Nada El Shabrawy is an Egyptian poet, publisher, and book-show host with more than 55,000 subscribers, also known as دودة كتب:
El Shabrawy is less a critic and more a Marie Kondo of your book life. In her most recent post, “How Can We Read More?” El Shabrawy lays out seven tips in her high-energy, no-nonsense way.
They’re mostly good sense: make an investment in reading, don’t read stuff you don’t like, carry a book with you at all times, and at least give audiobooks a try. Perhaps it’s the authority with which she says them — “a book is your friend and should be with you at all times” — but it’s persuasive.
We met at this year’s Abu Dhabi International Book Fair — although I was already a subscriber — and later exchanged emails about what she does.
When did you decide on the name دودة كتب (book worm)?
Nada El Shabrawy: The name actually stuck to me since I was a kid. I used to be a bookworm and everyone used to call me this because I was always seen with a book. It also comes from my name, Nada.
You first posted to YouTube in June 2017. But before that you were on Facebook. Why did you start, why on Facebook, why the shift to YouTube, and what did it change for you?
NES: I started on Facebook March 2017. Because I thought it would be something I could do for fun. It wouldn’t be consistent as I didn’t think that anyone would care about the content. So I did it the same way I used to write posts about the books I was reading. I also thought of Facebook because I had quite big fan base on Facebook due to the fact that I write poetry and I publish it on my profile, so Facebook seemed like the right place.
But then after I had done a few episodes, and I found that people actually cared about them, I decided to move to Youtube because it’s more organized and the videos are more easily found on it. But this was in 2017, before Facebook had started to act as a platform for video content. However, I can say that YouTube changed my life. Everything seemed different after moving to it. I became more acquainted with similar video content. I learned new techniques. And I took the whole ‘episode/show’ thing more seriously in order to be able to grow a new fan base away from my original one on facebook.
Why are booktubers important in the overall book ecosystem? Why do you think so many people have come to listen to your videos?
NES: I was born 1995. My generation came to know about YouTube at an early age compared to my older brothers’ generation. YouTube quickly became an essential part of our lifestyle. And now with younger generations, its importance grows day by day. People depend on it, criticize the content available on it. And since it’s a free creative space, people get to choose between thousands of content creators, which is amazing. As, of course, they can’t in real life.
I think the importance of booktubers in the overall book ecosystem is just like the importance of the critics and scholars in the past. And there’s the fact that booktubers can reach young people around the world, talk to them in their languages using the same slang terms and words, mentioning the same jokes. And the fact that they are people who are exactly like them, with no screen character or fake intellectual identity: that’s very important. This makes the YouTubers even more influential, more than any other people working within the same ecosystem.
This why people listen to me. I think : )
How would you describe what you do to someone who didn’t know anything about YouTube?
NES: I try to encourage all people, and especially young people, to read as much as they can. I do this by talking about books I love in a relaxed and funny way and without spoiling the ending. So that people can read them and fall in love with them like I did.
Why do you enjoy what you do? What are the best parts of it?
NES: I love what I do because it gives meaning to my life. I mean, in general everyone tries to do something meaningful through whatever they do. But for me, the impact of my videos on people is immediate so I get to actually feel the difference it makes. And this pushes me towards enhancing the quality and seeking new ideas all the time.
For me the best part is when I watch the episode before publishing it on YouTube. It comes after all the hard work starting from the brainstorming and the planning process, shooting, and editing. It’s the fun part.
And the worst?
NES: I wouldn’t say that there is a bad part about this whole creative process. I just hate it when I’m too busy with any other thing in my life and I am not able to give the idea or the episode as much time as I would like to.
Have you considered having guests? Or you prefer to be on your own?
NES: I have thought about it. But I am not sure that it fits with the whole theme. I mean I would not mind having MURAKAMI with me in an episode! 😀 Or another one of my idols. But generally speaking, having guests is a thing that other people are actually doing, and I don’t think that it adds any particular value to my content.
However, I like the idea of collaborating with other YouTubers or content creators. I think it’s more casual in that way, and relevant to my show.
What have you learned about booktubing? How is it different from other forms of book criticism? (Or is what you do more like “book education”?)
NES: I don’t consider what I do criticism. And about booktubing, I am learning all the time.The process is non-stop. What I try to do is to create readers who can evaluate books on their own, I want them to be able to understand this world and to have fun in it. And to know that they have value, for me and for themselves, as readers.
How has your production process changed over the last year?
NES: Production processes change constantly, every day. I’ll get a new camera or a microphone or anything and that will change what I do. I also go online and look, listen and read about others to know what they are up to.
My experience at YOUTUBE NEXT UP in Dubai was super enlightening. It gave me all sorts of new ideas and new perspectives. The emphasis was really on how to be effective and simple at the same time – nothing fancy. Just making the message stronger.
My brainstorming is stronger now, and my writing is better and I try to go deeper into my topics.
What most interests your audience? Do you think about that when deciding what to talk about? (The “novels that saved me” is delightful, for instance.)
NES: I learn constantly from my audience’s input and in fact I love interacting with them. My channel discusses books in a passionate way and it is fully interactive: people write to me with comments, I love their comments, and I answer when I can. Sometimes the question is bigger so I’ll say ‘great, I’ll make an episode about that’. And I will. I’ve even integrated books recommended by my audience from time to time, because I do ask them to suggest books. It’s harder to do but I like to do it and would like to do it more often.
My topic usually comes from something that is very important to me at the time, and to my audience, too. I try to find the right balance. ‘Books that saved me’ is something that I needed, and my audience did, too. It happens a lot and it’s one of the most frequent questions I get, across all channels: how do I get out of a reading slump? Because it happens to me and it happens to everyone, so we talk about it.
They like to know about more than one book at once, they like general topics, and they like to learn about all sorts of things that will improve their reading experience: how to find time to read, where to buy books and how to spend well and save money … all basic things that are important so I try to give them these tips. Along with a different way of looking at books and at literature in general. I want to give them my perspective of why something is essential.
But your videos don’t generally follow the news cycle. I just watched your video on banned books; none of those books are newly banned, why a video on banned books now?
NES: What I talk about comes from me, and I try to stay away from current events and politics. However, sometimes something will happen that is too strong and too loud to avoid, we can all hear it and so sometimes these events will creep into my episodes. But it happens rarely. Even when it does, I like to look at everything from a literary point of view: that’s how the video on banned books came about. This is the question I ask myself, the literary point of view. So in this case it was the Voltaire prize, and the questions of freedom of expression and such that we are facing in Egypt, and in many countries around the world, now and in the past, I wanted to make this connection. Because things may happen now and then, and we will all move on, but the books will remain, the stories are forever.
In another episode I discussed discrimination, but from a different point of view: I didn’t take the matter straight on; rather I discussed tolerance and how this benefits us all. I think that the Sartre quote is ‘hell is other people’ and I turned it on its head: hell is not other people, in that, it’s good to be different, to be an individual. For me, this kind of philosophy is inspiring. And these topics are very important to me.
Maybe hell is a life without stories…. Is it sometimes hard to come up with a new idea each week?
NES: Yes, it always is. But I feel that my strength is originality: therefore, I need to do things that matter to me. I need to be in love with the topic. On the other hand, there is always so much to say about books so I never seem to run out of things to write about. I keep it creative, I follow my reflections. I brainstorm with people. I even ask for their opinions … and then I never follow them!
Which other booktubers do you watch? What other book criticism (podcasts, newspapers, blogs) do you read/listen/watch?
NES: I like to watch others to have an idea of their enthusiasm and their positive energy. I feel I am different, but there are always ways to improve. I watch ‘A Clockwork Reader’ and some others in English, and Shady and Ranwa in Arabic.
What do you think is the ideal length for a single book video? To what extent do you script them, and to what extent are they improvised?
NES: Normally I don’t do a single book episode, but it has happened. What I have learned is that the rule is: don’t overdo, don’t underdo. If the book needs ten minutes, then it just does, or if it needs five, it needs five. Normally youtube episodes are not more than ten minutes. I try to keep it at 7-9 minutes always.
My episodes are fully scripted with a tiny space for improvisation. But I am very precise: I write, then I record the entire audio and listen to it for cadence, rhythm, repetitions, etc. Then I adjust it and record and listen again. At that point, I’ve more or less memorized it. And then I film it.
What do you know about your audience? Who are they? How often do you interact with them?
NES: I love interacting with my audience. I do know that they are young, and are all over the Arab world. About 85% are Egyptian and the remaining 15% are spread out over other countries. The age ranges from 18 to 40. The balance is now about half and half, male and female. I really like to get their comments and I often reply. I love to talk and joke with them. One person has been counting my bracelets … then I didn’t wear any! That freaked him out, but we laughed about it. I look for his comments on this every week. I do meet my audience at book fairs and other events, and I think it would be great to have a book club or a coffee gathering to meet them more regularly. I need more time!
I love that you had a video on the translators you love! Such an underappreciated art form, and you name the names of translators you love. Why?
NES: Because translators are super important! I cover a lot of fiction and a lot of translated fiction, so translators are really important …I don’t want to say more important than the author, but almost. And often for a reader it is hard to know if a translation is good or not. Translation is expensive. And it is so much a part of the international book market, and it has so much influence on the reader. So I really needed and wanted to talk about it.
I hate to ask, but… do you make any money doing this?
NES: Don’t hate to ask, I love this question! 😀 So far I made like $300 USD, which is money and not money at the same time depending how you’d look at it!
But I make money through other things that I started doing because of YouTube, such as podcasts and coordinating cultural events and having panels. And I hope someday I’ll make enough money through YouTube, whether on my own or with a platform.
You are currently Publishing Manager at Ibiidi Publishing. Do you want to keep working in publishing? Or, if you could make a living at it, would you move full-time into writing poetry and booktubing?
NES: If you’re asking about a dream job, in a perfect, amazing world, then of course I’d love to be full-time booktuber/writer. But this is not an easy thing to do. Content creation doesn’t pay that well. Not for me at the moment at least.
What advice would you have for someone who wanted to start out booktubing?
NES: I can’t actually give much technical advice because I’m not a very techie person. However, my advice is pretty well known by now, as I often talk about this topic in panels and interviews:
It might not seem so, but YouTube is very effective. But the words you say on YouTube will definitely have an impact. So you really need to understand this, and you really need to value this responsibility. Otherwise, don’t start booktubing. However, if you decide to start, be as consistent as possible and don’t do anything you are not deeply in love with. This is my advice.
Is there a reason you don’t talk more about poetry?
NES: As you know, I write poetry. And that’s why I feel that I’d be too biased. I can’t talk about poets or poems without involving myself directly, and I don’t want to be advertising myself as a poet on my own show.