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From Local Roots, to Global Reads — An Interview with kotobli

by Ibrahim Fawzy

In the cacophonous sea of new technologies and the burgeoning literary platforms such as Goodreads, YouTube, Book Twitter, and BookTok, the spaces for book recommendations have become utterly overwhelming. However, at the same time, there’s a lot that isn’t being talked about. To fill the gaps in representation and give Southwest Asia and North Africa (SWANA) authors the chance to be discovered, read, and loved, kotobli was launched in March 2022.

kotobli is a book discovery platform and database for authors, books, publishers, and literary magazines from the SWANA region and its diaspora. It aims to challenge existing algorithms and digital economies that track similar readers by implementing anti-colonial recommendation algorithms. On kotobli, the recommendation algorithm looks at genres and topics, giving opportunities for readers to find their next great read based on their preferences. Rowayat’s editorial assistant, Ibrahim Fawzy, ran this interview with the brilliant minds behind the scenes in kotobli. They talked about kotobli’s genesis and journey, amplifying literary production from the SWANA region, digital publishing in the Arab world, and more. 

To start off, what inspired you to create kotobli? Can you describe some of the challenges you’ve encountered throughout the process of collecting book information to populate your platform?

kotobli started as a passion project and became the ever growing referential platform that it is today, because a few avid book readers wanted to learn more about our own Levantine culture and were struggling to find interesting books beyond mainstream recommendations. We started kotobli because we needed a well-indexed and comprehensive database of books published in Lebanon and the Southwest Asia and North Africa (SWANA) region. We started by curating lists based on our own interests, but we didn’t want to do this alone; we wanted to work within a community of book lovers. So, kotobli quickly expanded to include authors, publishers, and literary magazines. This allowed us to populate our database, discover more books, and put together new lists.

Our biggest challenge has been collecting the information of some books in Arabic that were never digitized, are hard to find, or even out of print. In those instances, we try our best to find those books, get in touch with their publishers, and manually add this information to our website. In some cases, this process turns out to be more or less straightforward: the publisher either adds their publications’ metadata through our simple content management system; or a member of our team visits the publisher’s bookstore to copy the needed information. Sometimes, the task is harder if publishers have now shut their door, so we go on a hunt for an old book in second hand bookstores (this is how we found Layla Baalbaki’s Ana Ahya after reading about it in an academic paper).

You’ve mentioned in your vision that kotobli aims to help “reading enthusiasts explore different ideas, events, and cultures through the literary and artistic works of local authors and diverse experts.” How does kotobli effectively facilitate this exploration for readers?

We try to offer multiple ways to explore new books to fit the needs of every type of reader. 

If you’re the type that likes going down rabbit holes, we have three types of exploration pages: the geography pages where you can find authors, publishers, magazines, books, and reading lists from and about one country; the topic pages where you can find books and lists based on broadly defined topics (such as politics) or more niche ones (like the Beirut Decentrists); and finally genre pages, which are pretty self-explanatory. In each exploration page, there is a set of filters to help readers refine their search. For example, they can choose a range for the publication date or the author’s gender. Each page also links to several others, so you can start on Politics and end up on Dar Atlas.

If you like reading more of the same, our algorithm recommends “similar books” on each book page you open. This is done based on genre, topic, and geography.

For those who like more directed recommendations, we recently added a “Discover” feature to our homepage, and it cycles through authors, publishers, and literary magazines from the SWANA region, specifically those who claimed their kotobli profiles so far. 

And of course, there’s our most famous feature: the curated lists. Each month or so, our team or a guest collaborator puts together a list of five to thirty books about a particular issue. We’ve tackled the Lebanese Civil War, Sudanese Novels through Time, and Palestine in YA Arabic Literature, among many other topics. And sometimes, the lists are centered on lighter, fun features like books that have dedicated Spotify playlists.

Last but not least, for the chronically online, we regularly post on our social media platforms lists based on the season, a national day, Fairuz’s Amara ya Amara-inspired book list, and many other shenanigans.

Now, moving on to your mission, you emphasize “filling gaps in representation and historical context in mainstream book discovery platforms.” How does kotobli plan to achieve this mission, especially in terms of centering the work of lesser-known authors and small indie publishers from the Southwest Asia/North Africa (SWANA) region?

We do this by offering our platform to publishers and literary magazines from the region while taking into consideration that we want smaller presses, indie magazines, emerging authors and translators to be as visible on the website as those who are more widely recognized in the SWANA region or abroad. We’ve been systematically reaching out to organizations and people to claim their profiles and be highlighted on our website and social media accounts, as well as featured in our curated lists. In terms of historical context, we try to highlight subjects, genres, and countries which are relatively marginalized within Arab circles through our lists. We always accompany these with explanatory introductions and resources such as podcasts, articles, and reviews.

We’ve been talking to different people involved in the literary world to see what exact features they want to see more of, so that we can build the site in a way that is responsive to everyone’s needs and aspirations. We’ve also observed a growing interest in literary criticism and book reviews.

We moved in that direction first with Yara El Murr’s newsletter and YouTube interview with pascale ghazaly, author and illustrator of Rehlat el Bahth ‘an May about the process of researching and writing about May Ziade’s life, the importance of feminist and oral storytelling, and common misconceptions about Ziade’s life and work. For our latest newsletter, Salam Jabbour reviewed the Canadian-based publisher, trace press’s recent release River in an Ocean on the intersections between translation as a creative and social-political project. The book examines translations into and from different languages of the Global South as well as English, and it helped us re-examine how we’d want to spotlight non-Arabic books from the SWANA region in the future (e.g., Kurdish, Turkish, Urdu). We hope to continue doing similar interviews and reviews, whether by the kotobli team or guest writers, to provide comprehensive recommendations and foster a deeper literary engagement with a diverse range of books.

Collaboration between kotobli and small publishers seems to be a core objective. Could you share more details about how your notable project “Daleel el Nashririn (The Publishers’ Guide), supported by Culture Resource, benefits both the publishers and your platform readers?

Our collaboration with publishers is a crucial part of what we do. Last year, we launched “Daleel el Nashirin” (The Publisher’s Guide), a project through which we invite publishers from the SWANA region to join kotobli and showcase their catalogs online. We set out to focus on small, local publishers who don’t have their own website and who would benefit most from having their own webpage on our platform. For example, Snoubar Bayrout in Lebanon and Dar Atlas in Syria were among the first publishers to claim a page on kotobli. On one hand, we added all their publications, information on where to buy them, and of course, their bios, logos, and locations. On the other hand, we provided access to a content management system (CMS) that is safe, simple, and bilingual. Through the CMS, publishers (as well as authors and literary magazines) can control their profile on kotobli: they can edit their biographies, pictures, book information, and they can also see useful statistics on how many visitors looked at their books, which topics are trending, etc. 

This simple, safe, and free service allowed publishers who don’t have the financial or human resources to manage their own sites to have a strong digital presence and an interactive catalog that can be easily accessed and updated.

Surprisingly, publishers who do have a website already also became interested in joining kotobli in order to bring more traffic to their publications. For instance, Dar Al Saqi and Saqi books both have a page on kotobli that links back to their respective websites. This helps them be discovered by kotobli readers on our own exploration pages, lists, and in our newsletter and social media shoutouts.

For readers, this collaboration means access to a clean, up to date, well-indexed virtual catalog, the occasional excerpts, reviews and interviews, and of course, the chance to stumble on valuable hidden gems.

In a recent interview with Alex Tan on Asymptote, you mentioned that kotobli’s “team has been debating the usefulness of including community reviews,” so you intentionally excluded community reviews. How can readers engage with the content on kotobli and actively participate in promoting cultural diversity? Are there any specific ways they can contribute to promoting cultural diversity and supporting your mission?

Quick aside: we’ve excluded community reviews so far, because we don’t want to just replicate already existing features on the Internet, with all their limitations. 

We’re still thinking through a model of community reviews that isn’t solely based on marketing strategies, where readers can engage with each other as they think through the book, and can write honest reviews without the constant watchful and scrutinizing eye of the author or publisher (more books should be panned as mediocre, and that’s okay!). A recent article voiced some of the conversations we’ve internally had around book discovery platforms within the Anglophone book market. As kotobli collaborates with both publishers and readers, we have to be cautious and mindful of these conversations before launching our own community reviews.

Until then, we encourage readers to browse through our website and see what books catch their eye. They can engage with our content by staying up to  date with our new features, collaborations, and events on Instagram, TikTok, Facebook, YouTube and Twitter, sign up to our newsletter, let us know via DMs or email what books they picked up because of us, or what books didn’t meet their expectations, or what they’d like to see more of. We’re always open to suggestions (whether that’s a feature you’d like to see on the website, a request for a reading list, or an invitation to collaborate with others).

You can also suggest books, authors, publishers, magazines to be added and/or curate your own list on kotobli. We’re just one email away. 

Readers have been most attracted to your curated lists. Could you tell us how you come up with ideas for categorizing these collections?

Yes! Lists are one of our favorite features on the website and it’s always exciting to be curating or hosting them. 

Sometimes, we put the lists together ourselves based on our personal interests or expertise (for example, our lists on non-western psychology came to life, because two of our members had researched this topic). We sometimes receive requests on social media or patreon, so we curate the list for our readers.

Lately, we’ve been receiving list curations from authors, writers, researchers, and book lovers who want to see a certain theme highlighted. We meet and discuss the list criteria, and then they send us their recommendations along with a short paragraph explaining their choices.

Our lists come in different sizes and can be either hyper-specific within a series or broad but featuring a limited number of books. For example, we have a series on the Lebanese Civil War, which includes a list on women’s perspectives, specifically the Beirut Decentrists (coined by Miriam Cooke), and we have a curation like the list of Sudanese novels in English translation across time, curated by Sudanese-American writer Razan Idris. Some lists are broad in both number and scope like the list of queer SWANA books.

In an interview with Essayed Taha on ArabLit, cofounder of kotobli Yara El Murr said, “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.” In your view, what is the future of digital publishing in the Arab world?

There are a lot of major developments in digital technologies that raise a lot of questions for the publishing world, especially with the rise of Artificial Intelligence (AI). As we pointed out in our article for GenderIT’s newest issue on “Algorithmic Anxieties and Feminist Futures in the MENA”, with the advent of ChatGPT and other similar tools, authors and artists now risk losing their jobs to tools that have likely been trained on their own writing and art —mostly without consent, credit, or compensation. On the other hand, we believe there could be an ethical way to “train” and use these tools. While we can’t foresee what lies ahead, we believe that it’s crucial for everyone in the publishing industry, from authors and illustrators to publishers, to engage in the ongoing discussions concerning AI.

On a less dramatic note, we see the rise of many new trends like self-publishing and decentralized publishing, and we feel there is so much space for innovation and reclaiming agency in the publishing process. 

Lastly, could you share some of your plans for the future of kotobli? Are there any upcoming projects, features, or partnerships that you’re particularly excited about?

We’re really excited about the launch of our first in-person book club in collaboration with Haven for Artists in Lebanon. One of our members, Mihad Haydar, will be taking readers through different Arabic books and texts by feminist authors from the region. In the lineup we have Iman Mersal, Fatima Mernissi, May Ziadeh, among others. We’ll be discussing the role of language and colonialism, motherhood under the patriarchal system, depression as a political issue, and the importance of feminist oral histories and feminist self-narratives to understand their historical dynamics. The book club will be meeting in person in Beirut every other Thursday over the next 6 months.  Sign up is still open here.

We’re also cooking up a partnership with Assabil municipal libraries in Beirut. We’ve observed that young adults have been very keen on us sharing where they can access public libraries —this warms our hearts. We’ve already curated a reading list for the Leila Miqdadi Qattan Library in Ramallah, and the books are almost always checked out! Hopefully we can also create dynamic experiences in different libraries across the region.

We’re generally always open to any suggestions regarding partnerships as well. If anyone has any crazy bookish ideas, our DMs and inboxes are open.  Finally, you can help sustain our project by donating to our Patreon or you can volunteer to help with our curations and social media.

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