For Whom the Book Tolls

I have spent the last few days talking to Moroccan academics, publishers and others about the book business; and it has been quite a revelation, if not quite so much of a surprise. As I have noted in this blog before, Morocco is not a great reading nation. With literacy running at 55% or so (and even this reflecting a much lower level of competence than is necessary to read a book), the potential reading public is limited. One publisher I spoke to suggested that the universe from which readers could be drawn at all is probably around 500,000 (at the very most) of the 35 million population – about 1.5%. Another pointed out the contrast between, on the one hand the circulation of Egypt’s flagship daily paper, Al-Ahram (1 million) and Algeria’s Al-Khabar (400,000); and on the other, the total circulation of all Morocco’s daily newspapers, about 300,000 (OJD circulation figures for Morocco). A third said that in his three decades in the business, his print runs for books had dropped from 6,000 or 7,000 to a maximum of 1,500: “On lit de moins en moins.”

In the old “Cairo writes, Beirut publishes and Baghdad reads” paradigm, Rabat and Casablanca don’t feature. Why not? Partly because Morocco is a linguistic patchwork in which spoken mother-tongues overlap not at all with written language. Literacy, whether in Arabic or French, is an intractable problem and the proverb I quoted above refers to Arabic, which relatively few Moroccans read with comfort on the scale of a book.

But at the same time it’s clear that Morocco is simply different from other ‘Arab’ countries in terms of its relationship with the printed text. It was the last major country in the region to see printing introduced, in 1865. Even then its staple, Qu’ran-printing, was characterized by two traditional letter-forms (qaf and fa) quite different to those used anywhere else in the Muslim world – and Moroccan Qu’rans still preserve this singularity.

Printing came on top of a strong oral tradition (visible today in the circles of eager listeners around story-tellers with their guembris, in the Fna at Marrakech or Place Assarag at Taroudannt) and an amazing capacity for memorization. I was struck, a year or so ago, when speaking to half a dozen traditionally educated students who the British Council, on behalf of the Moroccan government, had sent to Britain to study continental  philosophy: struck, not just by the fact that each of them was hafiz – that he knew the Qu’ran by heart – but that he had followed up what would alone be a prodigious feat of memory and devotion in any culture, by learning another seven or eight books of law, history and grammar in the same way. This tradition, still evidently alive, though the two universities that once taught it are shadows of their former selves, the Yusufiya at Marrakech gone, the Qairouyyine at Fes a sad victim of neglect and decay. It is probably unsurprising that there remains a strong (some would say overwhelming) element of rote-learning in much Moroccan education to this day.

So, what with one thing and another, and given their high cost relative to wages, books don’t fall on a fertile field. Almost all our interlocutors began by stressing that Morocco is not a nation of readers, and that hopes of changing this are thin. We heard that the only exception to this resistance is in Moroccan history, books on which sell like “des pains chocolats,” mostly in French, and mostly to non-academics. This appetite is clearly strong and perhaps not as systematically exploited as it might be: the history monthly Zamane, in its third year, has an astonishing tirage of 15,000 copies, the great majority of which seem to be being sold. Rabat University (UM5A)’s Faculté des Lettres sees reprinted titles on Moroccan history march out of the door in droves. And at Editions Tarik in Casablanca, Bichri Bennani, its charming proprietor, gave me a copy of his one best seller, Ahmed Marzouki’s Tazmamart Cellule 10, which over a decade has sold an astounding 60,000 copies in French, and is also published in Arabic.

I was left with the feeling that, apart from textbooks, which are a business all of their own, and occasional runaway bestsellers like Marzouki’s, the book business is hanging by a thread. Bookshops are very, very few and pretty dull. Distribution, if it can actually be said to happen at all, is run by a company that supplies newspaper kiosks which thus become pretty important distribution points even for academic titles. There is, to be sure, a market for glossy picture books, though these are essentially expensive coffee-table display items for the rich. But for books as vectors of knowledge and culture the outlook seems grim.

Our main focus this week was on academic publishing, because it is not only a carrier of knowledge, the central way of disseminating research, but also a barometer of the intellectual health of the academy. At the moment, in the Humanities and Social Sciences, the mercury is pretty low. As Mohammed Cherkaoui reported in 2009 (Enquête sur l’Evaluation du Système Nationale de Recherche dans la Domaine des Sciences Humaines et Sociales, Ministry of Education), some 55% of researchers in these fields have never published a word – and Morocco is the only country he knows where the ‘Matthieu Effect,’ the reliability of a researcher’s previous publication history in predicting future publication, doesn’t operate. Now of course there is a big exception to all this: there is significant publication by the top level of Moroccan H&SS academics, abroad. With PhDs from French, Spanish, Belgian universities, many of the stars simply expatriate their work. Some expatriate themselves too; others keep one foot in Morocco and one foot abroad; and yet others keep one eye on Paris from their desks in Tangier, Casablanca or Rabat. All this saps the domestic industry, whether we are talking about the knowledge industry as a whole, or the book industry itself.

But as Cherkaoui reports so lucidly, the problem is a much bigger one than that. The Facultés des Lettres are not in a very happy state. First, they are growing very, very fast as massification gathers pace, with no concomitant growth in resources to match the exploding intake of undergraduates. This means that teaching is an ever more overwhelming preoccupation, with proportions of 2-300 students per academic staff member not uncommon. In this climate there is no leisure for research, except for the superhumanly dedicated. There are also fewer and fewer incentives to publish outside professional areas, where most publication is anyway by non-academics. In the law, where growth is greatest, publication has increased dramatically: there have been big surges, in reaction to the Mudawana reform of 2004, and the new Highway Code of 2010, both of which stimulated huge secondary legal literature. But much of it has come from the pens of professionals – often men and women who left the academy under ‘DVD,’ or early retirement.

Academic publishing in the H&SS was the real focus of our enquiry – and I was travelling with Peter Davison of Cambridge University Press, who is also chairman of the Publishers’ Association International Committee. We came to see clearly a vicious circle that needs breaking – of stalling research, dwindling publication, failing distribution and minuscule sales.

This doesn’t mean that Moroccan scholars aren’t producing anything worth publishing: at the top end they most certainly are. But it reflects an acute constipation in the process of scholarly communication at anything other than this top level, and a very narrow interpretation too, in some quarters, of what scholarly communication really means. Where university publication is taking pace, it is a spending line in a university budget, and the physical production of a book all too often becomes an end in itself. Books sit in stores, or more often in professors’ cupboards. Assiduous professors walk them round bookshops and kiosks and leave them on depôt – sale-or-return – in twos and threes. Unassiduous professors keep them in the cupboards and give away occasional copies. For neither, though, is selling the books any more than a way of recouping a small part of the cost. And scholarly communication – the sharing of progress in the Republic of Letters – is not a high priority.

Such books as are handled by publishers and faculty printing operations shift half their year’s sales in the two days of the Casablanca Salon de Livre where departmental and university librarians rush around with their annual budgets and a mandate to spend up fully on whatever seems suitable. Rather like one of those awful competitions where the lucky winner has five minutes in a department store to load his or her trolley with whatever he can throw into it within the allocated time.

So, are we hopeless? No, not at all. The other side of the coin is the sheer enthusiasm from academics in certain facultés to find ways out of the double-bind they are in. Certainly there are those who are alarmed by the idea of submitting their work to the sort of peer review that would be a condition of a ‘real’ and revitalised academic publication for a wider market. But we sat at one faculty meeting where every department head said that as far as he or she was concerned it is the only possible way forward, and publicly committed to embracing it. Morocco has made much progress in the last decade with taking the STEM faculties down this road; now it must be the turn of the H&SS faculties

This means looking afresh at the actual business of publishing. The physical distribution of books in Morocco is probably a lost cause – not only because of its intrinsic failings, but because across the world more and more academic publishing is migrating onto the internet. Peter’s report, the conclusions of which I can’t foresee and shan’t pre-empt, will undoubtedly address this question, and I would be very surprised if at least one (and perhaps all) of the business scenarios he develops didn’t involve carefully organized e-publishing. This should be able to reach parts of the country, the region and the world which other methods don’t reach, giving a potential readership and an intellectual currency to Moroccan scholars that they have never had. As (and this is a predictive as, not a wishful if) more of the output moves into English over the next decade, this reach will grow.

In the end, no man is an island and the H&SS scholarly community of Morocco needs and deserves to become more firmly part of the Main, the global sea of knowledge. It must do so because it has a very great deal to offer in terms of its own work, past present and future; because it needs much stronger international intellectual collaboration to draw out its best; and above all because no nation that allows to lapse its capacity for intellectual and moral self-examination – which is what the humanities and social sciences are – can prosper.

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