In 2008, Karam Youssef established Kotob Khan Publishing to bring out a single book: a collection produced by participants in a creative-writing workshop. The workshop, run by poet and novelist Yasser Abdellatif, was one of several hosted by Youssef's newly opened Cairo bookshop.
Little more than a decade later, Kotob Khan is publishing a steady 25 to 30 books a year. This month, the publishing house saw its first book longlisted for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction: Adel Esmat's The Commandments. Books published by Kotob Khan have also won the Sawiris Award and a Naguib Mahfouz Medal for Literature.
Since her bookshop opened in 2006, Youssef's desire to foster relationships between books and readers hasn't changed. But the journey to establishing herself as a serious independent publisher – difficult anywhere in the world – has been full of ups and downs.
The battle of the small publisher
Meeting other publishers is an important part of the business, and Youssef has fulfilled that by participating in major book events in Frankfurt, Turin, Zurich, Sharjah, Abu Dhabi and beyond.
Last year, she was selected as a fellow by the Istanbul International Literary Festival. Everywhere, she says, small publishers "share the same issues of distribution and readership".
Yet in some countries, small publishers receive a leg up. Many European publishers, she says, benefit from an established networks of readers, laws to fight piracy, and "bookshops almost every four blocks".
Small Arab publishers don't always have these advantages. Literary prizes can help to some extent. But if a small publisher wants to stay afloat, Youssef says, the key is "hard work and sticking to your values". They should avoid being "dragged into the latest commercial 'fashion' or chasing best-sellers".
But this doesn't mean publishers should resist change. Most of Kotob Khan's books are available as e-books on Google Play, and it recently launched on Abjaad and Kindle. "And audio books are coming soon," Youssef says.
Kotob Khan’s main challenge has always been the one faced by publishers everywhere: finding great writing. But there are a number of obstacles that need to be addressed, collectively, by Arab publishers, Youssef thinks.
What would she do if she had a multi-million-dollar fund to help fellow Arab publishers? Tackle piracy and distribution problems, she says, and fund translation from Arabic into other languages. Next, she would establish a database to track information about books published across the region. And she would conduct scientific, country-by-country surveys on reading trends and the impacts of new technology on readers.
The first challenge: to find great writing
Egyptian novelist Esmat is one of Kotob Khan's most prominent and award-winning authors. He and Youssef first met in 2009, when the bookshop hosted a discussion of one of his novels.
This led to further discussions and, in 2014, he sent her the manuscript of The Tales of Yusuf Tadros. "When I was done reading it," Youssef says, "I felt I was before a great author." The book went on to win the 2016 Naguib Mahfouz Medal for Literature and was translated into English by Mandy McClure.
In addition to working with authors who are already established, Kotob Khan supports emerging writers, such as Ma'an Abu Taleb (All the Battles), Charles Akl (Food for the Copt) and Taher Al-Mutaz Bellah (The Student Movement at the American University). "I like to work with new authors, as they have something fresh and honest. If I'm lucky, I might have one or two each year."
Although Kotob Khan employs editors to work with authors on manuscript development, Youssef understands that many Arab authors are resistant to this process. "It's something new, and most authors prefer to get advice from their author-friends instead of professional editors," she says.
The gateway to the book
Some of the best of cover design – and the worst of cover design – adorns contemporary Arabic literature. Early on, Youssef realised the importance of covers, and the publishing house established a partnership with designer Hatem Soliman. When it starts work on a new title, Soliman will read the manuscript or a summary.
"He might work up five or six designs until we find one we agree on," Youssef says. Covers "consume a lot of time". "Sometimes, we're done with everything else, and we're ready to go to the printing house, but the cover hasn't been decided." It's important to have an appealing cover that fits the subject, she says. "I think of the cover as the gateway to the book."
Around the world in translation
In addition to bringing out new books in Arabic, Kotob Khan also translates important literary works from other languages. Its list for 2019 is typically eclectic. It includes Karel Capek's Czech science-fiction novel Krakatit, classic stories by great Brazilian author Clarice Lispector, and Indian author Arundhati Roy's 2017 novel The Ministry of Utmost Happiness.
After a book has been selected, then comes the hardest part: finding the right translator. With Kotob Khan, the relationship between publisher and translator is a collaborative one. For that reason, Youssef says, it's important that they share a vision and a passion for the book.
In the past 11 years, Kotob Khan has brought out a small but powerful list of 150 literary works in Arabic. Although book-buying is down across much of the region, and Egyptian publishers have to battle a particularly tough climate, Youssef maintains her steady commitment to connecting great literature with great readers.