Sarah Irving and Henry Bell, co-editors of the forthcoming volume of Palestinian poetry in translation — A Bird is not a Stone — are perhaps the first to run a successful crowdfunding campaign to promote Arabic literature in translation. ArabLit wanted to hear more about how they did it, and why they thought it worked:

A_bird_is_not_a_stone_270.270ArabLit: You did it! First off: Why do you think this worked? I saw a recent piece that suggested crowdfunding isn’t good at getting something off the ground, but at helping a project that’s already found its feet to get an extra boost.

Sarah Irving: I would certainly agree with the last point — I suspect that a lot of crowdfunding efforts don’t get far because the people putting them forward don’t have a well-known and demonstrable track record, and it’s often hard to know whether what you’re looking at is a viable project or just a good idea. But we already had the heart of the project — the book — pretty much done and dusted. The Kickstarter, as you say, was an extra boost, but the core of the project wasn’t going to fail if we didn’t succeed.

AL: Why did you choose £3000?

SI: It was enough money to do the basics of what we wanted to do — bring at least two Palestinian poets to the UK for events linked to the book — but it also seemed like a manageable sum. Again, I’ve seen crowdfunding efforts aiming to bring in tens of thousands of pounds or dollars, which is an enormous amount. This seemed doable.

AL: What will you do with the extra £540? 

It gives us scope to do more events when the Palestinian poets are over, and it also allows us more latitude with the second aim of the funding, which is to send as many copies of the book as possible to Palestinian schools, libraries, community centres, universities.

SI: It’s actually a bit more than that in pledges — we have a couple of hundred more that people have donated by cheque or paypal because they couldn’t get the Kickstarter site to work for them or they weren’t people who are comfortable with online payments. Essentially, we’ll just do the same — but more of it. It gives us scope to do more events when the Palestinian poets are over, and it also allows us more latitude with the second aim of the funding, which is to send as many copies of the book as possible to Palestinian schools, libraries, community centres, universities. That’s partly because we see the book as a potentially useful teaching and learning resource, because it has the Arabic original alongside the translations. But also, for me, it feels like we’re just returning the books to where they belong — the origin of this project was in Palestine, and it just seems really natural that the books should go back there.

AL: Can you tell us what events you’ve arranged so far? 

…several of the Scots poets and – visas, etc allowing – two Palestinian poets will be appearing on the afternoon of August 18 in the main theatre at the Edinburgh International Book Festival.

SI: We have two launch events with a number of the Scots poets planned for as soon as the book comes out at the start of June, one in Glasgow and one in Edinburgh.

Then, several of the Scots poets and – visas, etc allowing – two Palestinian poets will be appearing on the afternoon of August 18 in the main theatre at the Edinburgh International Book Festival. That’s the only confirmed, definite gig. We’ll definitely do something alongside it in Glasgow, and I think we’ll also do some other events in Edinburgh as part of the Book Fringe, which is organised by Word Power Books. And then we’re talking to people in Manchester, Oxford, and London, within the ten days or so surrounding the Edinburgh readings. But if anyone out there wants to talk to us about organising something, get in touch! 

AL: What are your distribution plans for the book? How to get this work in as many hands as possible?

SI: The publishers, Freight, are being very pro-active with publicity and distribution so in the UK and the US I think things will go fairly conventionally. The wonderful Educational Bookshop in East Jerusalem have also expressed interest, so hopefully Freight will also be taking this opportunity to dip their toes into exporting to Palestine! But, as I said, we also want to use some of the money we’ve crowdsourced to put this book into the hands of people in Palestinian communities in Palestine and in the shataat – so if anyone reading this works in or will be visiting educational and community facilities in Palestine or in, for example, the camps in Lebanon and Jordan, and wants copies, get in touch.

AL: If you were going to do this again, is there anything you’d do differently? 

SI: I think we were pretty organised with things like our social media strategy and tracking the donations I could see that Twitter and especially Facebook appeals were having an impact. But if we were doing this again I’d want to be even more sorted with this beforehand — the pressure of time and other work meant that I wasn’t as on it as I would have liked to have been. But it still came out pretty well!

AL: Can you imagine this sort of crowdfunding campaign working for other projects? Or has this one been successful because it involved so many accomplished poets with their own social networks?

One of the main ones, in my opinion, is the fact that Palestine is such a big issue at the moment and especially in cultural circles – there seems to be an enormous amount of Palestinian art and cultural production out there at the moment, and it feels like there are a lot of people who are very interested in engaging with Palestine on an artistic level, this idea of the ‘cultural intifada’. 

SI: I don’t see why not. I think the fact that there were so many established poets with good contacts did make it a lot easier. But I think there were others factors that need to be taken into account. One of the main ones, in my opinion, is the fact that Palestine is such a big issue at the moment and especially in cultural circles – there seems to be an enormous amount of Palestinian art and cultural production out there at the moment, and it feels like there are a lot of people who are very interested in engaging with Palestine on an artistic level, this idea of the ‘cultural intifada’. So there were a lot of solidarity and political links which I think also helped to spread the word.

I’m not sure that crowdfunding is any easier or less labour-intensive that grant applications and other forms of fundraising — it’s just different, and has different pros and cons. We’re doing both, for different purposes.

Also, I think Henry, my co-editor, and I were both extremely pro-active, and we kept at it all the time, blogging and tweeting and facebooking the appeal, getting it on mailing lists, and getting other people to do the same. That meant that people were hearing about it from different sources, being reminded of it over and over again. Some people seem to treat crowdfunding a bit like other badly managed social media — they put up an appeal and think that some kind of social media fairy is going to spread it out there and draw in funders. It doesn’t work like that. I’m not sure that crowdfunding is any easier or less labour-intensive that grant applications and other forms of fundraising — it’s just different, and has different pros and cons. We’re doing both, for different purposes. But we worked really hard on this, because I think that’s what a successful crowdfunding campaign needs.