It was during a conversation between Yasmina Jraissati and Nadim Tarazi, director of La maison du livre that the idea for “Mubtada wa Khabar” (Subject and Predicate) first arose. It was 2006, and Jraissati had been an agent specialized in Arabic literature for two years, but was struggling to find independent information on books. Where was the list of new releases? Where were the best-seller lists? How could the information get out?
Back in 2006, Jraissati said, she expected difficulties in selling Arabic literature to foreign publishers. But she hadn’t expected difficulties in finding books. “As a reader,” she said, “I used to go to bookshops, take a look at the existing books, and buy whatever I liked after taking a look at the synopsis. I didn’t think about all the books out there that were invisible to me, simply because they were not in the bookshop. Naively, I thought that if they were interesting enough, they would be there.”
Jraissati soon realized that, in Lebanon, she only had access to Lebanese books. She said:
“I started trying to look for other sources of information. I skimmed cultural supplements, reading reviews. But most of the time, the reviews were not interesting. Either they spoke of books I already had heard of, or they were too flattering to tell me anything about the book’s actual quality. All I was left with, and am still left with today, is word of mouth. This is when I realized that if I, as an agent, didn’t have access to the information, readers surely didn’t.”
After that, she said, it made sense why international publishers had such a hard time getting their hands on Arabic books. How could they map out the Arab book scene?
More than that, Jraissait said, this absence of information could have a negative effect on publishing, as not knowing what’s out there meant there were no shared quality standards and innovative new works could easily get lost. Readers also didn’t know what was out there. “Maybe we would read more books if we had access to more books,” Jraissati thought.
So: How to fill the gap?
At first, Jraissati said, she thought of a traditional, paper-and-ink magazine. “I was quickly discouraged by the capital required to create such a paper magazine, and also by the challenge it would be distributing it across the Arab countries.”
Next, Jraissati considered starting a blog, a bit like ArabLit. “But I was also an agent, and figured that there was a conflict of interest that wouldn’t make me credible.”
In the summer of 2008, in a random conversation with Abdallah Atie, a tech savvy friend, the idea of a user generated collaborative platform came up. It felt like such a great and easy solution for the absence of information, I almost couldn’t believe it. With just a click, people in Mauritania, Oman, Sudan, Lybia, Palestine, and other places that I had no easy access to, could simply tell us about their books. The idea was brilliant! I could see all the possibilities so clearly.
In 2009, Jraissati and Tarazi pitched the idea to the Beirut World Book Capital committee. “The project was greeted with enthusiasm, and La Maison du Livre got the funds.”
Unfortunately, at the time, Jraissati didn’t have wide experience with the software needed to make such a platform function. The development phase dragged on and on, she said. They were promised delivery in January 2010, “but a half finished, technologically unsatisfying site was delivered to us in the Spring of 2011, after months of frustration and endless angry discussions. I was exhausted and heart broken. Not only was I disappointed, but all the people and partners that had supported the project were disappointed too.”
But serendipitously, Jraissati then met with Stephanie Terroir, a web-development and user-experience specialist, who got excited by the project. “Her enthusiasm kept my faith in this project. After the first failure, I decided to give it another shot, but this time, I would have no institutional support.”
On October 31 2013, more than seven years after I had first thought of it, muwak.com finally went live! — a historical moment!
What does the site do?
The role of Mubtada wa khabar, Jraissati said, is to fill this gap. Thus, “books are described using structured metadata, ONIX namely, which give them visibility on the web, and should make them easy to find.”
As a next step, we’re putting in place a refined search engine that would allow people to search with different kinds of criteria. We also inform without any bias. Although we have a blog part, we’re not just a magazine, so we don’t only speak of books that we think are interesting. We’re not an e-commerce platform, so we don’t publish information on books we want to sell. We’re not a social network of books where people only create entries on books they want to talk about. Even if people do create profiles, we’re a collaborative book repository the content of which is permanently generated by the users. On the platform there should be books people love, and books no one notices. We need information on both types of books if we want to know what is out there.
The site also will inform publishers about the wider landscape, Jraissati said. “Apart from what books people like, what books people comment on, and the ones reviewed by our partner bloggers, as an information site we hope to regularly publish studies on the trends we are able to spot through the platform. I’m hoping that with time, this will help creating quality standards, and mostly, bring more books to readers.”
More about the site:
Or just visit http://muwak.com/