Author Kamal Abdel Malek is confident his debut fiction novel Come With Me From Jerusalem is going to do well.
But the Egyptian professor of Arabic literature at the American University in Dubai says his confidence is not because “I am full of myself”, but because his story of star-crossed lovers caught up in the Arab-Israeli conflict is topical, and he has already sold the film rights to one of the novel’s chapters.
While it is a controversial topic for an Egyptian to focus his first creative writing efforts on, Abdel Malek believes an Arab voice exploring the subject will boost sales of the book, released this month.
“There is something very heartwarming about love and I do not know of any work of fiction written by an Arab where the main character is Jewish,” says the academic, who started writing the novel three years ago, securing a publisher in the United States last October.
Such is his belief in the success of his debut novel, the 60-year-old hopes to leave the world of academia and live off the proceeds of his writing.
“It’s not like I need to pay the mortgage. I can retire and live a good life by Egyptian standards – not in London or New York – but in Alexandria, where I have a couple of apartments,” says Abdel Malek, who will feature at next month’s Emirates Festival of Literature in Dubai.
The writer understands he has the “luxury” to make that choice because he is coming towards the end of his career and has savings behind him. But for many writers in the UAE, quitting work is simply not possible.
“I haven’t met an author yet who has made money from writing books here,” says the festival’s director, Isobel Abulhoul.
This is the fifth year of Dubai’s literature festival, which kicks off on March 5 and will feature 120 writers, almost half from the UAE.
With so many locally based authors appearing at the event and even more aspiring writers expected at the dozens of seminars and workshops on offer, the UAE writing scene appears busy.
But ask a writer whether they earn a decent living from their craft and the story changes.
“They have a day job and writing is their passion, and they just hope they will have enough courage to quit and write that bestseller. We know that, like being an Olympic champion, there are only a few who ever reach that,” Abulhoul says.
“To make money from books you have got to sell a lot or you have got to have it made into a film; that is when you start to earn royalties that are sizeable. Writing is just a hobby if you are not in that category.”
Alexander McNabb, the British author of Olives, published in 2011, and last year’s Beirut, says the return a writer receives from the hours they put in is “simply not worth it”.
“It is unlucky if you think you are going to buy that 50-metre luxury yacht from your first book, which is what I discovered. I thought Olives was a bestseller but I was a naive fool,” says McNabb, 48, also the director of a technology public relations company, Spot On PR.
He began writing fiction in 2001 believing he would be published imminently but 100 rejection letters later he knew he would not be quitting work any time soon.
“Living off wild proceeds does not happen anymore. I have had conversations with people who have gone off to Sri Lanka for a year to write their novel and I have been crying inside because I do not want to burst their bubble. They are setting themselves up for an enormous fall. It really is a lottery.”
American writer Liz Fenwick, who has lived in Dubai with her oil executive husband since 2007, began writing fiction in 2004 and, as a full-time mother to three children, aged 13, 20 and 21, says she was not expecting to outstrip her husband’s income.
“When advances are quoted, it sounds like a decent amount of money but you do not get that in one go – it comes to you in chunks,” says Fenwick, who secured a two-book contract with a UK publisher last year.
“When you spread an advance out over four years or five it does not add up to a tin of beans and it is certainly not enough to live on.”
Her romance novels focus on Cornwall in the UK, where she has a home, with her first novel The Cornish House published last year and A Cornish Affair due for release this May.
Where Fenwick, 49, does secure extra income is through foreign-rights deals in Germany, Holland, Portugal and Norway.
While the income could not support her family “in any shape or form”, she considers it more of a pension.
“Our plan is not to touch my writing income right now. It is there as a lump sum and if my career continues and I manage a book a year, it is there for us later,” she says.
Abdel Malek is already earning “a decent income” from books thanks to a number of published non-fiction works in Arabic and English, including the well-documented American in an Arab Mirror, which brings in a lump sum in royalties every six months.
He directs this towards his eldest daughter, Amira, 25, who studies in British Columbia in Canada.
“My younger daughter, Laila, is 22 and has special needs and because of Laila’s experience, Amira decided to specialise in special-needs education, so the money is helping to finance her education and this gives me enormous joy,” says Abdel Malek.
Neither he nor Fenwick considered publishing in the UAE first.
“It is a small market,” says Fenwick. “Let’s say I published here, I am probably looking at sales totalling my first print-run of The Cornish House unless it was translated into Arabic.
“Even so, I cannot imagine that would increase the readership substantially, particularly for the type of book I am writing.
“If I was writing a non-fiction book on cookery or expat life, that would be a different story because there would be a strong market for it.”
Narain Jashanmal, general manger of Jashanmal Books, which helps local authors distribute their work to regional book shops, airports and supermarkets, says even international authors struggle to sell big here.
“One common misconception that ought to be challenged is what constitutes successful sales volumes in our markets: we are talking hundreds of copies, not thousands and certainly not tens of thousands,” he says.
“Even books by top-tier international authors typically only sell in the mid-thousands locally. Of course there are exceptions.
“If local authors can crack the low hundreds they ought to consider that an achievement.”
That is not to say the locally-based authors do not need the local market. Abdel Malek has printed 1,000 books to distribute here and Fenwick’s publisher also ensured her novel was in local stores.
“There is the huge bonus of being a local author; the stores here will stock a debut author where they normally would not bother and I have done book signings here,” says Fenwick, who adds that the UAE connection also raises a writer’s profile.
“I have done more press here than in the UK but anything I did here was looked upon as an advantage; it is building up the CV so if I have done women’s magazines here, it helps for approaching the magazines in the UK and the Dubai association makes me more interesting to the rest of the world.”
While both Fenwick and Abdel Malek prefer traditional publishing, many UAE-based authors find the best way to get their voice heard is to self-publish.
This is the route McNabb chose, who, despite having an agent, tired of rejection letters from UK publishers.
“Traditional publishing was offering me two things: validation as a writer and scale. I thought ‘well I have got an agent so that gives me validation and publishing is no longer giving scale’.
“You used to get advances of £100,000 (Dh 556,000) now you are lucky if you get £10,000,” says McNabb, who receives up to 70 per cent for his e-book sales compared with the 10 to 20 per cent publishers offer.
“Margins are under such pressure and it seemed that an author of spy-intrigue thrillers in the Middle East was not going to get anywhere. I might as well go and find my readership myself.”
McNabb self-publishes via e-books and print-on-demand schemes that send published copies directly to readers.
To tap into the local market, however, he had to print his own copies, spending about Dh10,000 to print 2,000 copies of his own book.
“Up until then it had not cost me a penny apart from the cost of an editor,” says McNabb, who has sold about 600 copies, 300 of those locally.
“That 600 that is an important number for me because 98 per cent of books in print sell fewer than 500 copies globally, so I am in the top 2 per cent, but it was never going to make me hugely rich.
“My thinking was always that if I can get a readership here then you can start to translate that into the UK but it is kind of difficult breaking into the UK based in Dubai.
“What can happen is that a book can bumble along at the bottom and then suddenly skyrocket, so you do not have to signed by a major label to get your voice out there. It is about finding your audience, building up a relationship with them and writing multiple books.”
Ultimately though, it seems writing is more of a labour of love than a money-spinning exercise.
“Definitely,” says Abulhoul. “Artists such as Picasso did it because they were driven and it was something they could not live without and with writers that is often the same.”