One for the books: Efforts to reform the book trade have seen mixed reactions

 

Following years of public debate on the book industry’s need for a stronger regulatory framework, the government has announced far-reaching reforms affecting the importation and distribution of books across Algeria. The Council of Ministers passed a law in September 2013, mandating stronger state support for the owners of bookstores as well as a fixed pricing regime for imports, wholesale distribution and retail. According to Algérie Press Service, the government press agency, the legislation – after it is approved by the National Assembly later in the year – will “develop and encourage writing, production and commercialisation of books in Algeria and facilitate its promotion and distribution”.

PLACING ORDERS: The largest change obliges all public institutions, including schools and community centres, to place orders through bookstores, replacing the status quo where books can be bought directly from importers and distributors. According to Khalida Toumi, the minister of culture and a staunch backer of the proposed law, obliging consumers to buy from bookstores in the same wilaya (province) will encourage the growth of outlets across the country. This in turn would help create more jobs, especially in areas that are currently under-served due to their distance from urban areas in the north of the country. “This law will help provide many unemployed members of our educated youth the opportunity to work,” she declared to local media. Besides bookstores, Toumi expects to see a rise in the number of libraries. Speaking shortly after the Council of Ministers’ decision in September, she announced the government’s intention to establish a library in each of Algeria’s 1541 baladiyas ( municipalities), predicting that this could create up to 3000 new jobs. The government has estimated that removing existing obstacles to the domestic production and distribution of books could increase the number of published Algerian titles from 2000 to 10,000 annually.

PROFIT MARGINS: Such measures should also lead to the nationwide standardisation of prices across the book industry. Accordingly, the profit margins of importers, publishing houses, distributors and retail outlets will be fixed to ensure equal pricing and accessibility for all Algerians. According to the Ministry of Culture, this could reinforce investors’ confidence in the industry, particularly in bookstores and publishing houses. “Over the past 10 years the number of printing houses has risen substantially, but from a very low base. There is room for many more and these measures will encourage their establishment,” Toumi told local media.

CONCERNS: While the ministry’s initiative has been praised in many quarters, critics have voiced concerns about the increase in government oversight that such steps would entail, with some private sector bodies expressing anxiety about a return to state censorship and overly rigid controls over the book trade. For example, Boussad Ouadi, the director of INAS, a local publishing house, argues that requiring the state’s approval for all imports would only serve to expand an already bloated bureaucracy that has historically hindered business activity, as well as infringe on the freedom of the press. “Under the new rules, we will require state approval to accept literary gifts from foreign bodies, or any educational and religious books,” Ouadi said in an interview with local media. Ouadi has also warned of the potential delays and shortages resulting from the obligation placed on public entities to order books from within their own wilaya, as well as an erosion of profitability for incumbents due to the implementation of fixed prices. These claims are supported by the National Book Editors’ Syndicate, whose president, Ahmed Madi, has noted that “The new law necessitates approval from the state for even the most regular activities, such as book promotion or a signing session.”

Hopes are high that these concerns can be addressed before the law is passed by the National Assembly later in the year, especially details relating to pricing standards and import guidelines. While the repercussions of the law on freedom of distribution remain unclear, it is evident that the future of the book trade continues to evoke passion from all sides in today’s Algeria.

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The Report: Algeria 2013

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