Monday, July 06, 2009

The 'Bookseller of Kabul' goes international
06.07.09 Catherine Neilan writing in The Bookseller

The real-life bookseller of Kabul Rais Shah Muhammad has signed a deal to sell books into the UK and beyond, including his own memoir of life in Afghanistan, penned as a riposte to Asne Seierstad's 2003 bestselling The Bookseller of Kabul.

Muhammad is both a bookseller and a publisher, and operates three shops - and one mobile shop - in the Afghan capital selling English and local-language titles. The bookseller has signed a deal with Raymond McLennan, managing director of Indian distributor Motilal Books, to bring between 200 and 500 of his locally-published titles to the UK.

The deal was brokered after the pair met at the Frankfurt Book Fair. McLennan said: "The books will cover all subjects - cookery, history, politics, a little bit of fiction and poetry, maps, as well as cultural studies and contemporary NGO publications. We even have a few children's titles - Afghani stories."
Muhammad, who has been imprisoned twice by the Communists and once by the Taliban, is drawing inspiration from how the foreign military presence in Afghanistan has affected his sales. Since the displacement of the Taliban government in 2001, there has been "a 180 degree change" with schools and universities opening up and the arrival of 35,000 foreigners, creating an economy that previously had not existed.
He told The Bookseller: "Journalists, government officials, spies, NGOs - they all wanted information on Afghanistan." He now supplies 12 universities, 300 secondary schools and 1,500 primary schools. But the 90,000 troops provide his biggest source of income, with bestsellers including the "coffee table" books he brings in from Thames & Hudson.

The shops are now staffed by 26 people, including his two sons.The single bestselling title "by far" is his own book Once Upon A Time There Was a Bookseller of Kabul, Muhammad's "response" to Seierstad's book, which he refuses to discuss—he once tried to have it banned in Seierstad's native Norway. "It's [Once Upon . . .] selling like hot cakes," he said, describing it as "a mixture of fiction and reality – not just my reality, Afghanistan's reality". This title is among those Muhammad and McLennan are planning to bring to the UK.

McLennan said he would be approaching groups like Blackwell's, Dawson, Starkman to gauge interest, and he would put the more commercial titles with Bertrams and Gardner, and everything would go on McLennan said he would assess the first 200 titles on a "book-by-book basis" to ensure saleability. The plan is to have the "best commercial titles" available by the beginning of September.
McLennan added: "I want to support his bravery and fortitude. Booksellers here in the UK are concerned about the economy of selling books - but we all take the freedom of selling books for granted."

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