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Arabic publishers pushing writers to aim for lucrative prizes

Some Arabic writers say publishers are pushing them to pursue prizes at the expense of authenticity Pixabay/IsbalStock
Some Arabic writers say publishers are pushing them to pursue prizes at the expense of authenticity
  • Arabic publishers press for prizes
  • Writers feel trust is lost
  • Sales numbers are unclear

Publishing houses are pressuring Arabic authors to produce novels that will win prestigious book prizes or be turned into TV dramas and films, writers and publishers said at a literary festival in Dubai this week. 

Arabic publishing has become a lucrative industry for those shortlisted for the Abu Dhabi-funded International Prize for Arabic Fiction – known as the Arabic Booker – since it was started in 2008, bringing prize money and global translation contracts. 

“Prizes encourage reading, but writers start to write with the intent of winning a specific prize, which ends up equalising the writing styles,” Egyptian author Ahmed Abdullatif told AGBI. “Writers need to be completely free from prizes, television, publishers and sales.”

Emirati short story writer Asma Ali Al-Zarouni said publishers were also looking at novels as potential scripts. 

“With one contract, they wrote that if it wins a prize the publisher gets 20 percent of the money,” Al-Zarouni said. “If it’s turned into a soap opera they also get a cut. Where’s the right of the writer here, the writer who you are paying to publish their book? 

“One publisher said to me, ‘We only publish writers who get prizes.’ These prizes have created something not good between the writer and publisher. That I should publish just to win and the publisher could then change things in my novel, it means trust is lost.” 

Left to right: the  Emirates Literature Festival moderator with Asma Al-Zarouni, Khaled Alnassiry, Nahed Alshawa and Ahmed AbdullatifAndrew Hammond
Left to right: the Emirates Literature Festival moderator with Asma Al-Zarouni, Khaled Alnassiry, Nahed Alshawa and Ahmed Abdullatif

“Sometimes writers can agree to these conditions out of ignorance,” said Khaled Alnassiry, a former journalist and filmmaker whose company, Al-Mutawassit, has sold English translation rights for many Arabic novels. “Why should they take 50 percent if you get a prize?”

Speaking at an Emirates Literature Festival panel on February 2, Alnassiry said: “As publishers, our rights are not protected either. If there is a problem between one Arab state and another they can cut the internet or stop newspapers coming out. Books are copied.”

Al-Zarouni also said a lack of official statistics on book sales was allowing publishers to make exaggerated claims about how many print-runs a book had gone through by considering each batch of 10 copies sold as a new edition. 

“I found a book in Abu Dhabi that claimed to be on its 24th edition, in one year,” she said. 

Nahed Alshawa, owner of Jordanian children’s publisher Noon Books, said a print run of 3,000 copies was average for a successful book, but it was hard to predict sales across a diverse region. 

“A book could suddenly become big in Kuwait because of a social media influencer and you don’t know why,” she said.

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