Case Studies: Western Publishing Partnerships with the Arab World

In Feature Articles, Growth Markets by Olivia Snaije

Ignorance of the Arab World is the main obstacle facing Western publishers looking to enter the market.

By Olivia Snaije

With approximately 300 million Arabic speakers in the world and one of the fastest growing population growth rates, it is only natural that Western publishers should want to jump on the bandwagon of opportunity. At the same time the Arab publishing world is extremely heterogeneous, said French anthropologist Franck Mermier, whose in-depth study of the Arab publishing world was published by Actes Sud in 2005. “It’s a sector that is completely fragmented, it isn’t concentrated into big companies like in Europe. For most western publishers this world represents the unknown.”

More and more, western and Arab publishing companies are finding that creating partnerships in the region is a way to bridge the unknown, and it is mutually beneficial, albeit in different ways.

“Partnerships are a way for [Western] publishers to break away from their ignorance of this market and to penetrate it, and for Arab publishers it gives them privileged access to production, distribution and translation, and allows them to develop a long term relationship,” said Mermier.

Hachette in Beirut

One such partnership was created almost three years ago when Hachette Livre International and Librairie Antoine in Beirut joined forces in a 50-50 joint venture to publish works in Arabic. A strong relationship already existed as the companies had been doing business together for 75 years on the distribution side.

Emile Tyan, who heads the new venture Hachette Antoine, said that having Hachette as a partner was like adding a “turbo: we go faster and higher. It’s a very good opportunity for a local company like Antoine because it gives us the credibility of an international company and we can develop in the region and not just in Lebanon.”

Patrick Dubs, Director-General of Hachette Livre International, concurs. “Our objective is to sell outside of Lebanon. We are now dealing with Saudi Arabia, the Emirates, North Africa, and hopefully one day Iraq.”

Dubs said he didn’t think twice about the partnership. “Antoine speaks the same language as Hachette. There is transparency, vigour; they are extremely professional and have the same business goals as we do. It took us less than nine months to set up our business.”

Hachette Antoine publishes educational books, for the most part in French, and trade books in Arabic, primarily Arabic fiction — best-selling author Ahlam Mosteghanemi just signed with them — along with translated authors such as Harlan Coben and Mary Higgins Clark. Hachette Antoine also won the bid to publish J.K. Rowling’s adult novel, The Casual Vacancy.

“We created a métier of editors to work with manuscripts and a marketing team,” said Dubs. “It took some time but now they are very dynamic…we are very satisfied. When you deal with quality people and do good business, what more can you want?”

Bloomsbury Qatar

Although Lebanon has a well-established publishing industry, it wasn’t so easy to create a métier of editors in Qatar, where publishing is still in its infancy. Yet this was one of the goals the Bloomsbury Qatar Foundation Publishing (BQFP) set for itself from day one. The partnership between the Qatar Foundation and Bloomsbury Publishing was established in 2008. The structure differs from Hachette Antoine in that the Qatar Foundation owns 100% of BQFP, but it is managed by Bloomsbury UK, said Consultant Publisher Andy Smart. The partnership came about because Bloomsbury UK had already developed a project with a Qatari corporation and had a local presence. The Qatar Foundation was looking for a publishing partner to develop publishing know-how, raise awareness about reading and writing, and in general transfer knowledge and skills.

“It’s an important priority for us to have more Qataris working on staff,” said Smart. “It’s an amazing adventure here. We’ve gone much more quickly than we expected. We’re certainly in the fast lane, trying to do everything at the same time, both languages and finding and training the people to do it.”

Indeed, the new Managing Director at BQFP is a young Qatari, Hanouf Al-Buainain, who replaces the Egyptian Seif Salmawy, now Executive Director of the Qatar Foundation Publishing Center, itself an entity that will soon have an onsite print-on-demand facility and is developing bookselling and distribution.

The BQFP publishes fiction and non-fiction for adults as well as children, classical Arabic literature, and educational and academic books.

“Most joint ventures of global publishers that have been operating in the Middle East have been targeted at education markets,” said Smart. “What we’re doing is unique in that it’s a British Arab publishing company which is working in the same areas as Bloomsbury UK and it’s offering opportunities to writers to submit manuscripts. We are open to new writers and have actually published manuscripts that have come to us out of the blue. We are an indigenous publisher that is bringing some of the same industry practices from London, and this is uncommon — such as author contracts, publicity, and tours.”

Smart added that the advantage of a partnership for Bloomsbury UK is that the relatively young company can now count the Middle East in its operations, besides Australia and India, which fits its strategy of becoming a global publisher.

Penguin Classics in Arabic

Already a global publisher with experience in international projects in Brazil, South Korea, and China, Penguin entered a joint partnership with Egyptian publisher Dar Al Shorouk in 2010. The aim is to publish Arabic editions of the Penguin Classics series, as well as original modern and classical Arabic literature. The initial plan had been to bring out twelve translated works from the Penguin Classics series and up to eight local Arabic titles each year, substantially increasing the number of quality translations from and into both Arabic and English. Although the project has been somewhat sidetracked by recent political events in Egypt, Andrew Philips, President of Penguin International, said that the first group of nine books translated into Arabic was scheduled to be released in July 2012, including F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby and George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion. Philips added that the titles to be translated from Arabic would be announced in due course.

In yet another configuration, French publisher Actes Sud has co-publishing partnerships with the Algerian publisher Editions Barzakh and the Lebanese publisher l’Orient des Livres, both of which publish in French. Capitalizing on the close ties that Actes Sud editor Farouk Mardam Bey has with the Arab World, these partnerships allow the firm to sell far more of their books in the Middle East than they would alone. “In reality, in these Francophone countries local sales aren’t worth anything without the support of a local publisher,” said Marie Desmeures, who runs Actes Sud’s partnerships in North Africa and Lebanon. “When we only export our books it’s too expensive and they don’t get any visibility. The book industry in the Maghreb is fairly abstract; having a local partner makes all the difference.”

Desmeures cited the example of how in Algeria, official or government entities always order locally, which means that when ministries or schools need books they will go first to Barzakh. Recently, Algerian libraries placed an order through Barzakh for 1,000 copies of books by the Actes Sud writer Mohammed Dib.

Actes Sud in Algeria

Because it is extremely difficult to import merchandise into Algeria, Actes Sud and Barzakh choose titles together, which are then printed in Algeria with different covers and logos for each publisher. In Lebanon, where importing books is not a problem, the books are printed in France and then sent to l’Orient des Livres. Both the Lebanese and Algerian publishers can pitch titles to Actes Sud editors, which may or may not be picked up.

Actes Sud’s partnership with Barzakh deals mainly in books by Algerian authors or books about Algeria that both publishers are happy to have in their catalogues.

“Between poetry, fiction, essays on Berbers, and so on, this covers a wide selection,” said Desmeures, adding that they also use Actes Sud’s backlist. “About five to ten titles a year come out — we don’t want to overload them as they don’t publish as much as we do.”

Desmeures is working on developing similar partnerships in the rest of the Maghreb. “Because Algeria is working really well, I convinced my marketing people that it was worth it to work with Morocco and Tunisia. It is my deep conviction that this is complementary and not competition for us. It means our brand and our authors in general are more visible.”

Sofiane Hadjadj, one of the directors of Barzakh (founded in 2000), said that at first his company bought and sold rights to and from Actes Sud. “We are more inspired by their work because they have been in the business longer than we have,” said Hadjadj. “But we have a common interest. So we thought instead of working in this traditional manner, we might as well create a partnership.”

A good example of the fruits of this partnership is a book slated for release in 2013 about Roman ruins in Algeria. Barzakh is taking care of the photography and the texts by historians, while Actes Sud will work on the design and editing.

“There’s a real collaboration, we discuss everything,” said Hadjadj. “If we need translations, Actes Sud has a good network…their influence and prestige is very attractive to us, and not only image-wise.”

Hadjadj said that Barzakh offers the opportunity to Actes Sud to discover new writers. “For them, Algeria seems quite far away. They used to publish [Algerian] authors living in France.”

Last year Actes Sud successfully published Barzakh author Adimi Kaouther’s prize-winning first novel, L’Envers des Autres.

Wiley in Saudi Arabia

On the other end of the spectrum, global academic publisher Wiley, which sells academic English-language books and e-learning solutions widely in the Middle East, does not yet have publishing partnerships in the Arab World as such, but is developing a number of projects in the digital field as well as adapting content. Matt Santaspirt, Sales and Market Development Manager for the GCC at Wiley, opened the Dubai office in late 2010. “We’re a bit late to the game compared to our competitors but this has benefited me greatly,” said Santaspirt. “The demographics are phenomenal. This is the perfect storm.”

Wiley is hoping for a partnership with King Saud University to develop their Wiley Plus Middle East Edition, which is an online course management system. “We’re incorporating Arabic content,” said Santaspirt. “We’re asking the university to review the course and tell us what they need translated into Arabic.”

What Wiley has found, said Philip Kisray, Vice-President of International Development, is an on-going discussion about students needing to learn English and at the same time a call for more material in Arabic. “It’s not a one-size-fits-all situation. Even within the GCC there are six distinct countries and there are contrasting views. What we are finding is that prestigious universities are using American material but there is a need for more Arabic content as well. One student commented that a German medical student isn’t expected to study medicine and English at the same time…”

Santaspirt sees Wiley’s product as a hybrid, and a bridge. “For example, physics in English can be a tremendous task for Arab students. We’re hoping this project will be a bridge in terms of English going to Arabic and vice-versa. We’re looking to translate 10-12% of the material and will try to get people in Saudi Arabia to work on the translations…the key struggle is to develop a work force of locals. We’re in a unique position to be able to offer education and soft skills training. If you combine the two successfully, the sky’s the limit.”

As Philip Kisray has pointed out, publishing in the Arab World is hardly a uniform proposition, and the needs are contrasting and varied. The door is thus left wide open for a multitude of partnerships, which so far have proven beneficial to both parties among those who have taken the leap.

Olivia Snaije is a journalist based in Paris, where she is a contributing editor at Publishing Perspectives and a books editor at Harper’s Bazaar Art. She is a former commissioning editor at Saqi/Telegram and has reported on Middle Eastern culture for many years, writing for a variety of magazines and newspapers including The Guardian, The New York Times, Condé Nast Traveler, GlobalPost, The National, and Middle East.

This article was produced with the assistance of the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair.

DISCUSS: Why Thinking Same-Language Markets are Uniform is a Mistake

About the Author

Olivia Snaije

Olivia Snaije is a journalist and editor based in Paris who writes about translation, literature, graphic novels, the Middle East, and multiculturalism. She is the author of three books and has contributed to newspapers and magazines including The Guardian, The Global Post, and The New York Times.