Five Tips For Starting A Business In The UAE's Publishing Sector
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Iman Ben Chaibah, founder of Dubai-based Sail Publishing and the Vice President of the Emirates Publishers Association (EPA), on the tenacity and vision that is needed when working in the UAE's nascent publishing sector.
1. Be passionate about content I’d say to anyone who wants to work in publishing here that it has to be something that you’re really passionate about, because if you’re not, it’s very exhausting. It’s also not a business that you can make millions out of, at least not as quick as many other businesses. Books are something you have to be passionate about, because it will test every cell of your being. I would advise when you start a business in publishing to sit down with a lot of different publishers, and understand what they are doing- that helped me from the very beginning. I sat with a couple of other publishers, and they told me what they’re doing in terms of contracts, number of print runs, how to deal with the authors, and so on. It gave a more realistic understanding than the online resources I read that didn’t necessarily cater for our market.
2. Educate local authors about the publishing cycle There are a few misconceptions coming from authors, and some of those I would mention is that, firstly, we don’t work with authors before they actually finish their books. A lot of authors come to us, and say, ‘I’m going to write this book, will you publish it?’ Sure, but you need to finish the book first! We’re not going to entertain any of those conversations, because we used to do that, and it used to take up so much of our time it wasted on people who don’t necessarily end up finishing the book. Also, once the book is published, authors have a big responsibility to market their books as well. Even J.K. Rowling has a presence on social media, and she is very active. She might have an agent who does some of the basic content, but you can see how involved she is- she is spot on on Twitter, and has a clear opinion. You cannot deprive your readers of the privilege of communicating with you. Passionate readers get over ecstatic once they get a chance to communicate with the writers. You build more traction to your book through that!
3. Be realistic with your authors A lot of authors say, ‘When am I going to make millions out of it?’ Exactly in those words! Even though we give a larger portion of the royalties in totality, at the end of the day, we have a very small market, because our focus is the UAE. The moment the book crosses the border of UAE, you’re talking about a lot of costs involving shipping, dealing with retailers and distributors, so you’re chipping away from the money again. So, when we talk about money coming from the books, you’re mainly talking about selling it within the same country, and therefore, you have to be realistic about how many readers we have here. In the US, when a book becomes a bestseller, you’re talking about an average of 100,000 copies for a population of 356 million. Our population is 9 million, so what is a bestseller for us? Like, 1,000 copies? How much are we going to make out of it? So, authors are not realistic when it comes to numbers, because their comparison and benchmark is always the US. Both markets read, but the population in the US is much bigger than what we have here.
4. Understand the market trends Don’t publish something just because it’s what you’d read. I was talking to a publisher based in Saudi Arabia, who publish really good titles, about how they choose, and he said that you have the responsibility to sell what would be read by the masses, and not just the elite. If you don’t do this, you will barely sell anything, and barely make money out of it. Even if you go to Kinokuniya and see the top 10 bestsellers, how many of them would you actually read as a self-proclaimed bookworm? For you, it may not be the most readable material, but it should give you a hint about what works for the market, because that gives you the cashflow to publish what you like.
5. Take note of digital publishing We’re trying to be a digital publishing house and help people publish their books digitally. We will give them all the rights to the digital, and get the reports, and so on, because I really believe that content needs to be here, in the MENA region. However, when we started in 2014, we realized that, even though I would put in a book to be globally available and sold on the e-book market, it was still available only in the Western market, and not the MENA market. If you logged onto Kindle and put in your Dubai address, or your Egypt address, you wouldn’t be able to see those books, even though, as a publisher, I had put in the book to be available worldwide. It only changed as a formula in early 2018, when Amazon and Kindle decided to open it up for the MENA market. However, even now, it’s not available for all publishers, but very select few have been given the capability of publishing in the MENA region. Even the books of Western publishers are not automatically available in this region.
Sail Publishing has access to the MENA market through Amazon, and we provide that service, but other publishers do not, either because they don’t have the access, or in general, the market is still not there yet, because the platforms have been blocking the doors for so long. And my main point is that the number of publishers who are accepting to collaborate with us are very few, which means that there are fewer books on Kindle. I really do hope that Sail Publishing will become a hub in the region, or at least in the UAE, where every publisher will say, ‘Yes, we can go to Sail to publish the digital books for us.’ The reason is that the moment the book is in print, it should be there also as an e-book, because that is how we can beat the distribution problem, the piracy problem, and how we can give people content to read at the tip of their hands.