Yara el Murr: Helping Publishers Catch Up with Technology

Yara el Murr is a journalist, documentary filmmaker, and the cofounder of Kotobli. She writes primarily about health and the environment, but also about migration, labor, and grassroots initiatives. Her film work digs into Lebanon’s reckoning with the legacy of the civil war. Since March 2022, Yara has been working on curations, collaborations, and outreach for Kotobli, a platform for readers to discover books, authors, publishers, and magazines from and about the SWANA region.

In response to the first question about the challenges she faced and how she adapted, el Murr wrote: 

“An interesting challenge to adapt to has been navigating the digital worlds of bookselling and publishing. More and more people look for and read books online, but publishers and authors in the Arab world have not always caught up with the new technologies. Many have a weak digital presence, if existent at all. This is why one of my primary goals with Kotobli was to offer a free, easy-to-use, and safe platform for publishers in the region to digitize their catalogs and build a webpage. This effort was supported by Culture Resource, and since launching the project, we’ve been able to add the metadata for 2500 books, and 15 publishers in the Levant and North Africa.

“We’ve also noticed that the demand on e-books has been increasing. Some platforms already exist that offer either subscriptions or purchasing options for e-books, but we have found that they can be a bit exploitative of the labor of writers, who get very little profit from the revenues. At Kotobli, we’ve been thinking about this problem a lot, but haven’t had the capacity to address it yet.

“Another change that might spark a future initiative is the rise of Artificial Intelligence, especially large language models like ChatGPT. We’ve all heard about the concerns it has sparked in the literary scene. However, we are interested in exploring ethical ways to build, train, and utilize this technology to the benefit of both readers and writers.

“Lastly, and maybe this is not a change but a trend that has been reinforced by the local economic crisis in Lebanon, more and more young people have been interested in and asking about public libraries! Luckily, through my work at Kotobli, I’ve had the chance to meet up with a few in Lebanon and Palestine and will be announcing collaborations soon!”

As for the second question about what brings her happiness, el Murr responded: 

“Honestly, being in a community with book lovers brings me so much joy and motivation!

“Over the past year, I’ve had such a heartwarming and lovely time meeting with readers who use Kotobli, authors and publishers who sign up to showcase their work, and libraries who offer crucial spaces and access to books. Kotobli has received so much gratitude and positive feedback from readers who finally found the representation they were craving (especially when it comes to Queer Arab literature), authors whose books got more traction, and small publishers who were finally able to manage a safe website. So many people have volunteered to curate lists based on their interests and expertise, and many others have opened the door for collaborations. This community-building around our love for books and literature and culture has really fueled my passion and I can’t wait for what more we can do together.”

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