By Chip RossettiFor Lebanese literary agent Yasmina Jraissati, the 2004 Frankfurt Book Fair kick-started her entry into the world of literary agenting: “I went to Frankfurt that year since that was the year the Arab world was the guest of honor. At that point, I was already thinking about starting an agency.” Soon afterwards, building on the contacts she made at Frankfurt that year, Jraissati launched the Paris-based RAYA Agency, which represents Arabic language authors and specializes in selling their translation rights internationally.
In 2004, literary agents in the Arab world were virtually unheard of. “Now,” says Jraissati, “with all the buzz about the Arab world, it’s a different environment.” The last few years have also brought the annual International Prize for Arabic Fiction (the “Arab Booker” prize), now in its third year. RAYA represents two authors shortlisted for the 2008 prize, both of which she will be shopping at the Fair this year: In Praise of Hatred, by Syrian novelist Khaled Khalifa (“We’ve sold that title into five languages already—without a translation on hand”) and June Rain, by French-educated Lebanese author Jabbour Douaihy.
Operating as an Arabic literary agent involves straddling the different publishing environments of the Arab World and Europe. “On both sides, it’s kind of a traffic jam. On the Arabic side, there have been few publishers looking to acquire foreign rights, but that’s changing now, and more Arabic publishers are open to acquiring books from abroad.” In general, it’s easier to place French and English literature with Arabic houses, she says, although she is frequently approached by European houses publishing in less widely spoken languages, asking her to act as their Arabic-language subagent.
“On the other side, there’s a traffic jam in that few non-Arabic houses have people who can read Arabic,” which, Jraissati points out, can make acquisitions a challenge. To date, RAYA has worked mostly with European houses, although Jraissati is now looking to expand her work with Asian publishers: “For me, it’s very interesting that China is the Guest of Honor this year.” She points out that there are more exchanges between European and Asian countries than between the Arab world and Asia, something she would like to help change.
Jraissati adds that she is “busier than ever this year,” and that the digital revolution in publishing has not affected her directly—or at least not yet. The impact of e-publishing in the Arab world will be “extremely interesting,” though, given the perennial problems of limited book distribution and censorship. “I’m not sure software producers really perceive the Arab world as a potential market, although they should. I hope they will: Arabic publishers, when I talk to them, seem both interested and apprehensive.”
Coming Soon: Arabic Publishing Database
Jraissati (along with Nadim Tarazi, founder of Lebanon’s La Maison du Livre association) is developing a collaborative online platform for the Arabic publishing industry, with the support of Lebanon’s Ministry of Culture, called “Mubtada wa Khabar”—loosely translated as “Subject and Predicate.”
It will launch in the weeks after Frankfurt, leading up to the annual Beirut Book Fair (running from November 28 to December 11). Mubtada wa Khabar will eventually serve as a clearinghouse for Arabic publishing, including a directory of profiles of publishers, agents, and booksellers, as well as a database of title information and information on copyright, including downloadable boilerplate documents—the latter aimed at counteracting copyright infringement and pirated editions.
“The idea is to make the Arabic book industry more transparent,” says Jraissati.
VISIT: Mubtada wa Khaber (Arabic publishing database) online