Continuing her series of interviews with women in the PublisHers network, Emma House talks to Shereen Kreidieh, founder of Dar Asala publishing
Dr Shereen Kreidieh founded Dar Asala publishing in 1998, and is the general manager. Dar Asala produces high quality children's books in Arabic. She also teaches children's literature and social work in Haigazian University.
She is the president of Lebanese Board of Books for Young Children (Lebanese chapter of IBBY) and member of the executive commitee of IBBY international. Previously, she was a member of the Book and Reading Promotion committee in the Ministry of Culture in Lebanon, a member of Hans Christian Andersen Award Jury for 2018, and is an alumna of the International Young Publishers and Cultural Leader programme of the British Council.
Kreidieh has a bachelor's degree in Elementary Education, a Teaching Diploma in Early Childhood Education, a Master's degree in Children's Literature, and a PhD in publishing from Oxford Brookes University.
How did you get into the publishing industry, and what attracted you to publishing?
My father was a publisher (Dar Annahda Alarabiya, mainly for academic books), but he didn't really push either me or my sister into the business, so I didn't really consider going into publishing. My last years of schooling were 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 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 was your motivation to set up your own publishing company?
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 new 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 degree 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 to publish Arabic voices.
How has the publisher developed in the last 23 years? Tell us about Dar Asala today
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 and experiences to draw from. I did an internship in the year 2000 as part of my master's degree 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 publishing 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 very well-known and award-winning authors and illustrators in the Arab world. Our books reach the Arab world and Arabs all around the world including the US, UK, Europe, and the Far East. Now we have more than 2,000 titles, and we still produce new books and reprint and edit our older releases.
Nowadays it is hard. Lebanon has many problems: safety, electricity, and fuel among them. What makes me happy is being approached by customers and consumers who love our products.
You were part of the British Council Young Publishing Entrepreneur programme, and have also studied at Oxford Brookes University. How have these experiences shaped 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 to 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 specialised, attracting new readers, creating new markets, coordinating with my staff, and researching. In my PhD thesis, I experimented with UK marketing techniques in Lebanon and the Arab world 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 have been your biggest achievements in your career?
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 your publishing career?
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 time to get used to it, but I have learnt not to get very 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. Now, we're concentrating on renovating and developing 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 faced many issues over the past few decades. How has this affected your business and how are you addressing these 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 had it been somewhere else.
The government here does not have well established funding and support programmes for publishers. In addition, we pay high taxes, with few or no returns. 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 from publishing in 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 size of employees.
What is the environment like for women in publishing in Lebanon?
Female and male 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 influenced 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 for the future?
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.