Sharjah-based Alexander McNabb has steadfastly refused to let his tale languish, unread, despite numerous rejections.
One UAE author self-publishes to get his novel to the people
British journalist Paul Stokes is a man in dire jeopardy. After disgracing his career by writing a highly libellous article, he takes on a secondment working for the Jordanian government in Amman. However, he soon finds himself embroiled in the nation's bitter struggle with the Israelis over dwindling water supplies. With terrorist bombs exploding around him and ruthless secret agents trying to blackmail him, he's torn between either betraying his motherland or the woman he loves.
This is the premise of the novel Olives, tagline, "A Violent Romance", penned by the Sharjah-based author Alexander McNabb. Olives will actually launch its UAE print edition on December 10 at the TwingeDXB urban festival in Dubai; the online edition launches tonight at the Sharjah International Book Fair.
While the Middle Eastern political machinations of its plot may sound gripping, what makes an engaging story in itself is McNabb's dogged attempts to get his masterwork out to print.
Of course, if this was the world of fiction, Olives would have become a publishing sensation, been commissioned by Hollywood movie producers and made McNabb a tidy fortune.
But this is real life, and since he finished the book in 2005, it's been flatly rejected by around 250 literary agents and 12 publishers in the UK.
However, McNabb has steadfastly refused to let his tale languish, unread, instead opting to head down the self-publishing, e-book route. Last week Olives was given the all-clear by the UAE's National Media Council, paving the way for it to be printed and distributed in this country.
McNabb is a prominent media figure in the UAE, known for his outspoken blog, Fake Plastic Souks; radio hosting work on Dubai Eye; and as the founder of Geek Fest, a regular get-together for the social media community. Despite the constant brush-offs, he has never lost faith in his own ability as an author.
"What's kept me going is the positive reaction from the people who read my book," says the 47-year-old Briton. "A lot of them have said it's a great story and well written. Even the 12 publishers have said that 'this is like John LeCarre, it's a very high-quality book, this guy can obviously write, but it's not for us'."
"The thing is [UK publishers] are not interested in the wider issues in this region and they've said they don't see this having a natural resonance with the British reader. The fact that it's based in the Middle East and doesn't comfortably sit in any one genre makes it hard to market."
McNabb also blames the publishing system for the book's lack of success in England.
"Editors in publishing houses won't look at manuscripts unless represented by an agent," he explains. "Every one of the UK's literary agents will get between 40 and 100 manuscripts a day as submissions from would-be authors. So you're competing against thousands of people to get an agent, let alone get an editor to look at your book and invest money in printing it. With the financial crisis and the rise of e-books and Kindle, traditional publishing houses are just afraid to take risks."
In the six years since he finished Olives, he's finally grasped that there are other ways to get his work out in the public domain.
"I always thought that being signed by a major publisher could give me validation and scale. I've now realised, that as for scale, I can get more scale through social media marketing than would be offered to me by a UK publisher who's uncertain and unwilling to invest in a Middle East-based book. And as for validation - that comes from whether people read and like the book. And most people who've read it have been incredibly moved."
McNabb credits the personalisation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, especially through the character of Aisha, the sister of one of Paul Stokes's colleagues who becomes the object of his affections.
"It's been out to a lot of test readers and, somewhat oddly to me, is that it has found remarkable resonance with female readers," McNabb explains. "Women seem to identify with Aisha, particularly Arab women. Hers is a very typical story among Palestinian people. Her father grew up in the refugee camps in Jordan, moved to the Gulf in the 1970s and became a multimillionaire Arab businessman. Eventually he returned home, where he was killed by the Israelis in an air raid on his house in Gaza that was aimed at a Hamas man who happened to be in the same house.
"I've had a number of readers who've said to me 'I read Aisha's history and it was just like reading my own life story'."
McNabb has already penned a sequel to Olives, titled Beirut, and is midway through the third part of the trilogy.
Neither would he advise other budding authors to mimic his high levels of persistence in their struggles to find an publisher.
"I'd say no," he states. "I guess, 250 rejections is too much. I've learnt that now. By all means approach some agents, but top it out at 10. If all 10 reject you, go self-publishing."
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