by Chip Rossetti
Not many new publishing imprints are feted with a launch party at Windsor Castle hosted by Queen Elizabeth II, but Bloomsbury Qatar Foundation Publishing (BQFP), a unique joint venture between the Qatar Foundation and Bloomsbury Publishing, got the royal treatment when it launched last week. The Windsor reception was attended by Sheikha Moza, the consort of the Emir of Qatar, and was followed by a performance at Albert Hall and, later in the week, an event at the Tate Gallery. Later this month, still more launch events are planned to take place in Doha, the capital of Qatar. “We’ve got a lot of authors arriving in town and a lot of events to prepare for,” says Andy Smart, BQFP’s consultant publisher.
Despite his title as consultant, Smart’s is a full-time position: he is responsible for building and managing the list for the new imprint, and works out of Bloomsbury’s London offices. A translator of Arabic fiction and a veteran of the publishing industry, Smart first moved to Middle East as a teacher in Sudan in 1981, before moving to Cairo where he worked for Longman Publishing and later ran his own English-language children’s publishing house.
Bloomsbury Qatar is a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Qatar Foundation, which contracted with Bloomsbury in the UK in late 2008 with the aim of launching the imprint, which will publish books in both Arabic and English. “Bloomsbury’s job is to run the business, select the books and provide the logistical infrastructure from London,” says Smart. “What sort of role the Qatar Foundation play remains to be seen. It’s something which will emerge and change over time, I think.”
As a publisher working in two languages, and the only professional publisher in Qatar, BQFP works with Arab publishing houses, as well as with English and Arabic translators. At the moment, says Smart, “every possible permutation” — including publishing original manuscripts in English and Arabic as well as translations into both languages — is under consideration.
In some cases, that will involve retaining only the regional rights for Arabic books: “For example, we are talking to Egyptian publishers for regional rights for books that were published in Cairo but haven’t been distributed elsewhere. But in principle, if we publish something originally in one language, we’ll look to publish it in the other.”
“We hope to have more than 50 titles (in both languages) published by the middle of 2011, ranging from children’s books, to YA titles, adult fiction and nonfiction,” says Smart. Eventually, as part of the agreement with the Qatar Foundation, BQFP plans to launch an educational list, and has plans in the works for reference books, including encyclopedias and dictionaries, since there is a need for good, up-to-date reference works available in Arabic.
Smart describes a “very interactive relationship” between the two main offices in London and Doha, with production handled by Bloomsbury in London, and freelance editorial and illustration work being done in Cairo, Lebanon, and elsewhere. For sales and marketing, BQFP will rely on Bloomsbury’s existing relationship with Penguin UK, which handles book distribution in the Middle East from its offices in Dubai. In London, Smart works with Kathy Rooney, Bloomsbury’s director of information publishing, as well as with BQFP’s managing editor, Seif Salmawy. Until last year, Salmawy was based in Cairo, where he was the publisher in charge of the entire adult list for the well-known Egyptian-Lebanese publishing house Dar el Shorouk. “He did an outstanding job there,” says Smart. “In the past five years, Seif was instrumental in helping Shourok transform their list, their sales, and the look of their books. He has a great eye for good books.”
On BQFP’s first list of publications, all scheduled for later this month, are six children’s books (including an Arabic translation of Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler’s global children’s bestseller The Gruffalo) and one YA book, a translation of a new novel by Australian YA author Randa Abdel-Fattah. The list also includes three English-language titles, including the The American Granddaughter, by Iraqi novelist Inaam Kachachi, which was short-listed for last year’s IPAF award (the “Arab Booker”). The novel is set in Iraq in the wake of the American-led occupation and centers on a young Iraqi-American woman who is working as a translator for the US forces. It also includes a humorous documentary-style travelogue by Palestinian author Suad al-Amiri, Nothing to Lose But Your Life, in which Amiri disguises herself as a (male) laborer, and “sets herself the challenge of seeing what life is like for workers who work in Israel across the green line.” Looking ahead, BQFP’s lead title this autumn is an English-language memoir by an Al Jazeera journalist, with the wry title of How to Avoid Getting Killed in a War Zone.
The scope of the Qatar Foundation’s initiative goes beyond simply supporting a publishing division, however. BQFP’s brief also includes a “reading and writing development mission as well, which works with readers and writers — from schoolchildren to university students and reading groups — in the Middle East to develop a community of readers: “We’re talking to potential partners in the West Bank and in Cairo, as well as in Sharjah and the UAE,” says Smart. “The idea is that in the long term it will develop readers, and maybe writers.” In Qatar itself, BQFP will organize writing classes, host workshops on getting published, and sponsor author talks and book signings. In late May, for example, BQFP will be hosting a conference on translation, featuring Egyptian novelist Ahdaf Soueif (a Bloomsbury author) as master of ceremonies: “She has a passion for improving the quality of translations,” Smart adds, “for translating a book in such a way that people will want to read and enjoy in its own right.”
As far as spotting potential publishing projects is concerned, Smart points to a number of resources on hand: “Seif Salmawy is probably the widest-read and most talented book-spotter in the Arab world: he has no shortage of ideas on what we should be publishing. And Bloomsbury’s own authors from the Arab world — Mourid Barghouti, Ahdaf Soueif, and Hanan al-Shaykh — are helping us find new books to publish.”
Despite the ongoing economic downturn in many parts of the world — including the Gulf and greater Middle East — BQFP has set some ambitious goals for itself for the long term: “What we want to do,” says Smart, “is to be one of the leading publishers in the Arab world and bring the professional standards that Bloomsbury has to Arabic publishing.”
VISIT: The Web site of Bloomsbury Qatar