In an exclusive interview with the Poetry News Agency, Director-General of the Syrian General Book Authority Mahmud Abdel Wahid talks about his authority’s mission and its ambitions for Syrian culture.
Interview by Ziad Myman
Sir, let me first welcome you on the pages of the Poetry News Agency. We need to learn some information about your authority: the date of its establishment and its early projects.
The authority came into being as a result of issuing Law No. 8. This law entitled it with the following responsibilities:
1- Distributing books in all cultural and scientific fields of knowledge, pushing the intellectual movement in Syria forward, encouraging reading-related activities, and improving the book industry in Syria.
2- Introducing Syrian readers to existing intellectual, cultural, and literary trends - were they local, Arab, or international - and raising national cultural tastes.
3- Offering the necessary impetus to writers, translators, publishers, and distributors of books to make the best cultural productions available to Syrians.
4- Raising readers’ cultural levels by presenting them with quality books and encouraging translation and writing to satisfy the needs of all classes of the Syrian society.
5- Advancing translation and writing to protect the Arabic language itself.
From this you can know that our authority is where everything related to culture and the publication and distribution of books is centred.
The authority came to replace two important Culture Ministry Departments, namely: the Writing and Translation Department and the Publications Department.
This puts many challenges on our way. At least we need to compensate for the absence of these two important departments properly.
The staff of the authority seeks to put the policy of the Culture Ministry to effect, particularly in relation to ushering in low-priced books everywhere in Syria. Our aim is not financial profit, but rather encouraging reading and spreading culture.
That is why we sell books at prices less than their real cost. We sell our magazines and periodicals at almost a quarter or a third of their actual cost.
We even distribute some books for free, such as the Baath, which we co-publish with the Baath newspaper and Osama, a children‘s book, which we co-publish with Osama magazine.
The Book Authority produces 200 books every year and ten regular monthly and biweekly magazines. Our publications cover a wide range of public interest. A look at the titles can show this clearly. Here we have publications, such as Osama, which targets children, Knowledge, which focuses on a mix of intellectual, literary and political issues, Shurufat (Windows), an artistic magazine, Science fiction, and Bridges.
As for our books, they focus on a wide range of literary, intellectual, social, and scientific issues too.
We aim to reach the simplest reader in the farthest sport in Syria. We keep an eye on the majority of the readers. We target libraries that are frequented by thousands of readers.
We provide a huge network of cultural centres, around 465 centres, with books. These centres are spread out across the nation. We also put our publications in state-run libraries, such as the Assad Library, and the libraries of professional syndicates.
The authority distributes more books than any other local publisher does. Our prices are lower than those of the other publishers. We print a thousand copies of each book. More than two thirds of this amount of books goes to the aforementioned public libraries. We take a big portion of these books to local and international fairs. We give the remaining part bookstores and other outlets.
The General Book Authority is an important agency that enriches Arab libraries with numerous books and publications. Do the books you publish have to meet particular standards?
We publish good books regardless of whether the writer is a big name or a small one. Quality is our only standard for publishing books. But generally speaking, we select books that target a big number of readers. This is one reason why we do not publish strictly scientific or professional books. These books can go to specialised publishers.
Do you publish the books of Syrian writers only?
No, we publish books from around the whole Arab world.
You participate in local and international fairs. Do you meet competition from other publishers?
We have never focused on competition. Ours is a cultural authority affiliated to the Ministry of Culture. We put the policies of the ministry to effect with no regard to profit. I do not think we cause any disruption to the business of private publishers. They have their own books which are widely read too.
Your authority holds an annual book fair, titled “Culture for All”. This fair has presence in all Syrian cultural centres. It is an occasion when books are sold for low prices. My question is: do readers frequent these fairs in big numbers? How many titles do you put in them? By organising these fairs, do you mean to put the biggest number of publications in the market?
Like I said before, the Book Authority is not profit-oriented. This makes it normal for us to take part in several fairs and present major discounts on books. This of course attracts a big number of people.
How does the process of publishing a book go?
Books are usually presented to a specialised committee of experts who decide whether to publish them or not. If the experts okay the book, this book goes straight to the printing machines. It is as simple as that.
You managed to make successes as far as electronic books are concerned. How do you settle on the titles in this regard?
We post all the publications of our authority on our website. This is part of our Electronic Book Project.
Apart from this, we post on our website books that do not find big reader interest, including collections of poetry, stories, and books of public heritage.
We managed recently to get the right to publish the celebrated ‘Oh Money of the Levant’ trilogy of the noted writer Siham Torgoman. The trilogy will be available on our website soon.
What are your future dreams?
The staff of the authority works hard to turn authority periodical magazines into the digital form. This will include the early issues of these magazines. We will upload these magazines on the website of the authority so that every body can read them.
We have already made Shurufat Al-Sham (Windows of the Levant) and Musical life digital. The other magazines will follow suit. We will put these magazines on DVDs and distribute them for free.
We have almost prepared a children’s magazine called Shama. It will go hand in hand with Osama. We will launch a third children’s magazine soon. But this one will target older children.
Yesterday, I received the test copies of three books written in Braille. This is a new field that we step into for the first time. It is important because it has human dimensions to it.
Sir, at the end of this interview, I would like to thank you and wish you all the best.