My first response to the price debate over Arabic children’s books, I admit, was that they should be as cheap as possible. Free, even! (After all, since we don’t have lending libraries in most of the Arabic-reading world, how else are people to acquire books? We certainly shan’t steal them!)
When I met Seif Salmawy, formerly of Dar el Shorouq and now heading up Bloomsbury-Qatar, I gave him my regular line: Books in Egypt are too blessed expensive.
No they’re not, he told me. Look at how much Egyptians spend on their mobile phones. (And cigarettes. Although he didn’t mention cigarettes, I mention it, because I can’t give up my phone.)
I still wasn’t convinced, and when I started coveting Kalimat and Bloomsbury-Qatar Arabic-language titles, which are double or triple the price of most of our Egyptian-produced books, I became much more irritable about the matter. How could they charge 50LE for a book when I was comfortable paying 5-10?
And no—most Egyptians will never, ever be able to afford a 50LE children’s book. For most of the country, that title might as well be 500, or 5,000 or 5,000,000. So what good is it?
My thought process started to shift after spending a small fortune (yes, I think 50-60LE is a lot of money) on لغرفول. However, I recognized the expensive shoes paradox was at work: If I read لغرفول to my children dozens upon dozens of times—whereas I read some terrible thing I got for 7LE only once—and if this book made them more interested in literature, then hadn’t I made a better purchase? (And even…saved some trees?)
Then, a few weeks ago, Amira Abed, also of Bloomsbury-Qatar, tipped me further in the “somewhat pricier books can be good for the market” direction. Why? Having high-quality books around is good for the whole book-buying and book-reading system; it encourages all presses to do better and better. (And maybe, some day, we’ll be able to take these books out of a library. That will be a happy, happy day.)
I still think you can’t beat فيزو and the مفتش فلفل books for the money: just a few LE for books you’ll read and love until they fall to pieces! (We’ve had to tape مفتش فلفل, although فيزو bindings haven’t failed us.) These books are the same price—and much more filling—than a few bags of chipsy! And I sincerely hope the 5LE price point, if that’s the right term, doesn’t disappear from the Cairo marketplace any time soon.
A possible dystopic future, I suppose, is that book quality increases, but that books are priced out of the reach of the Cairo consumer. So we can see great-quality literature behind glass and plastic, but none of us can afford it.
But I don’t think that will happen. I think Cairo booksellers and publishers are too clever for that. So I’m glad that the market is spreading out: producing slick Arabic board books that look just as fun as the best English-language ones; gorgeous picture books; wonderful stories. I hope and believe a larger range of books will, in the long run, benefit all Arabic readers and speakers.
Of course, I’m always interested in your opinions….