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Ja’far Al Okaili – Amman,
“Why do I have to pay the publisher to have my book published?” This seems to be the most commonly asked question from Arab authors. The query seems justified when looking at the issue purely from the authors’ point of view, but listening to what publishers have to say makes one think again. Taking into consideration their perspective, we can see that both sides – author and publisher – are the victims of a grossly anomalous and unhealthy environment.
This situation – which appears to be an exclusively Arab feature – sees the relationship between the publisher and the author one of ambiguity and entailing mutual misunderstandings and recriminations. The media reinforces negative attitudes because they often side with the author and depict the publisher as Shakespeare’s greedy merchant ‘Shylock,’ forgetting that the publishing industry is not only a cultural affair, but also a commercial one, which justifies the publisher’s commitment to sustain their businesses as investments in the sector.
“I am against compelling the author to cover the cost of printing and publishing their books, especially after their great efforts made writing those books, whether the authors are academic or creative, because such practice disrupts the publishing sphere, blends the ‘real’ with ‘illusion’ and promotes mediocrity. In other words, authors who have money are able to publish their books regardless of how bad and low-level they are, while authors who do not have enough money will have their books sit on the shelf even if they are excellent and remarkable books,” says critic and poet Dr, Hekmat Al Nawaiseh.
Dr. Al Nawaiseh admits that this is not the publishers’ fault because they are businesspersons who are interested in generating profits and ensuring financial gain in order to sustain their businesses. However, he underlines that the existence of a ‘healthy cultural environment’ will encourage the publisher to look for ‘real’ and good authors and to ‘adopt’ and publish their books. He pointed out that there are signs of improvement in GCC countries where publishing houses are adopting worthy books.
Poet and short story writer Taha Al Noubani does not hide the fact that when he initiates, undertakes or prepares to publish a book, he thinks – first and foremost – about publishing problems. He underscores that he has “experienced the bitter taste of funding the publication of books many times,” which on occasion has made him reluctant to continue writing.
Al Noubani recalls the publishers whom he has paid to have his books published. “Some of them did not adhere to the agreed number of copies and printed half of them to make more profits. Other publishers did not comply with the standards and used cheap and bad printing machine as a cost-cutting measure. What’s worse than that was when the pages were not in the correct order in one of my published books, which was a horrible and disturbing mistake,” he said.
Al Noubani thinks that the true objective of publishers who are paid by authors to cover the costs of publishing their books is fast and easy profits without real efforts. Such publishers, he says, are doomed to remain stalled and will never be able to expand or become renowned publishers.
Al Noubani describes the situation where publishers are dedicated to publishing books without ‘being paid’ by the authors. “The publisher definitely considers the quality to ensure more sales and consequently more profits. The publisher also rids the author from the burden of thinking constantly about publishing problems. The authors are encouraged to write quality books to ensure finding publishers who will adopt and publish them. The authors will most likely accept an appropriate share of the book’s profits,” he says.
Novelist and poet Jalal Barjas addresses the question from the same point of view. “The author is not supposed to pay for publishing and distributing their books,” he says, underlining that the relation between the author and the publisher should be “based on the quality of the text to ensure a good number of readers and make good profits for the publisher and the author alike.”
But what is happening in the Arab publishing sector, as highlighted by Jalal Barjas, is unlike what is happening in the developed world’s publishing sector. Emerging Arab authors have to cover the cost of publishing their books and the they often “appreciate the favour that publishers are doing them,” even though they know that publishers make profits from publishing the books apart from what they are paid by the authors, who in most case do not receive any percentage of the sales.
As he puts it; “This unjust situation for the author will never change unless the author becomes successful or wins a renowned literary prize and consequently becomes popular among readers.” To emphasise this point, Barjas reveals his personal experience when he won an Arab prize and his winning novel was translated into English and French. “I used to pay for publishing my books, and once my novel won a prize, I received offers to publish my previous books without having to pay anything. Contrary to that, I was offered a good percentage of sales, as well as other offers, such as translation and even to get my winning novel made into a film.”
Ahmed Firas Al Tarawneh, novelist and co-founder of a cultural publishing house, tries to be as objective about the issue as possible. He admits that the relationship between the author and the publisher is complicated and that they are both on the ‘hunt,’ each party trying to ‘ambush’ the other. On the one hand, he says, the publisher tries to buyout the author’s book and invests in their creative project to make profits, binding them to a no-time-limit contract. On the other, the author tries to get the widest possible gains, financially and emotionally, without sharing the risk of loss with the publisher. The author also tries to impose their terms and conditions, even if some of them are unfair, illogical or lack relevance.
Al Tarawneh proposes a ‘consensus formula,’ which is an established practice in the developed world. Here, the author covers the cost of publishing their books and they are paid back the publishing fees as well as a percentage of the profits, even if it is in the form of book copies. In exchange, “the author should be prepared and willing to accept the loss, especially if they are emerging or inexperienced writers, and they should have a great deal of be patience and persistence until they become famous.” Renowned authors have a wider audience, and they sometimes avoid publishers who are throwing themselves at them, so they do not have to abide by such formula.
But what do people on the other side of the fence have to say?
“Even in Europe, the author pays the publisher if they wish to get a better result for the sales of their books,” underscores Ahmed Al Yazouri, founder of a number of publishing houses, as well as a series of initiatives to promote reading in Jordan. “Self-funded publishing is quite common in Europe, especially by authors who do not find a publisher to adopt their books,” he added.
According to Al Yazouri, private publishing houses form 70% of the entities which produce books in the Arab world. Given that they are getting wrapped up by the three stages of the publishing industry; promotion, advertising and distribution, most of these houses can neither afford the cost of publishing by themselves nor give authors the profits they aspire to receive.
Al Yazouri points out that usually the publisher covers the cost of publishing the books they are sure to sell and this is generally restricted to academic and cultural books whose authors are well renowned. He highlights that there are many publishers who are dedicated to their cultural, national or social duty and which adopt good and publishable books, despite the fact that they are non-profitable and unpopular.
Al Yazouri finds himself compelled to remind us that the publishing industry is “an investment in culture which is subject to profit and loss, and a process which is governed by a set of criteria,” pointing out that it needs huge budgets. He excludes ideologically or politically motivated publishing houses, which receive logistic and financial support from institutions and entities that “aim to promote ideas and not make financial profits.”