Saqi Books, an independent publishing company run by two Lebanese, is making waves in international markets and, perhaps even more importantly, helping to counter misunderstandings between the Arab and Western worlds.
The ethos of the company is radical, progressive and international. “We believe in a cultural dialogue between the Arab and Western worlds, never more needed since the events of September 11,” said managing director Andre Gaspard, who, with his partner Mai Ghoussoub, founded the company as a bookshop in 1979 and now runs the company from offices in a cosmopolitan area of West London. Today, the company has an annual turnover of $3 million and publishes 27 English and 39 Arabic titles a year.
“We don’t think in terms of Arab or Western blocs and we don’t see all Arabs as fanatics and all Americans as imperialists – that’s crude and simplistic. We try to provide an outlet for a variety of individual voices.”
Gaspard cites the example of ADAMA, an autobiographical novel by Saudi writer Turki al-Hamad, which is about a young man growing up in Riyadh in the 1960s, and THE CRUSADES THROUGH ARAB EYES, by Amin Maalouf, which went a long way towards setting the crusades, one of the most distorted episodes in history, in a true light. “This is the sort of book we like to publish,” he said. The book still sells over 5,000 copies annually and is a standard text in schools and colleges.
A major coup was the publication in November 2001 of the first study of 9/11 called, TWO HOURS THAT SHOOK THE WORLD, by Fred Halliday, a Middle East specialist at the London School of Economics. The company began with the bookshop. Gaspard, who studied law at the University of St Joseph, and his friend Ghoussoub who studied math at the American University of Beirut, left the civil war in Lebanon in 1976 and moved to Paris. They found temporary jobs – Gaspard in a bank and Ghoussoub as a journalist with an Arab language weekly newspaper. They were both great book lovers and avid readers. One weekend Ghoussoub, on a visit to London, noticed that the city had no Arab language bookshops although there were three in Paris.
“She came back to Paris and suggested we open a bookshop in London and, being young and crazy, I agreed straight away. After we had opened, I met a prominent Arab bookseller who told me he had been thinking of opening a bookshop in London at the same time. He had a feasibility study done which predicted he would lose £80,000 a year and he decided to drop the idea. Thank heavens I never carried out a feasibility study!”
Before opening in 1979, Gaspard and Ghoussoub drew up a catalogue of 1,600 titles. “We printed 1,000 catalogues and ran out of them within a few months. We didn’t plan it but it proved to be the best way to launch a company specializing in mail order and library supply.” They also built up an address list of universities and colleges with Arabic departments in Europe and America. This mailing list, which began with 80 names and now has over 10,000, is the basis of the core business – mail order and worldwide library supply. This now accounts for some 70% of the shop’s annual sales of about $1 million. Mail order is increasingly overtaking “off the street” sales, as fewer Arabs visit London and more bookshops sell books about the Middle East.
He runs a tight ship. The bookshop employs seven people and is managed by Ghoussoub and Gaspard’s wife Salwa. At any given time the shop stocks some 40,000 titles evenly divided between Arabic and English books and specializes in titles with a long shelf life which often become standard academic texts.
“For a bookshop turnover in time is the key to profitability. If your allocated capital for buying books is, for example, $100,000, then the secret to financial success is how many times you can recoup and reinvest that $100,000 during the year. The average is three times, we achieve three and a half times, and the big chain bookshops aim for five times,” said Gaspard.
“Because of this huge push for profitability by the new supermarket bookshops there is a constant demand for new books, and huge numbers are being produced, the traditional bookshop atmosphere is disappearing, and it’s becoming difficult for the independent bookshop to survive.” But Saqi survives and prospers. The bookshop is “the mother” of the other two departments. The English language publishing department opened in London in 1984 and after “bumpy” progress over the years, picked up dramatically. It has increased sales by $200,000 for each of the last two years and now achieves annual sales of $1 million. All three departments now contribute more or less equally to the company’s present overall annual sales.
“I’m sorry to say that the tragedy of September 11 helped our English language publishing business. Sales increased threefold because many of our books were relevant to the crisis. Our Arabic publishing suffered at first but recovered, and the bookshop, which is a steady, ongoing business, was not affected.”
The English department is a lean and fit operation with an in-house staff of four people. Much of the nitty gritty pre-production work in London is handled by a team of some twelve freelance copy editors, proofreaders, indexers and designers. This system of outsourcing is especially effective in the production of a wide variety of specialized books. Pre-printing work accounts for about one-third, and printing and binding for about two-thirds of costs.
A publisher’s key partner is the representative who sells his books to bookshops, and the distributor who stocks his books in a warehouse, delivers orders to bookshops, collects sales revenues and, after deducting fees and expenses, sends the publisher his money.
“If my representative goes bust I don’t lose much, but if my distributor goes bust, we can suffer badly. The distributor is your money source, and if he runs into trouble, the publisher is the first to suffer – especially in England where in a case of bankruptcy other creditors take precedence over publishers,” explained Gaspard. “Over the last 16 years, four of our distributors have gone into receivership. The last time we lost six month’s sales and suffered a severe disruption of business. With nine books going through the printers we had to rent a temporary warehouse for two months until we found a new distributor and it took us two years to recover from the crisis. But each time we were able to recover because we do not borrow money from banks – that is our golden rule. Publishing and distributing books is unpredictable and risky.” When the company opened an office in Hamra Beirut in 1992, it was initially managed from London and everybody told Gaspard it would fail within a year. “We started slowly and cautiously but we picked up better than most of our competitors after the first Gulf war and our growth has been the fastest ever achieved by a Middle Eastern publisher.”
The office now employs a fulltime staff of 10 and a team of eight freelancers, has its own editorial board, and is becoming increasingly independent of London. It publishes over 50 new titles a year as well as reprints, achieves annual sales of about $1 million, and is the leading independent publisher in the region. It may also generate the company’s strongest growth in the future.
“Our list consists of some 300 writers from Morocco to Iran and everywhere in between. We try to find writers from a broader social spectrum, including women exploring new cultural and social issues, and as always we are keen on ‘new voices.’ We always treat writers fairly and this makes a huge difference in the Middle East. They recommend you to other writers and you are on a roll.”
In London, the company acts as a publisher but in Beirut it not only publishes books, it also does its own representation, distribution and wholesaling. Operations cannot be streamlined by giving exclusivity to one distributor as in Europe and America, and although the company has 40 distributors in the Arab world, some of them are unreliable and it does some distribution itself. The company stores its books in its own warehouse, employs two fulltime representatives constantly visiting bookshops throughout the region, and attends all the main book fairs. It has built its own distribution network and delivers directly to bookshops in all the major Arab cities. So where do Saqi Books go from here?
“We’ll do more of the same. We’ve always worked within our means and invested only from profits and never from borrowing. That makes it difficult to dream up master plans or long term goals,” Gaspard said. “We could open bookshop branches but we’re not going to jump into things. We don’t take easily to the idea of expanding with somebody else’s money and on their terms. We started small, we’ve grown gradually, and we like it that way.”