For The Love Of Books: A Peek Into The Business Of Publishing

At a time when we all need the solidity and structure that books provide, here's a tribute to a group of committed professionals who have given us that much-needed avenue of escape.
For The Love Of Books: A Peek Into The Business Of Publishing
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Managing Editor, Entrepreneur Middle East
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Due to the COVID-19 crisis confining us to our homes, online education for children is in high demand, video games report a huge leap in players, downloadable audiobooks and e-books are selling faster than a click of a mouse, as well as hardcovers and paperbacks. Since we have been sent towards books in droves, it seems timely to examine the inner workings of the sector that has enabled us to escape into the printed world these days. 

The business model of publishing follows the same formula around the world: an author finishes a full manuscript of a fiction novel or a non-fiction proposal, and finds a literary agent for it afterward. The literary agent then finds the right publisher, who then essentially puts the book into people’s hands. Sounds simple, right? Yet, any aspiring author among us would hardly agree.

To begin with, writing is a commercial activity that does not provide a reliable source of income. According to a survey of UK Authors’ Earnings and Contracts, which was conducted in 2018 on the basis of two similar surveys from 2014 and 2006, primary occupation writers who are able to live from writing alone have declined from 40% (2006) to 28% (2018). Furthermore, the survey stated that the top 10% of writers still earn about 70% of total earnings in the profession while it found a dramatic drop in average and median earnings- a staggering 49% from 2006 to 2018.

In the UAE, similar research has not yet been undertaken or published, but Isobel Abulhoul, OBE, CEO and Trustee of the Emirates Literature Foundation, founder of the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature, and co-founder of one of the UAE’s oldest book chains, Magrudy’s, says that, despite these declining figures, international authors still have a much better standing when compared to their peers in the UAE and the GCC, especially if those write in Arabic.

Isobel Abulhoul, OBE, CEO and Trustee of the Emirates Literature Foundation. 
Source: Emirates Literature Foundation

“I remember, a few years ago, sitting with two international authors, Saud Al-Sanousi from Kuwait, who had won the Booker prize for Arabic fiction with The Bamboo Stick, and next to him was Victoria Hislop, who is a bestselling writer with a series that was set on an island in Greece,” Abulhoul says. “A part of the conversation was about how many books they had sold, and Hislop had six million in total, while Al-Sanousi had 50,000. So, there is no comparison, and I think that the sale of books written in Arabic is quite behind what it would be for international titles. This is for many reasons, but not because of the content, but because maybe the distribution is not there, or the marketing is not there. If you look at books in English, however, they have a wider reach because of 200 nationalities living in the UAE, many of whom read and English is their first language, so they do have a better uptake. One example is Omar Saif Ghobash whose "Letters To A Young Muslim" was published internationally, and was a continued bestseller three more years after it was first published.”

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A regional author’s earnings would thus be tightly related to the sale of their books, and Iman Ben Chaibah, founder of Dubai-based Sail Publishing and the Vice President of the Emirates Publishers Association (EPA), echoes the same sentiment. “In the US, you can sell up to 5,000 copies, sometimes even 15,000, but here, an averagely successful book can have 500 copies sold in a year,” she says. "If we are talking about book fairs, 10 copies during the entire fair is a minimum for a book, while 80 to 100 copies is the average number of copies sold at a book fair. However, one of my titles sold 500 copies at a book fair in just a week. By the end of that book fair, we were out of copies and had to reprint. This has been the biggest sale for us. So, whatever money you make out of it as a publisher is very little. We always say that we look for that one author whom everyone wants to read, so that it makes up for the loss from the rest of the books.”

Assuming that an author, regardless of whether they are located in the UAE or elsewhere, has succeeded in finishing a manuscript despite the insecurity in their livelihoods, the next hurdle to overcome would be finding a literary agent. A simple Google search lists numerous articles about agents receiving thousands of queries per month, while choosing to represent only a few per year. Literary agents work on a commission-based model, earning between 10% to 20% of any advance or royalties, and they are obviously looking out for only the success stories. 

However, Sheila Crowley, a literary agent at London-headquartered Curtis Brown who represents a wide range of bestselling authors, such as Clare Mackintosh, Santa Montefiore, and Jojo Moyes, assures me that no author should be discouraged because of this. “I feel like sometimes an impression is given to authors that it’s very hard to find agents, but it’s really important for authors to know that agents, and indeed publishers, have no business without authors,” Crowley said on the sidelines of this year’s Emirates Airline Festival of Literature in Dubai. “The key thing about being an agent is that you have to be there through thick and thin, and a lot of people think that agents are there only on the good days, and not on the bad days. At Curtis Brown, the author is first and foremost at the forefront of our business.”

Sheila Crowley, Joint Managing Director, Curtis Brown Books Department 
Source: Emirates Literature Foundation

Crowley’s career started in publishing, firstly at Poolbeg Press in Dublin, before moving to a number of leading publishers in London, including HarperCollins and Hodder. Later on, she became a literary agent, and is now a Joint Managing Director of the Curtis Brown Books Department, as well as a management board member of its parent company, Original Talent. As such, she seems an ideal person to answer why publishing a book seems such an unattainable goal for many authors. “I think that because publishers spend a lot of time in meetings, and there are a lot of highly paid executives, particularly in the big publishing houses, who sit around making decisions, people are afraid to step out of the line,” Crowley replies. “They don’t go with their gut instinct, [and] say, ‘Oh, yes I agree with that!’ instead of, ‘Why don’t we try doing it in a different way?’ As a business, it’s not that difficult, but challenges do come. However, if you’ve got the right book, with the right cover, published at the right time, at the right price, and you make people aware of that through word-of-mouth and good marketing, you can really make it to the top.”

Sheila Crowley at Emirates Literature Festival
Source: Emirates Literature Foundation

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Bev James is another literary and talent agent I spoke to at this year’s Emirates Airline Festival of Literature, and she agrees that thinking out of the box is key to success in publishing. “I’m an accidental agent, because I didn’t set out to be an agent, and I don’t have a background in publishing, but it was actually a benefit to me,” James said. “I didn’t know how it all worked, so I just worked it out. Sometimes even with book deals, I was using my business brain and thinking, ‘If we do this, how can we change the contract?’ Sometimes the publisher would come up to me and say, ‘This isn’t how it works! We don’t do this!’ Well, we do now. Just because something hasn’t been done doesn’t mean it can’t be done.” One of her clients, Joe Wicks (The Body Coach), who has already become a household name with his Lean In series of 15 recipe books and easy workout videos, has seen the number of his YouTube fans jump to nearly two million during the COVID-19 crisis. Is finding the right literary agent key to becoming this successful? “For us, a book is just the beginning, just the foundation, and then, it’s about how you keep things relevant,” James answers. “We take that person, and look at the whole thing, because my goal is to build a ‘money while you sleep’ income.”

Bev James, author and CEO of The Coaching Academy 
Source: Emirates Literature Foundation

However, James shared a word of caution for those wannabe authors thinking that fame and riches will come easy. “Most of my clients don’t start out wanting to make tons of money, or to be millionaires, but wanting to make a difference,” she notes. “They have the right message, and they are the right messengers. Those two things have to be hand in hand, because you could have the right message, but you’re not perhaps ready to be the right messenger. If someone has really got that passion and talent, then I can really help them to package that.”

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In the UAE, however, an aspiring author would most likely have to approach publishers directly, as there are hardly any literary agents here. “Literary agents grow out of a very established publishing industry, and it will happen naturally once the publishing industry here is more developed and sells many more copies than it is currently,” Abulhoul explains. “It’s not that there are no people capable of being literary agents here, there are, but, as a literary agent, you need to have authors whose books can be sold in hundreds of thousands for it to be worth your while.” Chaibah confirms Abulhoul’s statement, adding that, in the UAE, an author would need to choose between a traditional publisher, a hybrid publisher, and a vanity publisher. “The traditional publishers do not take payment from the author, and they are in charge of the entire process, and the author usually has zero say in how the book will turn out. The author will get 5% to 10% of the royalties once the book is published. The hybrid publisher charges a basic cost of making the book, and the author has a much larger say in the editing, design, and title of the book, and so on. They also get a higher percentage, which is around 20% of the book sales. Lastly, there are the vanity publishers, who charge a very large amount, and the author has full say in the book, which sometimes means that they get the full percentage of the royalties back, or the full amount of books reside with the author.”

Iman Ben Chaibah, Founder, Sail Publishing 
Source: Sail Publishing

Once accepted by a local publisher, an author’s book will hit the shelves in about two to six months, Chaibah says, while Abulhoul adds that the quality and presentation of books being published in the UAE have been increasing drastically over the years. This is especially due to the support given to the local publishing industry, such as the Sheikh Zayed Book Award, which is considered one of the richest literary awards in the world, or the efforts taken by the Sharjah Book Authority and Sharjah Publishing City Free Zone.

The success of an author’s novel here would thus lie in the hands of the publisher; therefore, Rashid Mohamed Al Kous, Executive Director of Emirates Publishers Association (EPA), a non-profit organization established by H.H. Sheikha Bodour bint Sultan Al Qasimi in 2009 to enhance the role of the publishing industry in the UAE, gave me more insight into the difficult task from the viewpoint of the publisher. “A publisher has the tenacity and vision to see and understand both the author’s and reader’s perspectives,” Al Kous says. "That said, people know very little about the challenges that publishers and literary agents encounter, including how they must constantly update their business models to cater to the ever-changing demands of the market, or how several authors are underpaid, or fail to get the right marketing support.”

Rashid Mohamed Al Kous, Executive Director, Emirates Publishers Association 
Source: Emirates Publishers Association (EPA)

“Of course, there is no guarantee whether a book will be a hit or a miss,” Al Kous continues. “A publisher should therefore be absolutely on top of ongoing literary production in local and global markets, continue to expand and strengthen their author and agent networks, and ultimately drive audience growth. Since publishing as an industry isn’t as aggressively profit-driven as some other businesses, or isn’t considered so by the majority, the magnitude of risk and investments in innovative solutions the industry as a whole takes to satisfy changing customer needs, especially in the face of unprecedented technological disruptions, may not be that apparent to the public eye.”

The genre of the book is highly important too. Since its inception in 2014, Sail Publishing has brought out 25 titles, of which eight are in Arabic and the rest in English. “We’re trying to see what really works in the market, and we’ve noticed that there are different trends of the genres,” Chaibah says. “I thought that fiction would be the highest selling genre, but I’m noticing that the top selling genres are self-help and poetry. This is actually not just here, but worldwide.” The habits of the reading population in the UAE have changed over the years, Abulhoul adds, noting that a decade ago, the most popular genre across Magrudy’s was thrillers and crime, followed by travel, and mother and baby. “What we have seen happening over the last decade is that non-fiction has become very strong across all the non-fiction genre, whether it’s history, biography, mindfulness, mental health, or business books,” Abulhoul says. “Cookbooks are always popular, as are cookbooks which have an eye on health, whether it’s how to lower your cholesterol, or whether it’s healthy eating, etc. Children’s fiction or non-fiction is extremely strong at Magrudy’s. Fiction for adults is less in demand than it used to be, and it could be that mass market fiction is being read online more, but non-fiction has gained huge momentum over the last decade.”

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Assuming that an author’s book is of the right, currently in-demand genre, and that it has been published in the UAE, the next question becomes what other obstacles its publisher and author can encounter. ”A lot of times they expect that, if I’m an Emirati publisher, and I publish a book, whether it’s in English or Arabic, why is the book not available in the whole MENA region?” Chaibah says. "They don’t understand that the MENA region is made up of different countries with different logistics, different censorship rules, everything is different. You don’t expect an American publisher to have their books in the UK, but that’s not understood here. For that reason, I wish there was a way for the books to get distributed across the whole MENA region. We do have the distribution rights, but finding the right logistics and connections and networks between distributors and retailers is hard.”

“It’s all about personal connections,” Chaibah continues. “You have to go and talk with different bookshops, who will tell you that they don’t deal with publishers, but with distributors. Then, you go to the distributors, and they say they don’t deal with publishers, who have less than 50 titles under them. Or they don’t take from any publisher, but only those pre-approved by the retailer, who, most of the time, prefer imported books when it comes to English, and when it comes to Arabic, they’re very selective. So, it’s all very complicated. That’s really the biggest problem that we have.” As one of the UAE’s youngest but obviously most passionate publishers, Chaibah says that a lot of her work has been “improvizing along the way” in order to get books into people’s hands.

The EPA lands a helping hand to Chaibah and its other members, 175 in total, with initiatives such as Manassah, a cultural project launched in January 2019 to extend the international outreach of the Emirati publishers, or Meet the Emirati Publisher, a project that aims to expand to the global reach of EPA members as it helps them participate in professional programs held at regional and international book fairs. “In the end, remember that publishing is a labor of love,” Al Kous says. “Not everyone can hope to amass a fortune by selling books, but building on a strong passion in an innovative and creative manner will hopefully lead you in the right direction.”

In line with this, Abulhoul concludes by reminding me that there is a reader at the end of the author-literary agentpublisher line. “We just need to take care that we create readers, because to be a writer, you’ve got to be a reader,” she says. "And when you write, you need to have readers. So, this is a completely symbiotic relationship. Writers cannot exist without readers. We are a young country, and we have a very young publishing industry, and we need to look at different parts of it, and there needs to be an organic growth in all of these parts. But if we don’t have readers, we don’t have the publishing industry- that’s the end of it.”

Therefore, being a reader is both a privilege and a responsibility, and so, let’s not wait for the next global epidemic to value the people who bring books into our homes. 

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