned wider readerships and reputations in the Arab world after their works were published abroad. Each had faced serious issues dealing with Tunisian publishing houses, such as the limited distribution of their work and consequently their financial profit from them.


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