By Olivia Snaije
A new web project, CairoBookStop, aims to cull and map information about publishers and bookshops in Cairo that focus on contemporary Arabic literature. In English and Arabic, the site will provide invaluable information to readers, publishers, booksellers, researchers, scholars and those in the industry interested in publishing in Egypt.CairoBookStop is one of the few attempts, besides French anthropologist Franck Mermier’s in-depth study, now almost ten years old, to explain the Egyptian side to the complex world of publishing in the Middle East.
A “labor of love,” the site was created by two women, Nancy Linthicum, a doctoral candidate in Arabic literature and language at the University of Michigan, and Michele Henjum, a translator based in Cairo, who met in Egypt in 2009. Both were interested in Arabic literature as well as in the local publishing and bookselling scene and noticed the lack of easily accessible information about publishing in Cairo and Egypt in general, despite Cairo’s active publishing scene.
They initially thought they would print a hardcopy guide to publishing houses, but in the process of their research realized that there was much more that they could include. Linthicum and Henjum followed the process of how an author goes about finding a publisher, and how the printed book gets to the reader. They investigated a variety of publishing houses and looked into what kinds of restraints publishers and writers face. They also attacked the ever-complicated question of book distribution within Egypt and among other Arab countries, and asked publishers about their backlists and about literary translation both into and out of Arabic.
They discovered the byzantine maze through which readers have to make their way in order to find books. “While most stores and houses have signs announcing their presence, we came across many with signs half-hidden, missing from the ground floor, or never posted to begin with. Even basic information, such as current phone numbers and web addresses or active Facebook pages, can be hard to find. All of this makes tracking down books rather difficult. We also quickly discovered that readers hardly make any progress in locating specific titles without the name of the publisher. In fact, many bookstores organize their bookshelves (within specific genres) by publisher first, then author. Moreover, most books published in Egypt stay within fairly close proximity of their original publishing house, and even then only for a few years usually, so it’s quite helpful to know who the publisher is.”
For the moment CairoBookStop includes a sampling of small, mid-sized, and large publishing houses and stores, but Linthicum and Henjum will expand the site to include many more literary-minded stores and houses through the feedback and suggested additions of CairoBookStop readers.
Their greatest challenge has not been gaining access to publishers, booksellers, and others in the literary scene—on the contrary, said Linthicum and Henjum, everyone was most helpful. Rather, it has been finding the time to put the information together and making the bi-lingual site functional for both English and Arabic readers.
“Now we expect our challenge will be keeping up with new additions, making sure the site stays current and relevant, and deciding in which specific ways to expand. We’re setting up a page that will let our readers know what’s coming up and what we’re looking into so they know how we’re expanding and that their comments and suggestions are being addressed.”
With Egypt an essential component of the Arabic literary scene, CairoBookStop can only be a positive and much-needed addition.