By Olivia Snaije
Although the Arab world is currently undergoing extreme tumult, it has never been an easy market to understand. It encompasses a population and potential market of around 350 million people, one that is divided among 22 different countries each with its own currencies, customs duties, censorship laws, commercial practices and in many cases a country has a very strong second and third language.
Two rights directors from French publishing companies, Rebecca Byers of Plon-Perrin and Benita Edzard of Robert Laffont, agree that despite the hurdles it remains an important market to pursue.
Research from the French Publishers Association (SNE) shows that over the past five years French publishers have licensed an average of 204 titles per year to the Arab world, mainly to Lebanon and Egypt — roughly 2% of overall French rights sales. Non-fiction books considerably outweigh fiction and children’s books. “Modern classics, philosophy and political science are the most popular subject matters,” says Edzard. And according to Germany’s Börsenverein German rights sales to the Arab world have averaged 94 titles per year over the past five years which represents about 1.3 % of their total foreign rights sales for that period. Italian publishers signed 35 licensing contracts in the Arabic-speaking world for children’s books in 2012.
On the crucial subject of translations, Byers notes “it is still virtually impossible to have access to accurate statistics concerning how many works per year are translated into Arabic. In many Arab countries, copyright registration is not respected by publishers so organizations like UNESCO or its Arab equivalent ALESCO are not able to tally the number of translations.” Still, she points to the development of “innovative programs throughout the Arab world to encourage translations…such as Kalima and Terjem in the United Arab Emirates, The Arab Organization for Translation in Lebanon, and Le Centre National de Traduction in Tunisia.”
Edzard said that when negotiating with a publisher she emphasizes the quality of the translation, which is “crucial for the successful publication of any book.” Government programs run by the French Institute and the Centre National du Livre (CNL) have “excellent results,” while others have been far less successful and, often, very disappointing. “I find it absolutely acceptable that the publisher is helped with the translation, even in full,” however, she believes, advance payments should come from publishers themselves and that a contract has more value when respect for the copyright is guaranteed. “I find publishers who get the advances paid through government aid programs in general less reliable.”
When it comes to actual contract negotiations, Edzard advises to separate territories in her contract negotiations. Territories can be delineated as the Middle East (the Levant), the Emirates and North Africa. And she says that in most cases a flat fee agreement is best. “Agreements with advance payments against royalties are paid upfront, but I am unable to give you an example where an Arab publisher has paid royalties and accounted for sales.”
A word of warning: communication following agreements is very poor, as more often than not she does not receive foreign editions after publication, nor does she see reviews or press material. However, when her authors are invited to book fairs in the Arab world, “they are usually very happy” with the experience.
Despite the aforementioned challenging conditions of working in the Arab work, publishers in France see an upside, both in terms of potential market development and also as a form of support for fellow publishers. Edzard emphasizes this last point. The business of foreign rights is “about cultural exchange and I think this is the road to continue with the Arab world” she says. Byers adds that “it is perhaps not the greatest time to do business in this region but neither is it the time to turn our backs. Those who are struggling to open up the way to greater opportunities of free expression and a larger world view are those who most need our support and business.”
Related note: Franck Mermier, author of the in-depth study of publishing in the Arab world, “LE LIVRE ET LA VILLE Beyrouth et l’édition arabe” published by Actes Sud/Sindbad in 2005, is currently preparing, with author Charif Majdalani, a collective work on publishing in the Arab world for publication this year.