On Launching Liblib: A Children’s Publishing House for Arabic Dialects

By M Lynx Qualey

Late last month, the new Liblib publishing house made their first public appearance on Facebook, with organizers announcing it as “The newest children’s publishing house on the block for Spoken Arabic Dialects.”

The publishing house, which has been several years in the making, aims to be “a world-class children’s colloquial Arabic publishing house, instilling a love of reading by providing inspiring, inclusive, accessible and diverse stories for Arabic speaking children everywhere.”

The three founders are Nada Sabet, an entrepreneur, theatre director, and arts development expert; Mariam Ali-Puttergill, an editor, translator, writer, and educator; and Muhab Wahby, an aspiring board game designer and business intelligence analyst.

They will be launching their first slate of children’s board books on Kickstarter in early 2022. Until then, they can be found on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter @LibLibPublishing. Nada Sabet answered a few questions about the startup for ArabLit.

When did you decide not just that there needed to be a publisher bringing out a range of fun and attractive children’s books in colloquial Arabics, but that you three wanted to commit yourselves to doing it? 

Nada Sabet: I had decided in 2018 to set this up, and I had planned to start in 2020… but we know what happened then.

Mariam and Muhab joined this year. Although, to be honest, Muhab and I did start speaking about the project earlier, we were not sure how he would join or in what capacity until i moved to the UK. Muhab was struggling because of the lack of entertaining Egyptian material out there to try and introduce his children to Arabic and did so through a board game he had designed. At some point on a walk through Oxfordshire we decided to partner up, as it made sense, and the rest is history.

Mariam was a lot more spontaneous; when I asked her, she immediately responded “YES… I’ve always dreamed of doing that!”

So here we are, knee-deep already.

What resources (if any) are there for startup kid-lit publishers, especially those working in Arabic colloquials? What resources should there be, to foster more children’s publishing projects?

NS: There isn’t much in Arabic. The book fairs have a lot of resources for those willing and wanting to diligently go through seminars, master classes, and network. The publishing community has been very generous with me so far.

You have to know what you want and go for it… like anything else, really. Incorporating a company, finance, marketing, etc. All that exists online in multiple formats, and for free as well as paid.

There is a lot to be done in children’s publishing, especially in Arabic. The way it runs as an industry is not profitable, so we are also taking a big leap into looking at how to operate slightly differently from the industry norm in an attempt to tap into new markets and explore a less financially taxing system of operation, one that allows us more market reach and agility in production.

The name “Liblib” is just perfect. Do you remember how you came up with it? 

NS: Yes, we were all brainstorming and Muhab suggested it… It was simple, yet provided depth because of how descriptive and culturally relevant it was. Childish, in a sense.  It invokes that element of surprise, of getting to know that someone has the capacity to speak another language, or a kid with incredible speech abilities, or a delightful fluency in the way they speak. It’s playful, it’s about the spoken words rather than the written, and we all loved it.

You’re planning to start out by crowdfunding. Of all the possible startup funding options (applying to a foundation? getting a bank loan? finding a … rich sponsor?) why did crowdfunding turn out to be the best way to get off the ground? 

NS: We don’t know that it is, but it’s a great way to test the market, and that is what makes it a very attractive proposition for us to launch our presales. It should help us to gather our customer base’s perspectives; what (content)  and where (location) demand is. The issue with a lack of Arabic children’s literature in spoken/colloquial is truly everyone’s problem, and we want our customers to feel like they are providing solutions by being an integral part of solving the issue rather than a bank or sponsor.

It also helps us focus on online marketing, where most of our customers are, as well as to test the market with presales. It allows us to sell without breaking the bank. And it’s a great way to test the idea. If we can’t sell online, then commercially we are failing.

You have a fantastic mission statement — not only aiming to be world-class, inspiring, inclusive, accessible, and diverse, but also to get the books to children everywhere. Not literally of course, nobody gets books everywhere, but what is your distribution plan, and how will you get them to wide audiences in diaspora communities and where each colloquial is a majority language? 

NS: Our first distribution plan is online sales. This said, it’s not the best time for worldwide shipping! But we can in theory still ship globally (at varying costs). After that, we will be available in bookstores in countries where there is demand. But again, if we don’t make our kickstarter sales goals…we won’t have any books to send anywhere. So it’s very important that all the support we have found both online and offline so far translates into sales, in numbers that allow us to print. So in essence we are asking for backing now so that there is a later.

Seems very sensible to start off with a miniature library of board books for ages 0-3. Do you have a plan, after that, for moving into picture books for 3-6, chapter books for 6-8, perhaps some books that bridge into fos7a?

NS: Yes, our plan is to expand first to story books for younger children, followed by chapter books and eventually even tween/YA fiction – in as many spoken dialects of Arabic as there is demand for! So we’re starting with Egyptian boardbooks; once that is successful, we move into Egyptian storybooks and Iraqi boardbooks and so on.

This will also allow us to standardize the dialects as well as plan for transition books and games to allow our readers to transfer their reading skills to fos7a (though we also expect that will be a natural consequence of fostering a love of reading in the languages children actually speak, or hear spoken). 

What are the distribution challenges and opportunities particular to publishing colloquial Arabic children’s literature? Do you imagine yourselves traveling to book fairs? I suppose you wouldn’t expect support from schools, for instance?

NS: We hope to make it to all the book fairs. I must say, we were lucky to attend online this year and last, the three biggest book fairs. Hopefully next year, we can show up in person to many with a more diverse library of our own content.

We have a little plan for schools, but I’ll keep that for the right moment to share.

How do you see colloquial books as part of the overall landscape of Arabic children’s books? 

NS: We believe if stories and books reflect how people actually speak around them, they would be a lot more interested in reading, in books, in learning Arabic – and eventually in fus7a too.

It’s an obvious stepping stone for children to learn the language before truly getting into formal education in fus7a, especially with how reading is taught phonetically in most countries now. Regardless, children first and foremost need to be interested in the content itself. It has to be relevant, fun and attractive. Especially at that young age. It feels like a really good time to test this theory practically, especially now that everyone is reclaiming 3ammiya on social media. Think, for instance, of the case of Luxembourgish.

Honestly, we just hope it brings children a lot of joy and helps them love reading in Arabic and to own the language.

Who knows, maybe they’ll even learn a new dialect or two in the process.

Find more about the project on Kickstarter.

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