Publishing Consultant And PublisHer Board Member Emma House Interviews Bookwomen Around The World.
In 1998, Dr Shereen Kreidieh founded Dar Asala publishing, where she is still the general manager. Dar Asala produces high quality children’s books in Arabic, and Shereen also teaches children’s literature and social work at Haigazian University, in Beirut.
In addition, Shereen is the president of the Lebanese Board of Books for Young Children (Lebanese IBBY) and a member of the executive committee of IBBY International. Previously, Shereen has been a member of the Book and Reading Promotion Committee in Lebanon’s Ministry of Culture, a member of the Hans Christian Andersen Award Jury for 2018 and is an alumnus of the International Young Publishers and Cultural Leader programme of the British Council.
Shereen has a BA in elementary education, a teaching diploma in early childhood education, a Master’s in children’s literature, and a PhD in publishing from Oxford Brookes University.
How and why did you get into publishing?
My father was a publisher (Dar Annahda Alarabiya, mainly for academic books) but he didn’t really push my sister or me into the business, so I didn’t really consider going into publishing. My last years of schooling was during the war, so were quite unsettled, but I knew I wanted to work with children and education in some way. I eventually chose to study education at the American University in Beirut where I took a children’s literature course. We had to create our own children’s book, so my father suggested to me that I start to publish children’s books under a new publishing house he had established, Asala. I ended up publishing four of my friends’ work and my interest in the industry really began. I also knew that there was so much more to learn about publishing children’s books, so I decided to continue both with my university and post-graduate education as well as starting the children’s publishing line under Asala, and publishing more books.
What motivated you to set up Dar Asala in 1998?
I think it was motivation to start something new and challenging, and it was exciting to go into the family line of business and bring my newfound expertise. I started travelling to book fairs and realised there were many gaps in the children’s book publishing industry, and room to develop the business. My master’s was about children’s publishing and I realised that most of the industry was made up of educational books, fairy tales and folk tales, as well as a lot of translations into Arabic. There was lots of scope to explore other genres and publishing Arabic voices.
How has it developed in the last 23 years?
It was tough, and it is still tough, but amazing. I knew when I started that the children’s book publishing industry in the Arab world had a lot of room to develop, but there were no real role models or experiences to draw from. I did an internship in 2000 as part of my master’s, at Egmont Publishing, in the UK, and spent time reading through manuscripts. I was amazed by the number and quality of submissions, and realised that this process was a great way to discover new voices and talent. When I returned to Beirut I decided to try to find new authors and illustrators by encouraging submissions. I advertised in local newspapers and started to meet many people in Lebanon, which led to publishing new books. A good number of the books we published in the beginning didn’t work so well, so we had to experiment to get the high-quality stories and illustrations we wanted to publish. I knew when I started that it would be a minimum of 10 years before I started earning from the publishing house, and I ended up spending more than 15 years investing in the publishing house. Now we receive many manuscripts daily and the children’s book publish industry is in a much better place in the Arab World than before.
Thanks to my degrees in education and publishing, my research and knowledge of children, books, and publishing, and the experience I’ve had over the last 20 years, I have realised what makes Asala different and special, and a leader in the Arab children’s book publishing industry. We discovered and gave chances to many of the very well-known and award-winning authors and illustrators in the Arab world. Our books reach Arabs around the world, including in the US, UK, Europe, and Far East. Now we have more than 2000 titles and we still produce new books and reprint and edit our older releases.
Nowadays it is hard, Lebanon is sinking with everyday problems with safety, electricity, fuel, and many other problems. What makes me happy is being approached by customers and consumers who love our products, and this is rewarding.
How did the British Council Young Publishing Entrepreneur programme and Oxford Brookes University shape your career?
England, oh England! I love the fact that I have experienced publishing in the UK. With the British Council programme, we visited many publishing houses, distributors, wholesalers, and bookshops and I learnt a lot. I saw how developed and fast moving the publishing industry can be and the fact that it is so different from publishing at home. I applied and still apply what I experienced in the UK and other parts of the world: experimenting with new titles, being different and specialized, attracting new readers, creating new markets, coordinating with my staff, and researching. In my PhD thesis I experimented with techniques used to market children’s books in the UK, in Lebanon and Arab markets and I was shocked to see that it didn’t work in the same way. Business experiences and results change in different markets.
What are your biggest achievements?
Building Dar Asala as a trusted brand is a great achievement. I was able to apply what I have studied, and still invest and grow. Finding new talents, nurturing authors and illustrators, and being able to experiment and risk with new ideas again and again is my biggest achievement.
What challenges have you faced?
In Lebanon, every day is a challenge. My biggest challenge is people. I was born into publishing and there were always unspoken ethical lines that my dad and his friends used to have: respecting the borders for each publishing house means we do not run after each other’s authors and illustrators and markets. Publishers used to be like family members, they used to spend lunches and afternoons in our house and collaborate for the best of everyone. A challenge I faced was the disappointment when publishers would copy our new titles and call our authors and illustrators. It took me some time to get used to it, but I have learnt not to get too close to the people I work with to protect myself from being disappointed and hurt.
Tell us about your work on behalf of the industry with IBBY and others.
I love my work with IBBY. What we do now is renovate and develop public school libraries in Lebanon. It is a beautiful project that is still being implemented with the help and coordination of UNESCO, Book Aid International, French IBBY section, IBBY Canada, and IBBY Netherlands.
As an IBBY EC member we plan activities and coordinate with our country sections. I teach children’s literature in the university, and it is exciting to see how our students start with hardly any idea about the world of children’s books and end up excited to read and share international books.
I collaborate also with some NGOs in Lebanon, like Assabil, and we are trying to implement new projects to target our needs in Lebanon.
Lebanon has long faced many issues. How has this affected your business and how are you addressing the challenges?
Growing up in Lebanon has affected me as a person; it has made me stubborn and resilient. I always feel like I live in crisis mode, but I do not give up. The situation in Lebanon affects businesses, it is a challenge where we cannot have a fixed plan, but we should be flexible and act quickly, since every day is a surprise. The business would have been much bigger if it was somewhere else. In Lebanon the government does not have well established funding and support programs for publishers. In addition, we pay high taxes in Lebanon with little or no return. It costs us a fortune to get electricity: in our office we have a generator and official electricity line fees (which are barely available). Internet is also another challenge, and we usually must take files home to work on. It has been hard to find fuel to get electricity and even to drive to the office in the past couple of months. We think of plan B and C and D to continue our days and find options to change plans if X or Y or Z happens. We moved part of our stock and we will start operating from Istanbul now as a next step. We also rented a space in Sharjah and we will ship from there to the Gulf.
How would you describe publishing in the Arab world vs publishing in the rest of the world?
Publishing in the Arab world is totally different than the UK and Europe and China. Titles take longer to sell, we rely on book fairs for a big percentage of our sales, and books are linked with teaching. In addition, publishing houses in the Arab world are much smaller in terms of numbers of employees.
What is the environment like for women in publishing in Lebanon?
Women and men publishers are treated in the same way in Lebanon. Distributors in the Arab world are mainly managed by men and since Arab businesses are really impacted by personal relationships, I feel it is harder for women in the industry to push their titles and enter big business deals.
What are your hopes and aspirations?
I hope my country can get out of the crisis we are facing but this will be difficult. I plan to add more lines to the publishing house, but these plans are currently under wraps. When my plan B is on track, the new lines of publishing will start.