Iran celebrated its national book week from 15 to 22 November this year with the slogan ‘The Great Joy of Reading’. The book week is the second major book related event in Iran after Tehran international book fair that is held in May every year. There were many activities and programs planned for this week across the country, either state driven or run by the private sector, to promote the culture of reading.
But something else happened in November that might steal the joy of reading from Iranians in the near future and push the publishing industry to the edge of bankruptcy. The United States reimposed old sanctions on Iran that were lifted. These sanctions, that returned in two rounds, include restrictions on Iran’s purchase of U.S. currency; Iran’s trade in gold and other precious metals; the sale to Iran of auto parts, commercial passenger aircraft, and related parts and services and the most important one, restricts sales of oil and petrochemical products from Iran. The winter of higher inflation and economic turmoil is on its way for Iranians!
In early May President Trump officially announced the withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) that was the nuclear agreement between Iran and the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council — China, France, Russia, United Kingdom, United States — plus Germany. It didn’t take long to see the Iranian currency, the Rial, have a free fall.
Every U.S Dollar was exchanged with a rate of 40,000 Rials last Winter and it is now something around 120,000 Rials; a three-fold increase. It actually went higher than this but the government was able to stabilise it one way or another. Every day, businesses in Iran woke up to see a higher exchange rate, plunging them a little deeper into their horror and despair each time.
Publishers were not an exception. Even before this political and economic chaos, the average print run for a book in Iran was only 1000 - excluding textbooks. Rising inflation means rising salaries and royalty fees but above all of that, the rocketing price of paper leads the industry to a rough and bumpy road.
Almost all the paper used by the publishing industry and press in Iran is imported. Although the government subsidises the cost of paper and tries to keep the price of imported paper as low as possible for publishers, desperate times calls for desperate measures and if it comes to choosing between essential goods for the country and the rest, paper will not be a priority for sure!
Above all that, let’s not forget how these subsidies pave the way for corruption in this unstable market. In early Summer, Iranian publishers panicked as there was a shortage of paper. Later, a list of companies were published by the government that received subsidies for buying paper. Surprisingly, there were names in this list that were not connected to any publishing, educational or press organisation whatsoever. Nobody knows who they are and what happened to the paper they have purchased!
Newspapers have already increased their price and couple of them stopped their print version. Publishers are contemplating lowering their print runs even further - 400 to 500 - or increasing the book price. 400 copies of a book for a country with a population of 80 million makes the slogan of ‘The Great Joy of Reading’ absurd. A shadow of uncertainty has spread over the publishing industry in Iran among many other businesses.
I wonder what next year’s slogan would be. I am personally rooting for ‘The Joy of Survival’.