By Elizabeth Lepro, photos by Ahmad El-Nemr and Elizabeth Lepro| This story appeared in the Spring 2018 edition of AUCToday.
The beginning of a 1995 written history of AUC Press puts it plainly: “The growth of the Press over the last 35 years has been neither smooth nor steady.”
Bearing down initially through the trials of working with outdated machinery and paper and ink shortages, and consistently through tough economics and political upheaval, AUC Press has endured a storied history in its persistent pursuit of sharing stories.
Current Director Nigel Fletcher-Jones came to Cairo post-revolution in 2012.
“I had a number of things to deal with, not the least that essentially the market for books had simply disappeared in Egypt, almost overnight,” the British-born director said, echoing many AUC Press directors who have arrived with a mission to reinvigorate the publishing house after turmoil.
Yet, AUC Press has grown.
A little more than 20 years ago, AUC Press boasted 140 printed works in total, catered to a majority Egyptian readership and had only one location outside of Tahrir. Today, it prints up to 60 books per year, with plans to grow to 80 annually. Fletcher-Jones takes advantage of technological advancement to reach a widening audience, and — in the last several years — AUC Press has expanded well beyond University gates.
The most recent successes of AUC Press include creating the Hoopoe fiction imprint in 2016, opening a permanent bookstand at the Egyptian Museum and appearing in Amazon’s brick and mortar pop-up shop in Manhattan. Two of its books were internationally recognized as distinguished works of 2016, and three received PROSE Awards in 2017.
These accolades represent the resilience of the publishing house as an institution dedicated, despite the odds, to bringing Egypt and the Middle East to the world.
At the time of its creation by AUC’s Board of Trustees in 1960, AUC Press was made up of two staff members. In one room, an Al Ahram editorial executive and his assistant, a journalism professor at AUC, labored over the production of K.A.C. Creswell’s A Bibliography of the Architecture, Arts, and Crafts of Islam. The next few directors of AUC Press were also journalism professors, and the institution’s main function was to disseminate University research.
As AUC Press worked extensively with the University’s New York Office, it became an integral part of the tenuous bridge connecting AUC with North America. Tenuous because in 1967, Egypt broke diplomatic relations with the United States over its support of Israel in the Arab-Israeli War. The upheaval reduced tourism and affected national economics — two factors that typically sent the success of AUC Press nose-diving.
There was one positive outcome to the political situation: The U.S. Embassy and Cairo American College donated a new paper cutter, a Davidson printer, a camera, a Varityper headliner and other small fundamentals. AUC Press rattled on.
Two years later, Mason Rossiter Smith, a publisher and journalist from the United States, took over as director. Released from the obligation to also teach journalism courses, he took AUC Press beyond its usual borders, sending exhibits to global book fairs and conferences in Europe and the Americas. A book list from this time describes a number of available titles in philosophy and religion, art and architecture, history and English-language learning.
By 1974, several years of conflict in the region meant tourism had once again taken a hit. Imports were low, unemployment was high and exports were only beginning to increase. Director John Rodenbeck said his main objective was “keeping the [AUC] Press alive at all.”
The Naguib Mahfouz Legacy
Neil Hewison, who spent 30 years as an editor at AUC Press before retiring last year, remembers getting a mysterious call from Sweden in 1988:
“Hi, can you please tell us how to get in touch with Naguib Mahfouz?’”
The beloved Egyptian novelist had won the 1988 Nobel Prize for Literature, a turn that neither AUC Press, which owned the rights to translations of his work, nor the author himself anticipated. “It was a surprise to him, and we certainly weren’t expecting it,” said Hewison.
By the late 1980s, what was once a tiny, struggling Egyptian publishing house was blossoming. The late German-born Mark Linz, two-time director of AUC Press, oversaw an expansion that included hiring new staff members, moving to roomier headquarters and doubling production. Other well-known writers coming out of AUC Press publications at the time included Yusuf Idris, Taha Hussein, Nayra Atiya and Tawfiq al-Hakim.
“There was a great sense of excitement and certainly optimism when Naguib Mahfouz won,” Hewison said. “Perhaps we all, or many of us, thought over-optimistically that this would throw open the doors of Arabic literature to the world. What it did, of course, was throw open the doors of Naguib Mahfouz to the world.”
Mahfouz became an international literary phenomenon. His books now appear in 40 languages, amassing somewhere near 600 editions — all either published or licensed by AUC Press.
The late author’s earnest and fond descriptions of everyday Egyptians offered an impactful lens into the country’s reality. This is a mission that AUC Press has always shared, according to Fletcher-Jones: “to try as best as we can, but in a very small way, to represent what the realities are about life and history in the Middle East.”
Best-selling AUC Press books 1960-2018:
Technology and Future Expansion
By the 1990s, there was a sense of excitement at the publishing house, buoyed by a healthy flow of tourism to and interest in Egypt. AUC Press doubled the number of books it published per year.
But success was always tempered, warned Hewison, tied to the ever-changing heart-rate monitor of Egypt. When militants killed 62 people in Luxor at Deir el-Bahari in 1997, “I remember particularly an almost immediate effect on not just the book market for us, but on the whole economy of the country,” Hewison said.
At the same time, a 1996 AUC Press newsletter featured the new electronic publishing editor discussing the promise of the internet, while AUC Press expanded its genres, adding more nationalities of authors and making international partnerships with other universities.
In 2007, the AUC Press online shop launched, allowing sales to continue even if tourism dipped, though roughly 80 percent of its sales were still within Egypt.
Nowadays, with the proliferation of technology and social media, Fletcher-Jones sees an everlasting audience in what he calls “armchair Egyptologists,” people without Egyptology degrees who have a passion for learning about Egypt’s history. On a public Facebook page under his name, Fletcher-Jones interacts with nearly 4,000 armchair Egyptologists all over the world.
“On social media, we can continue to generate communities,” he said. “With the rise of technology and Amazon, it no longer matters where in the world you are publishing from.”
A more singular focus on fiction has also defined change in the last decade, said Jody Baboukis, interim managing editor at AUC Press. The Hoopoe fiction imprint features authors from across the Middle East. Some of Hoopoe’s popular novels include The Televangelist (Egypt), Whitefly (Morocco) and the winner of this year’s Naguib Mahfouz Medal for Literature Mukhmal, or Velvet (Palestine).
Despite finding success in fiction and social media, AUC Press knows it owns a niche no other publishing house can usurp: Egyptology. It recently made a substantial donation of books on Egyptology and Egyptian archaeology to the Shafik Gabr Foundation for distribution to schools around Cairo, Egypt’s Ministry of Antiquities, Theban Mapping Project in Luxor and Amarna Project library in Tell el-Amarna.
In 2020, AUC Press will celebrate its diamond jubilee, with 60 years of success, and AUC Press Bookstores will celebrate their 35th anniversary. Throughout the past decades, AUC Press has remained true to its brand.
“We aren’t a huge, comprehensive academic publisher like Oxford University Press or Routledge. We specialize in what’s closest to us and what we know best,” said Baboukis. “We’re the largest English-language book publisher in the Middle East, and both our fiction and nonfiction books regularly win international publishing and translation awards. Clearly, we’re doing something right.”