Women in Publishing: Marketing Outside the Mainstream

This post originally appeared at the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair blog.

One of the liveliest and interesting professional programs of the week was “How Did You Do It?” a special Women in Publishing Business Lunch that focused on innovative marketing strategies implemented by two independent presses.

Rana Idress of Dar al Adab (founded in Lebanon in 1953) opened the session by talking about the censorship challenges she faces as the publisher of “controversial” titles. Many of her books have been banned in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere for the political views, sex scenes, and religious content included in her titles. Having one’s books banned is a pretty substantial challenge to overcome in order to get your books in hands of readers. And this is a very serious issue resulting in a host of complications: one of their authors had copies of his own books confiscated at a Saudi airport (this led to the Lebanese government seizing all of the copies, which were then promptly released because “it’s only sex”); Dar al Adab has problems being allowed to present their books at certain book fairs, or frequently end up with the smallest of the small booths; and a lot of their titles aren’t available in bookstores.

Rana put forth four concepts that have helped them be very successful over the years: creating trust among readers in what they publish, participate in as many book fairs as possible (in order to sell directly to the public), actively campaign against censorship by making explicit what books have been banned where and for what reasons, and actively engaging with enthusiastic and politically engaged booksellers who might sell your books in the back alley (so to speak).

These sort of “reader-centric” practices were echoed in Urvashi Butalia’s presentation. Urvashi is co-founder and publisher of Zubaan Books in New Delhi, the first feminist publishing company in India. And furthermore, she is the founder of the Indian chapter of Women in Publishing. In contrast to Rana, Urvashi doesn’t face many censorship problems, but she does have a hard time distributing her books (a common theme among Indian and Arabic publishers) and has implemented a number of “reader-centric” activities to help her titles to find more readers.

A great story she told was about Know Your Body a guide written by village women to present information about the female body. (Quick side story: When the authors were putting this book together and showing it around, they got a lot of complaints regarding the illustration of the naked female body included in the book. Villagers said that this drawing “wasn’t realistic” because you never saw naked women. To get around this, the women designed a “pop-up” sort of construction featuring a clothed woman–and clothed man–and a tab with which you could “flip up” their clothes and see what’s underneath.) These women brought the book to Zubaan and asked them to publish it. They did, and the women authors went out to a number of villages to present the book to other women who might be interested. Before it was even available, Zubaan had sold out its first printing, and now over 60,000 copies have been sold, and not one of those copies was sold through a bookstore.

Zubaan is also very active online and via Facebook, and has established a “Words of Women” monthly reading and conversation series featuring a different woman author each month–sometimes the speaker is published by Zubaan, sometimes she’s from another publisher. All of these activities have led to the situation in which a number of enthusiastic readers go into Indian bookstores to pester the booksellers about when the next Zubaan title will be available. These fans are buying books not based on the book or the review or anything else, but on the fact that they know what to expect from Zubaan.

Kitab is trying to help facilitate the creation of a Women in Publishing chapter in the Arab world (although they can’t put the whole thing together themselves). Urvashi described some of the activities of the Indian chapter, which has monthly meetings in which to exchange information or listen to a guest speaker, and an annual party sponsored by two women who own both a bookstore and hotel chain. Based on her presentation it’s clear that the WIP chapters are extremely useful, and a great opportunity to create a network of publishing women who can share information about how to publish/market outside of the mainstream.

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