Arabic book cover in a weak publishing market

Arabic book cover in a weak publishing market
Arabic book cover in a weak publishing market
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Arab publishing houses are increasingly interested in the covers of their books, as they keep pace with the development of design arts all over the world. However, Lebanese publishers assert that interest in covers is not new, as there were important Arab experiences in the last century, and designers are not cut from a tree, but rather have roots and sources of inspiration going back in history.

Publishers agree that the covers of the books they present to readers crystallize over time, and through accumulation, the identity of the house they run. However, the Arabic book in terms of design and cover is still less aesthetic than Western books, despite vigorous attempts to give it artistic touches. «This is due to the weakness of the Arab publishing market compared to the West. There is a difference between the two markets. When the market develops, its tools evolve with it. The Palestinian poet Khaled Suleiman Al-Nasseri, owner of Al-Mustawasit Publications, says: “The cover has a marketing aspect, and it thrives in times of luxury and affluence.”

Arab houses pay between $100 and $500 to the cover designer. It is a small amount when compared to what is paid by a French house such as “Robert Lavon”, for example, which produces more than 200 books a year. As the director of the house, Elsa Lavon, says: “One cover costs the house between 600 euros and 5 thousand euros.” That is, the price starts where the Arabic cover budget ends. The “Robert Lavon” house spends more than 300 thousand euros annually on illustrators, and employs 4 full-time graphic designers, and dozens of independent designers.

The cover of the Lebanese book draws from manuscripts as well as technology

“A poor cover may result in poor marketing of a very good book,” says Rania Al-Moallem, managing editor of Dar Al-Saqi, explaining how an attractive cover is as important as the title. For the “publishing house” to be able to produce book covers that remain in the memory of readers is an essential element in the book industry. That is why Dar Al-Saqi does not underestimate the choice of its covers, but rather gives it an important amount of its time and care. After the designer submits his proposal, the house holds a meeting in which the editorial board and the distribution department participate, because the distributor knows the taste of the reader. “We realize that, in the end, a book is a commodity, and it must be presented properly. The cover is the interface, and it is the first thing that the reader’s eye falls on. If he does not like it, he will turn away from it, regardless of its content. But at the same time, Rania Al-Moallem explains that «there is concern not to raise the cost of the cover, because this is reflected in an increase in the price of the book, and burdens the reader. That is, the issue needs a balance, but without compromising between aesthetics, attractiveness, and reasonable cost.

The “new” classic, but…

Is it with the aim of saving, that Dar Al-Jadeed has used, since its inception, austere, classic, simple and elegant covers that follow one line? The owner of the house, Rasha Al-Amir, answers that this choice was not caused by savings, nor by being easy, because the work on designing and developing this white cover with red lines is continuous and permanent, and it is not stable in one case. “We wanted a cover that resembled the character of the house. And we have two styles; One in white with red lines, it is the one that encapsulates the collections of Onsi Al-Hajj and Mahmoud Darwish and the books of Abdullah Al-Alayli, and this is what many tried to imitate in its simplicity. And another, more diverse pattern, through which we resort to a drawing, image or design that mixes more than one element. Rasha Al-Amir considers that the Arab role that drew a line for itself and followed it, as we can know her books from their covers, are very few. Dozens of names, including designers, painters, calligraphers, and artists, have collaborated with “Dar Al-Jadeed” since its inception, among the most recent of which is the Jordanian Tamer Al-Ahmar, who designed the first version of the cover of Iskandar Riachy’s book “Women from Lebanon,” and the Egyptian artist Ahmed Badr.

The Arabic cover is ancient

Rasha Al-Amir says, “Our reference in making covers goes back to our ancestors when they bound manuscripts, and that was an artistic craft.” Binding still exists, although the number of workers in the profession has decreased. Al-Amir returns to manuscripts and their margins because she likes to draw inspiration from them in making her books, and she sees a great benefit in that.

The director of “Dar Al-Adab” Rana Idris points out that her house’s interest in covers started from the day it was founded by her father, the late writer Suhail Idris. “The Egyptians had an important experience in this field in the sixties and seventies. And my father decided to design some of his covers in Egypt, during the publishing days of the books of Adly Rizkallah and Edward Al-Kharrat. This shows the extent of interest in the cover, although communication was not easy and needed days.

Najah Taher and the identity of “Etiquette”

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Rana Idris narrates that the novelist Hanan Al-Sheikh came to the “Dar Al-Adab” at the end of the eighties, and with her the manuscript of her novel “Misk Al-Ghazal”: “On that day, she told us that she loves the drawings of the artist Najah Taher, and she wants her to design the cover for her. Since then, the artist, Taher, has been designing our covers and giving our books their artistic identity.

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Rana Idris recalls the days when the artist, Najah Taher, used to work in a glass room, which she allocated as her workshop in her home in Ramlet Al-Baida. There, the two women were discussing together the issue of the covers of the “Dar Al-Adab” books, before Najah Taher moved to her new headquarters in “Al-Zawiya”. Rana Idris says: “Najah is an artist who reads the text before being inspired by her cover. She has a fine literary taste. We at (Dar Al-Adab) love this, and I personally love Najah’s work, because it gave (Dar Al-Adab) its own character. Our books, thanks to their covers, have acquired a certain formula and a special character.”

Al-Mustawasat Publications is distinguished by the fact that its founder and owner, Khaled Suleiman Al-Nasseri, in addition to being a poet, is also a designer. He designed books for many Arab houses, including “Dar Al-Mada”, then he worked with Italian publishing houses, before his house became his, and he is concerned with its covers. And Al-Nasseri considers that “The Medium” managed to make the cover talk about it, and get out of its stereotypes. For him, the cover might be a reason to attract readers. The cover of the book “Symphony of the Dead” by its author, the unknown Iranian author, Abbas Maroufi, was the reason for the book’s sale and popularity. The cover is a page of musical notes in the shape of human bodies, which drew a great deal of attention, and some requested that the cover be used as a poster. However, Al-Nasseri does not deny that after being happy with the cover, either the text is at a good level or it is not.

The Mediterranean is on two sides

With his experience on both banks, Al-Nasseri believes that some Italian houses have excellent and great covers, but there are other houses that do not care about the matter. As for the most beautiful covers about which studies were conducted, they are the covers of the English “Dar Penguin”, and “We must not overlook those who preceded us for their rights. In Egypt, an important experience with Muhyiddin Al-Labbad and Helmi Al-Tuni, and (Dar Al-Rayes) presented important covers as well.

The cover topic is about theses and research. However, the author of “Al-Mustawasat Publications” points out that it is a specialization that does not exist in Arab universities, with the exception of one branch at the University of Rabat in Morocco.

The cover of the book is a complex combination of elements, according to Rasha Al-Amir. It is an art that has its historical development, its changing elements, and its transformations in the time we are in. Where technology has entered its industry greatly. She loathes ugly covers that are made in a commercial spirit, and says: “When I have to read a book whose cover is ugly, I take off the cover and throw it in the first trash bin, with all peace of mind, so that I can continue reading. You don’t have to put up with annoying colors and shapes.”

Who chooses the cover?

Arab publishing houses generally tend to come to terms with the writer about the cover they decide on. She knows better than him what the title should be, or what the most attractive cover format should be. And if “Dar Al-Saqi” decides with its work team the shape of the cover, as well as “Dar Al-Jadeed”, and “Dar Al-Adab” has its artist, then the writer has his say. As for Al-Nasseri, he says that the final word on the cover in “Mediterranean Publications” belongs to the publishing house: “As for me, I think that I know more than the writer what can help draw attention to the book, unless the writer has another opinion, and a determination that he was able to convince the publishing house of. But if we are not convinced, the decision is up to the house.”

Translated Books… Which Covers?

While “Dar Al-Adab” considers that the translated book should be transferred to Arabic in a different spirit and with a special cover, because it lives a second life when it is transferred to another language, we find that “Dar Al-Jadeed” is less strict, and leaves the matter to its circumstances. “In publishing processes, there are many agreements and understandings that take place about small details, or larger matters, including the cover, which can be changed or kept when translating,” says Al-Amir. It is also the opinion of Al-Mutawasit Publications, which is working on new covers for its translations into Arabic: “But it happens that keeping the cover of the original book is more attractive to the reader, especially in the case of famous books.” Rana Idris explains to us that using the cover of a foreign book when translating it into Arabic is not always possible. Purchasing the translation and copyright rights does not include the rights to use the cover: “When I inquired about the rights to use the cover of the novel (O beautiful world, where are you?) by the famous novelist Sally Rooney, I was told that I had to contact 3 different parties: the painter, the designer, and the one who printed the cover, and pay Each of them has his rights, except for the effort required for correspondence and discussions. And she adds: “With the weak Arab publishing market that suffers from piracy chaos, no Arab house can pay on the cover, as a foreign publishing house can. Out of every 10 books in translation, barely 3 titles sell well. Of every 20 new Arabic books that are printed, we know in advance that one or two titles, and no more, can reach the second edition.

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