Bilingual mum spots a gap in the market and begins a new chapter in children's literature.
By Ingrid Green
You could say Sirine Demachkie was a proactive person, but that would be a serious understatement.
When Elyssa, her then 3-year-old daughter asked for an everyday Lebanese-Arabic storybook at bedtime, Sirine quickly discovered there was no such thing. So what did she do? Write one.
Turned out Elyssa was on to a good thing because that book has sold 20,000 copies and spurred a follow-up with more in the pipeline. Sirine’s dilemma was a blessing in disguise.
The writer, bilingual presenter and facilitator is passionate about language – preserving it, promoting it and making it accessible for the next generation.
Keen to foster her daughter’s interest, she’s raised her bilingually, but when the storybook question came up, Sirine suspected she’d struggle to find one.
She explains: “Arabic is spoken in 22 countries, each with its own dialect and conversational tone. But written Arabic – fus’ha – is quite different.
“For the non-Arabic speaker, it’s the equivalent of reading Shakespeare’s Elizabethan or Chaucer’s Middle English.
“It can almost be like learning another language.”
And to complicate matters: “All children’s literature is written modern standard Arabic.”
Sirine found a few Arabic books but Elyssa found them tough going.
“She was even asking me what some of the words meant because they weren’t familiar.”
It was then they discovered no everyday language versions existed. Sirine even inquired in a bookshop while on a trip to Lebanon.
“I looked everywhere, I searched high and low.
“I thought, that’s a missed opportunity because I don’t want her to not ask for Arabic stories again.”
That planted the seed. The brief was very specific.
“I wanted it transliterated – using the Arabic alphabet, but in the Lebanese Arabic spoken at home and with the English translation. That way somebody who doesn’t read Arabic can still read it.”
So she wrote it. Mama Baba, iza bit reedo – Mummy Daddy, please is a young girl’s journey through the day and learning how to say please. It’s targeted at ages birth to Year 2.
“I was really just going to make a book for Elyssa. There were no plans for publishing it.”
But it proved popular. Family and friends were so enthusiastic about it she started to think about taking it further.
She researched online and considered approaching publishing houses, but the process seemed complicated and lengthy.
“I wanted to get it out in the world sooner rather than later.”
So self-publishing it was – and a whole lot more research.
“I learned about ISBNs [international standard book numbers], I learned about getting a book print-ready, about page folds and page numbers, about measurement, about distribution.”
She really liked the control self publishing gave her, but it lacked the distribution component. Again she stepped up to the challenge.
“I really just used social media, took a couple of photos, and on the first night that I released it I received 30 orders.
“For me it was huge.”
So the book was published, it was selling – many people would have been happy to leave it there.
“I started getting some orders from overseas, and I thought of that bookstore in Lebanon.”
She decided to contact them, and perhaps arrange a visit during an upcoming trip to Lebanon.
Then her husband Mark had the epiphany. “He said: ‘How cool would it be if you could get it on a Middle Eastern airline.”
Ambitious? You bet.
She made the trip, visited the bookstore and sold them their first consignment.
Boyed by the success, she headed for the main airline HQ in Hamra, Beirut.
“The fact I spoke Arabic helped so much.”
The manager loved the concept and gave her the contact details for the inflight services manager. Her email went astray, so with two days left in the country she gave them a call. As luck would have it her target was in the office and a meeting was hastily arranged.
“He loved the concept, he also recognised that it didn’t previously exist. He thought it would be a great little gift to give kids.”
A downsized, airline friendly version was devised, and negotiations were underway.
“It took quite a few months, but then I received my first purchase order in September for 20 000 copies.”
Sirine has produced a second book, Mama Baba, wankyon?! – Mummy Daddy, where are you?! To be officially launched this Saturday, March 16, at Lost in Books in Fairfield in Sydney, to be followed hard on the heels by another three in the pipeline.
Quite a tale for a bedtime story.
Sirine's tips for budding authors
Find a unique idea.
Speak with a lot of people – test the market.
Keep sticking with it.
“If it’s something that you really care about, if you think there’s a gap in the market and it’s something unique – particularly if we’re talking about literature, like children’s books – I think go for it.
“You’ve got nothing to lose, because you just don’t know where it could take you.”