How Independent Publisher L’Orient des Livres is Promoting Exchanges Between the Middle East and the West.
The Salon du Livre Francophone de Beyrouth, Beirut’s francophone book fair is held every year during the autumn. It’s one of publisher Hind Darwish’s busiest times of the year, not least because of her partnership with the French publisher Actes Sud, and the various francophone authors who visit the fair and participate in conferences and book signings. This year’s star was Lebanese author Jabbour Douaihy, whose Le Manuscrit de Beyrouth (the Beirut Manuscript), translated into French by Stéphanie Dujols, had just been released.
How L'Orient des Livres was born:
Darwish’s publishing company, L’Orient des Livres was founded in 2011, following an encounter at the same book fair with Bertrand Py, one of Actes Sud’s founders. At the time, Hind Darwish was running l’Orient Littéraire (which she continues to oversee), an independent literary supplement to the Beirut French language daily, L’Orient le Jour, with novelist and literary critic Alexandre Najjar. Their mission was to showcase literature from the region, creating a bridge between the Levant and the West. With Bertrand Py, “we discussed Arabic literature and he came up with the brilliant idea of creating a publishing company in Lebanon that would produce co-editions with him.”
Actes Sud already has a similar partnership going with Algerian publisher, Barzakh, which publishes authors such as Kamel Daoud, Assia Djebar and Kaouther Adimi, who for the most part write in French.
Darwish liked the idea, and a few months later founded L’Orient des Livres with Alexandre Najjar, boosted by private funding. “We began this adventure that I cherish and try as hard as I can to develop.”
"Throughout the region, even in the Gulf countries, we are seeing writing that is very promising."
A Look at the Partnership with Actes Sud:
L’Orient des Livres publishes books in both French and Arabic. Seventy five percent of the books are co-editions in French (translated from Arabic) with Actes Sud, for which l’Orient des Livres retains the rights for the Arab world excluding North Africa, while Actes Sud retains world rights. This doesn’t leave L’Orient des Livres much to work with, as the markets in the Levant and Egypt have in essence, collapsed since 2011. “Our market is basically Lebanon and a little bit in Egypt,” commented Darwish. “Before  there was Syria. But we still do translate Syrian authors, such as Khaled Khalifa.”
Depending on the author, and how contracts are put together, either l’Orient des Livres or Actes Sud will handle the translation, publish the co-edition, distribute it, and take care of sales and marketing. Darwish’s direct contact at Actes Sud for Arabic language literature is Farouk Mardam-Bey. He is the publishing house’s editorial director of the Sindbad and Babel (paperback) collections of both classical and contemporary Arabic literature. Mardam-Bey has for the past 20 years provided France with approximately 80% of the country’s Arabic literature in translation.
So far, L’Orient des Livres has published 23 books in co-edition with Actes Sud and 17 on its own, including essays, novels, theater, poetry, art books and even cookbooks.
“It has been a discovery, and it remains one. From the start, our mission was well defined: to further cultural awareness and exchange between the Middle East and the West, namely freedom of expression, and to publish a literature of humanity.”
A Cultural Exchange Aimed at a Better Future:
Darwish is selective in her choices and admits that her publishing project is not a commercial one. “With this idea in mind, I have few constraints, and only accept manuscripts that are inspiring. I’m not a charitable organization either—I try not to go bankrupt. I am happy publishing just eight to ten titles a year. I enjoy accompanying the authors, and promoting them.”
The biggest challenge for Darwish, as for other Lebanese publishing houses, is distribution, sales and marketing, as well as translation costs. Darwish recently joined Bookwitty’s partner network in order to benefit from a wider distribution and reach audiences with more ease.. “I didn’t hesitate for a moment, as my main concern is distribution in the rest of the world…For francophone books produced here, France can be quite frustrating for us, it’s a difficult market; it’s a system that is very closed.”
Besides looking for solutions to global distribution, Darwish would like to work on lowering the cost of books in Lebanon so that they can become more accessible to a wider public. “One of our objectives was to be able to sell co-edited books at a lower cost, either by printing in Lebanon or by getting exclusive preferential prices from Actes Sud directly. But I confess that with the cost of paper and the rising costs and instability of the euro/dollar exchange rate, the difference is minimal, and in most cases is limited to the difference in the exchange rate of euro/dollars. But the will is still there to find ways to ensure affordable prices for the Lebanese market.”
Despite these challenges and general political instability in the region, and in particular in neighboring Syria, Darwish sees great literary creativity in the Arab world. “This is very reassuring, as if pens had been set free. Throughout the region, even in the Gulf countries, we are seeing writing that is very promising.”
L’Orient des Livres’ rich catalogue of books is available on their website.
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