Owner of a young yet broad-focused and successful publishing house, Fatma El-Boudy talks to Ahram Online about her experience in publishing and her expectations for the future.
Ahram Online: When did the idea of working in publishing occur to you?
Fatma El-Boudy: I originally graduated with a degree in bio-technology and earned my Ph.D. in this field. However, throughout my career, I had kept an eye on the world of art and literature through a lifelong passion for books which started since the early school library days. The introduction into the literary world started after reading the book Al-Ganuby (The Southerner) by Abla El-Roweyni, who later became a very close friend and who introduced me to the literary community in the late 1980s. The start of the publishing business came through my friendship with the scientist, Ahmed Mostageer, and the late critic Samir Sarhan, who both were looking for someone to lead a publishing effort for scientific publications. At the time I had some knowledge of printing houses through the family business, and therefore needed only to add to that expertise in publishing. This is exactly what happened, and Al-Ain publishing was born in 2000 with a focus on scientific literature.
AO: How then did you decide to suddenly move out of the specialization?
FEB: This specialization had greatly helped the start of Al-Ain publishing. First, the "Reading For All" project, led by the General Book Organization, had chosen our publications for the entire series of "scientific knowledge". I had also initiated the scientific committee in the Supreme Council for Culture, under the auspices of the previous minister, Farouk Hosni. Yet things started to change when the late author, Al-Tayeb Saleh (the famous Sudanese writer) decided to publish his famous book "Season of Migration to the North" with Al-Ain (it had previously been published outside of Egypt) in 2005. This book changed the publicity campaign of Al-Ain and we started diversifying our scope. Although it had been my dream to focus on scientific publications, it clearly turned out to be impossible, unless we published academic books for students, which was not the case. We started developing ourselves on various fronts: literature, novels, short stories, research, translations, etc.
AO: Al-Ain published many remarkable books over the past few years, and many of its authors have been nominated for or won prizes. To what do you attribute this great success?
FEB: We had ventured with young authors and not-so-traditional types of books. For example the book "How Much Egyptians Spend on Education" by Abdel-Khalek Farouk who won the Egyptian Encouragement Award this year and "The Political Upbringing of Sufism in Egypt" by Ammar Ali Hassan won the Sheikh Zayed award. There's also the translation of Steven Hawking's "A Brief History of Time" which led to our selection for the Kalima project for translation initiated by the Abu-Dhabi Organization for Culture and Heritage. This, in addition to choosing Al-Ain for the Frankfurt book fair and to represent Egypt in the Union of Independent Publishers in Paris, is a sign of the great success we have achieved over our few years of operation and to our unique position in the Egyptian publishing business.
AO: What were your worst surprises in the publishing business?
FEB: There were many bad surprises along the way. It's quite a challenge working in Egypt where the publisher has a big role to play in the distribution and sales of books. Yet, for the business to break even, it's not enough just to sell in bookstores. We have to join fairs, both national and international ones, and cooperate in events, and all this takes up time and effort from our main message. The existing distribution companies are excessively demanding in terms of pricing. There are also the bureaucratic issues, such as the whole deal with the "Sons of Gabalawy" book that was nearly banned by the censorship authorities. All this is topped by the difficulty of setting up a prior plan for work. We receive plans, manuscripts, translations, etc., and can never make a full plan for what's coming up. In the majority of cases we receive a manuscript, it goes through a reading committee and receives approval or refusal. In a few cases I ask an author to write, such as the case of Asser Matter, whom I followed online for a while then asked to write for us.
AO: What is your business model with regards to cost-sharing to manage risk?
FEB: Our original policy was to pay 100% of the cost of the book, not asking for any contributions. However, now with the whole economic condition -- which, by the way, started long before the revolution -- we are encouraging the authors to "contribute" to the publication of their titles. I must stress here that this contribution has nothing to do with the quality of book -- even big names are asked to contribute -- but it's rather a reflection of the interest in the publishing house and therefore a keenness to contribute to its success. We're now cooperating with the National Center for Translation to cost-share the translation and copyrights in return for profit-sharing as a means of reducing this risk. I'm not going to stop publishing; many other publishing houses are now waiting as the risk is too high.
AO: You participated in the publishers union elections and even nominated yourself for a position. What was your experience there?
FEB: I had wrongly expected the tides of change to have hit the union, but I was obviously mistaken. Although the head of the union, who was not changed, is not himself one of the religious front, but there was a lobby to support Alexandrian nominations, and religious figures joined these forces. I had really one aim of joining, and that is to bring some equity into the work of the union. Many funds come to the union and they're never heard of again or distributed to anyone -- I simply wanted to change this.
AO: What is your perception of the current conditions with the revolution and your outlook for the future of publishing along?
FEB: There's a huge drop in the book business now, but I refuse to make "revolution profits" out of just publishing anything that has the word 'revolution' in its title. My fear is the rise in the conservative and religious tone, which bears risk on the future of our freedom of expression, though I'm pretty sure Egyptians won't let this happen. But we're in a situation of attack and retreat; times when freedom is pushed forcefully, and others when it's attacked and withdrawn. It's important to see that the risk is on everyone; we're in the same boat altogether and have to learn to cooperate. Any increase in the conservative tone bears risk on what can be published. For example the book "Secularism is the Solution" by Farouk El-Kady would never be published under a strict religious regime.