Maya Zankoul thought she was "on a planet of her own" when she set up her blog, Amalgam. Two years later, the young Lebanese graphic designer and illustrator has published the second edition of her book, Amalgam, a collection of her illustrations.
Zankoul is a blogger who has stood out. What was set up as a personal space to vent her frustrations about every day life in Lebanon has become a platform for many Lebanese youth living in Lebanon and around the world.
Zankoul and her family came back to their home country after living in Saudi Arabia for most of her life. However, the move resulted in a lot of mixed feelings for Zankoul. "I was frustrated with life in Lebanon. I was very disappointed. And the year we [the family] moved, all the political conflicts started," she told Weekend Review. "The blogging helped me deal with it."
All the way to France
A few months after setting up Amalgam, Zankoul saw her illustrations appearing in French newspapers. "I was shocked that it had reached that far," she said.
Before she knew it, she was contacted by the local media and was making TV appearances and giving interviews, talking about what she did after work.
However, what transformed Zankoul into an outstanding blogger was the fact that she spoke about what others in Lebanon were thinking.
Her illustrations deal with everyday incidents such as getting stuck in traffic jams, having a whole box of doughnuts when you shouldn't, garbage being dumped on the streets or, when required, the political situation.
With hundreds of people checking out her illustrations everyday, Zankoul said she was aware that her content should be realistic. "I keep it personal," she said. "It gives you a sense of responsibility. Now I think twice before posting."
The key, Zankoul said, was to blog when you needed to say something. With a day job and freelance work on the side, Zankoul has managed to keep her blog regularly updated, blogging three times a week on an average.
Zankoul indicated her blog had also connected her to other Lebanese and Arab bloggers and opened her eyes to a world she never knew existed. "It [blogging] is growing so fast. There is some really good stuff — those which have a message," she said.
Zankoul's first book was published after she received a home-made version as a birthday present. "My friends printed out all my blog posts and made them into a book," she said. Before she knew it, her fans were asking for a copy. "I felt that if they could go this far, I really should finish the book," she said.
But publishing a book wasn't as easy as making printouts and copies. The challenge was to find a publisher who believed in her. "They [publishers] said the book wouldn't sell," she said. That was when Zankoul decided to publish it herself. Selling about 1,000 copies, the first volume of Amalgam made it into the Top Five best sellers at the Virgin Megastore in Beirut.
In August, Zankoul launched the second edition of Amalgam — this time with a lot more confidence. She said publishing the first edition was tough but a good learning experience. "I learnt a lot in the process," she said.
Amalgam's fans are all ages. At her latest book launch, Zankoul signed her book for buyers who were adult, or in their teens. Her book launch has also attracted more visitors to the blog.
Another challenge Zankoul faces now is to make her books available on Amazon. While the book is available in the Middle East and the Gulf region, fans in countries beyond those regions can have a tough time buying a copy. "Sometimes I've had to mail copies myself," she said.
Ideally, Zankoul said, she would love to live off her blog. "If I could, I would do it. I have plenty of ideas," she said. However, in Lebanon the challenges were many. "You have to work around the slow connection [and] the absence of Amazon. I have to follow everything to the very last detail," she said.
A learning process
With limited experience in the business of publishing and not being "a natural planner", as she described herself, Zankoul said it was hard to make money from her first book. "I didn't calculate things right. It was a fun experience. But this time I did it in such a way that I could make some money from it," she said.
Recently, Zankoul decided to sign up Google advertisements, which means space on her blog is dedicated to online advertising supplied by Google. Zankoul said she was at first opposed to the idea because she wouldn't have control over the advertisements which appeared on her blog. However she said she decided to go ahead as revenue from the advertising space would help cover the blog's costs.
To host the blog costs about $150 a year. "I couldn't do it when the blog was still hosted on Wordpress," she said. "Now that it's self-hosted, it has become easy."
While the young illustrator's focus is on keeping her blog up and running, she said she also had ideas to take her art a step forward with animation. "There's a project that I'm trying to work on," she said.
Zankoul said she was also looking at merchandise with a Zankoul signature. "It will be funny but would have a message," she said.
Zankoul has accomplished a lot and stands out as a blogger today. However, one thing is for sure — she said she wouldn't have been able to do much without her family's support. "My mum is like my manager. She follows up," Zankoul said. "I just want to post my illustrations and let the rest happen on its own."
See Maya Zankoul's work and more on www.mayazankoul.com