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Iran’s Book Market Crisis

The Iranian book market is perishing as US sanctions hit home. Tehran’s nuclear programme has long been contested, and in 2022 the book-lovers of Iran are suffering the cultural consequences of global politics.

The “newly” implemented sanctions are a product of Trump’s crackdown in 2018 when the former POTUS made the abrupt decision to leave the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPA) and reimpose economic sanctions on Iran. The sanctions have surely been catastrophic to Iran’s general economic environment, but recently they’ve begun to show their impact in less foreseeable, but highly consequential industries; one being the book market.

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The issue derives from a lack of domestic paper pulp production, and as a result, Iran’s dependency on imports. Since the US exit from JCPA, the price of paper in Iran has traversed on a rapid upward curve. Though the paper pulp isn’t under sanctions itself, the problem lies in the payment methods involved in the import of the product. To purchase the pulp, Iran is required to use foreign currency, but the rial (the Iranian currency) has suffered severe devaluation as a result of the sanction-hit economy.

Bad news for everyone in the book industry. The price of a novel in Iran today is almost four times the standard price of last year – an increase which can mainly be attributed to production costs; the rise of the price of paper plus that of the transport prices, which are also paid in foreign currency.

It would appear viable to consider the customer, the reader, as the main victim of the crisis, but in fact, it is the publisher who is hit with the very first bullet. Iran’s book prices are fixed which means that profits made fluctuate as paper prices do. In other words, if the price of paper increases (as it has been exponentially), publishers perish financially – their survival is dictated by currency fluctuation.

Not surprisingly then, several small publishing houses have run out of business as they simply cannot afford to keep up with new production costs. In some instances, their withdrawal has meant that certain works published (by the independent publisher) are eliminated from the print market altogether.

Larger publishing houses have thus far “benefitted” from their ability to adapt. Momentary survival tactics have involved the reduction of own profits to retain customers, printing and pagination (cutting the number of pages in texts to decrease paper consumption), as well as increasing and emphasising their digital publications to avoid paper and to reduce costs in general.

Still, even the larger publishing houses have their deathbeds in sight. As long as the sanction-based currency fluctuations are in motion and paper prices keep rising, there is little hope for success in the Iranian book market. The ephemeral saviours for large publishing houses have been the books printed before the soar of production costs – buffer books if you like. As these miracle stocks draw near exhaustion though, there will be no other choice for publishers but to significantly amp up bookstore prices and bring shock to millions of readers in the country.

Already, the majority of customers are middle-class, explains Mohammad Hasheminejad, owner of the Ofoq publishing house in Tehran. This he says, is perhaps “not a surprise considering the economic conditions of Iran”. Even so, the crisis is about to affect a far larger number of people in Iran. The threat – the cultural, societal, political threat – is about to take on a new level of severity; the further unthinkable decrease in the country’s readership. Literate or illiterate, unless one belongs to the elite community, many of Iranian readers are soon to be doomed to live without (new) print books for the unforeseeable.

This is a problem that not only ranges from basic education to a higher cultural and academic one, but for lovers of books, it might even mean a denial of creative freedom and joy.

Ultimately, a possible revival for the Iranian book market may be realised if the JCPA agreement can be saved. Time, however, is running out. Vienna talks over the subject have been ongoing since last April and officials have recently returned to their capitals, desperate for consultation on a trade-off where compromise seems unlikely from either party.

Iran’s demands are severe and total; arguing for an official promise that no future US president will withdraw from the deal and that economic sanctions are to be lifted. The US talks of lifting Trump sanctions if Iran back down on their aggressive nuclear developments, which are rapidly nearing a weapons grade.

With an agreement yet to be secured, only time will tell what the world has in store for the Iranian readership.

Image Credit: Eli Francis via Wikimedia Commons