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Sefsafa publishing - one year on: an interview with Mohamed El-Baali

Sefsafa publishing celebrated its first year in business since opening last year. Mohamed El-Baali has published twenty-five titles and commissioned two titles for translation with the University of Sorbonne in Paris

Mary Mourad , Wednesday 15 Dec 2010
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Sefsafa publishing house celebrated its first year in business since opening in December 2009. The owner and manager, Mohamed El-Baali has published twenty-five new titles and commissioned two for translation with the University of Sorbonne in Paris. Among a group of friends, writers and journalists, Sefsafa celebrated with an unconventional evening of music, singing and writer’s testimonials at the Rawabet Theatre, Downtown Cairo.

 Mohammed El-Baali revealed the story of his first year in the publishing business to Ahram Online books.

Ahram Online: When did the idea of establishing a publishing house start?

Mohamed El-Baali: The idea started because of as a reaction for the suffering that writers have to undergo at the hands of publishing houses today in Egypt. The current situation ranges between the large publishing houses, with lots of rules and who never give a book a fair chance, and the very small ones which settle for low quality to make a profit. This is in addition to the delays and financial requests some of them make, and in the end the book may not see the light of day. We tried to offer a reasonable combination that focuses on quality of writing, as well as the beauty of the final product. Among a group of friends, we discovered we had a diverse set of connections and expertise which would when combined, make a recipe for a very successful business.

AO: What were the challenges you faced on your first year?

El-Baali: Unfortunately, the initial partnership for the publishing house didn’t last very long, resulting in the production of only 25 books out of an expected 100. But the experience I have gathered this year is what will drive Sefsafa forward.  There were so many hopes that the partners couldn’t fulfill them and I’m now by myself and also working from abroad. This should hopefully change soon.

AO: How do you evaluate a book proposed for publishing?

El-Baali: Books for publishing are sent to a reading committee which then decides whether the book is commended or not. If the book is rendered valuable from a literary point of view, we start to consider its marketability. Some titles may be very well-written but with a very limited chance to make it to the top shelf. I try to create a reasonable mix. However, we are meticulous that no book which disregards minorities or disrespects the values of freedom and democracy will be considered and there is no debate about that.

AO: How much do you take restrictions and censorship into consideration?

El-Baali:Controversial topics and censorship are never considered in the decision to publish. The first thing to remember always is that a writer cannot be truly free unless they eliminate all boundaries and stop thinking about the market, self-census or about the reactions of the readers in general. A writer who insists on that produces weak material. We have never stopped a book for fear that it is not compliant with social codes or the limitations of socially-acceptable norms. The worst case scenario is that if a book is to be banned, let it be banned!

AO: How do you perceive the current market and the expanding competition? 

El-Baali:The publishing market is indeed expanding and competition is growing. However this has to be seen in a different light.  First of all, competition is good because it creates a lot of publicity and many books benefit from this hype. It sends people to the shelves and that’s good.  Some books claim to have sold up to 60,000 copies which, even if exaggerated, is a big number. My financial plan is based on some years of investment after which it should even out. Now I try to manage a balance between good quality and price. It is important here to note that it is not the cheaper books that are the better sellers; in fact many of the best-sellers in the past ranked among the most expensive books on the market! This implies that prices are not really the main factor determining sales. It is important to consider this since lowering the price too much may affect the perception of the book and the finances of the whole project. On the other hand, judging by market prices, a book is nearly equivalent to a cup of coffee in any of the places frequented by the middle-class today, so there’s no need to worry too much about the price.

AO: What are your plans for the future? 

El-Baali: I intend to focus on two types if books: politics and novels. These two have proved the best mix between quality and marketability. The core challenge we have right now is distribution, particularly outside Egypt. We also intend to create stronger links with the cultural institutions which would enable funding for special types of book and translations otherwise too expensive or unavailable. We will strengthen our partnerships for translations; the Sorbonne is only the beginning. The dream is to create a reputable, respectable and quality-conscious service that should be able to compete with Penguin books.

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