Dealing in dreams: how to set up an indie publisher on the edge of a desert

Working from home: Kira Jean; founder and CEO of The Dreamwork Collective

When writers dream of getting published, initial fantasies usually take the form of massive advances from an international publishing house plus hints about a tidy little film deal. Tilda Swinton and Keanu Reeves for the leads? Samuel L Jackson in a cameo role as grumpy old man? Idris Elba and Emma Stone as the couple who turn up unexpectedly that windy night in November? Yes, it could happen …

… But it probably won’t. And because of the popular assumption that getting published necessarily means getting in with the big players – the superagents, the publishing conglomerates, the studios with their options on your precious work – it is all too easy to overlook the benefits, not to mention the pragmatism, of signing with an independent publisher. Yes, the operation will be smaller, and so it may not have the potential impact or the reach of the big boys. But you’ll get the benefits of going small – the personal attention, the flexibility, the knowledge that your project isn’t going to be dwarfed by the arrival of a new manuscript from Kazuo Ishiguro or another volume of household tips from the Real Housewives of South Bend.

A few short years ago, UAE-based authors would be forgiven if they didn’t immediately consider their local independent publisher first. The concept didn’t really exist here: state sponsorship meant that there were some publishing projects with a very specific remit, but independence in publishing was unknown. And then a local coach decided to make it easier for people to bring local and untold stories to life.

Encouraging local stories is the personal mission of Kira Jean, founder of The Dreamwork Collective. The idea for the publishing house (and the ensuing career change) when a friend passed away, shortly after telling Kira that she regretted not having published her stories. So Kira founded The Dreamwork Collective.

That was in 2017. For the past four years, Kira and her team have been looking for publishable stories that they themselves would like to read. As a result, the titles that the house has brought to bookshelves range from the whimsical to the inspiring – from Bashayer Arif’s The Secret Life of Dubai Streetcats, a charming tale of “friendship, forgiveness and feline frenzy” relayed by three street cats exploring the city, to a woman’s spiritual journey in Big Little Steps by Mathilde Loujayne (“a fresh, feminist perspective suitable for anyone with a desire to learn more about the modern machinations of Islam”).

Publishing in the 21st century is not an easy business. There are a lot of books out there – in the US alone there are around 20 million books in print, with more than four million new titles joining them each year (nearly half of them self-published). Yet total sales are declining around the world; anecdotally, we don’t buy or read as many books as we used to. Large conglomerates working on low margins and massive volumes (we’re looking at you, Amazon) have squeezed out independent publishers and booksellers around the world.

So how does a small publisher succeed in such a potential grim world? The answer for The Dreamwork Collective has been to focus on quality, to be very selective in producing extraordinary books that people actually want to read. Dreamwork has 13 books in print and aims to publish only a handful each year; Kira says the team “takes its time to find the most amazing books possible”.

magpie chatted with Kira Jean to learn more …

magpie: Tell us a bit about yourself, Kira.

Kira Jean: I’m from Tasmania, Australia, and I’ve been here in Dubai for eight years. I trained as a child and family therapist, moved on to become a yoga instructor and coach, and currently I work as a success coach as well as the founder of The Dreamwork Collective.

magpie: So where did your interest in literature come from?

KJ: That’s a really good question. I think it would be my mum; she loves books. I grew up reading books at a very young age and was definitely into the written word. My mum encouraged that; so I was always reading everything and anything I could get my hands on. But the books I can remember from my childhood that were really influential for me were Matilda by Roald Dahl and Ann Martin’s Baby-Sitters Club series.

When I reflect on both of those now, I see why they were so meaningful to me at that age. I was definitely entrepreneurial as a young kid and The Baby-Sitters Club in particular struck a chord with me – the incredible idea that you could create something working with your friends. That was what first gave me the understanding that I could do work I enjoyed.

As for Matilda, that really spoke to me personally. The main character is the outsider whose love of books and knowledge is not appreciated. I really connected to that when I was young.

magpie: And how did Dreamwork come about?

KJ: The Dreamwork Collective really started when I was a coach. I had the name in my mind and I thought I would maybe use it for an event title or coaching programme. But at the time I had a close friend who was very ill, and in a message to me she said she was regretting having not pursued her own dreams of writing a book and publishing her own work – she’d been working for big brands as a successful copywriter, but hadn’t really followed any of her own personal ambitions. It was a few months after I received that message from her that she passed away.

This really lit a fire in me – to not hold back, to publish my own work and stories. So I set about writing and self-published a book here in the UAE in 2014.

Not many people had done this before, and a lot of people were asking me ’How did you do it?’ I found myself coaching people through that process. The business grew from there. It became a mission of mine to not see anybody else die with a book still inside them.

magpie: How literal is the company’s name — is it actually a collective? Does it deal in dreams?

We definitely do deal in dreams. I think many people have a dream of writing a book one day; we try to make that dream as accessible as possible.

I like to say that I am building a company that doesn’t allow for any excuses. If somebody comes to us and says they don’t have enough time or they are too young, too old, whatever it might be, we have an answer.

And I would say, yes, we are a collective. We are still growing, but we are always striving to be a bigger and better, more supportive community. We really focus on the community element of our business. It’s not easy for anyone to put their sense of purpose or passion ahead of the many things that are competing for their attention. So through the collective aspect of the business, we aim to be a supportive space for people to come together to achieve their dream.

One of challenges I faced when opening the business was that the publishing industry in the UAE, particularly in terms of publishing globally and selling into the book trade, was relatively small. This meant that finding talent was quite difficult. I committed to finding the best talent possible. From the beginning I wanted to share stories from this region with the rest of the world, and in order to do that I knew I needed people from different markets that we would be selling into. So the team is based all over the world, operating remotely team since our beginnings in 2017. So the only silver lining for us when the pandemic hit was that we had already set up the business in a way that can cope with the lockdowns and stay connected.

It was had to launching a business in the UAE in 2017 with an innovative approach to publishing. We had difficulties with licensing, distribution, and even getting people to accept that our team was working remotely from locations across the globe. But since the pandemic, our business model has become the norm for many.

Another side effect of the Coronavirus has been an increase in the number of submissions over the last year. The pandemic seems to have impacted the time that everybody has, or perhaps has focussed their priorities. Either way, it appears that more people have found time to write in the last year than ever before. People seem to be prioritising their creative expression and doing their dream work – the stuff that matters to them and is purposeful.

magpie: There must be a lot of would-be authors out there. Where do yours come from? How do they find you?

KJ: Our authors generally come to us through word-of-mouth recommendations – it’s so rewarding when our authors share the experience they’ve had with us. Other people are inspired by that.

We also find authors through social media. Often people will follow our page for a while, and a year or two later they come to us with a submission.

Another strand of the business is the work we do in companies and organisations, where we go in and run author incubator programmes to nurture the creativity in their own teams and maybe help them to become authors too.

We are a small press and we are scaling slowly, taking our time to find the most amazing books possible. Had we published everything that came through the submissions page on our website it would be perhaps a different story. But we only publish five or six titles a year, so we are looking for game-changing books every single time. To be honest, we wouldn’t be taking on the books we do if they weren’t game-changers for us as well as for our readers.

magpie: You seem to seek out authors and stories with a local feel. Is that a fair summary of your approach?

KJ: Well, I think it’s just been natural that people – potential authors – hear about us here first. We have published authors abroad in Europe, America and South Africa, though, and we aren’t focussed purely on the Middle East.

Part of our criteria when looking for stories, is that they haven’t been told in any other way, or that they’re being told by a person that would not have had the chance to get their work out there otherwise. That does prompt us to focus on more emerging markets and really nurture and develop the talent within those.

magpie: There must be many pros and cons to being an independent publisher.

KJ: Yes, there are a lot of benefits to being a smaller, independent press. We get to do things outside the box and work more collaboratively with our authors – so it very much feels like a partnership, which is amazing.

We also have a lot more control of the quality of our books. We have a small team and work relatively independently, so we are able to really create and sell the work that we want to put out in the world.

One of the biggest hassles is distribution. It can be a challenge to appear as attractive to a book distributer as a bigger press with hundreds of books to offer. Yet we like to see this as a positive challenge, and believe that having a smaller catalogue for book buyers to choose from means we can put forward amazing books that get people’s attention.

There are some other particular issues here too. One of the challenges that publishing houses face in the region is that English and Arabic are both spoken: can you to tap into a large enough market if you don’t publish in both languages?

And I don’t think any company gets off the ground these days without a level of risk-taking. Everything from staying up late for days on end to moving the deadline for a major book launch, there have been lots of risks taken as a business. And like all new businesses we’ve had to take financial risks, and pursue our goals of entering global markets without knowing 100 percent how it’s all going to take shape.

We navigate these challenges primarily by having a clear purpose. If we can focus on knowing exactly what our desired outcome is, that makes the risk easier to asses – you’re able to see quickly whether it’s a risk that you want to take and if the outcome warrants you putting everything on the line for it. Then once everyone’s on the same page, we come together as a team and work together to manage any challenges that come our way as we pursue our purpose and the outcomes we desire.

magpie: So how easy was it to set up a publishing business in the UAE?

KJ: That’s another good question. When I first set up the business, licensing was a huge challenge. We were doing two things: providing services as a publishing house, and trading in the books we published. A lot of publishing houses don’t do both, they focus on the publishing only and outsource distribution to a distributor.

It took three years to overcome the licensing challenges and have the authorities understand why we wanted to be able do both. For us, having our own independent ecommerce platform was crucial if we didn’t want to be so heavily reliant on distributors to move our books.

magpie: And how how do you actually sell your books?

KJ: For us, the best way to sell is directly to our readers via our own e-commerce shop. The pandemic solidified our understanding of how important it was to be able to sell our books independently. Social media has a huge role to play in that, and so does our online education branch of the business – we run webinars, trainings that features all of our authors.

It’s important to diversify the routes to market, though. Pre-pandemic, events like book signings, book readings and launch events were really powerful options for us to sell our books. Bookstores are still a valid route, and I am definitely a believer in supporting them – particularly our smaller and independent book stores. It has been difficult for them during the pandemic, but it has been amazing to watch the publishing industry all come together and keep so many of those businesses afloat with many authors going out of their way to promote independent stores.

And we’ve been marketing our books in overseas escritoires since we started in 2017. We launched in South Africa that year, New York in 2018. We have offices in the US and UK too.

magpie: Any projects you’re particularly excited about at the moment?

KJ: In April, we launched Rock Your Ugly! by UAE-based photographer Waleed Shah, and we are really excited to see this book move into the international markets – we have a series of events planned in New York in June, and I can’t tell you how excited we are to start getting back into events.

Longer-term our goal is to continue our focus on education, making sure that we are really nurturing the publishing industry by making more of our authors and our team accessible through digital and corporate trainings. Through our education platform hopeful writers are able to work with our team, particularly our editorial team, to get feedback, support, and writing coaching.

magpie: And what about the future of the book itself, given the way technology has revolutionised the consumption of words?

KJ: I think one of the benefits of setting up a publishing house at this time, particularly in the UAE, is that we are not as influenced by the noise around the industry. It’s not that we don’t look at trends, but we know what we are here to do. We stay focused on our mission and vision for the business and the type of books we know will sell.

Maybe one of our advantages is that my background is not in publishing, so I tend to approach it with more of a customer-centric view. I am a reader, I love books, I am obsessed with books. I can understand what people are looking for by putting myself in their shoes and seeing what’s happening in the way people shop and buy books.

I also think traditional publishing needs an overhaul. Everyone is a publisher today – the moment you post on social media you’ve published something. So with so many digital platforms enabling individuals to publish and share their work, why would they want to work with a publishing house? Publishing houses need to be more attractive to digital-savvy creatives, there needs to be a more seamless approach to both digital and print publishing. I always say that

People have told me many times that books are dying, and questioned why I would start a business in books. My response is that this kind of comment has come through the ages many times before. Books have survived through many global transformations. We have seen book sales continue to thrive through the pandemic, and there is still no sign of physical books disappearing anytime soon.

Words: Liz Totton

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