By any measure, 2009 has been a challenging year for the U.S. book business. Amid sluggish sales, layoffs and restructurings, and a host of bookstore closings, you'd be hard-pressed to find anyone too comfortable about publishing's future in the short-term, even among those who remain upbeat about the industry's long-term prospects. But if the news has been rather gloomy at home in recent months, on a recent visit to the United Arab Emirates for the Sharjah International Book Fair (SIBF), November 11-21, PW found something remarkable: a publishing industry full of optimism—and on the upswing.
If there was one theme evident during our visit it is that with great change there is great opportunity. Indeed, there are great changes underway in the UAE, from education and literacy initiatives, to professional development for publishers, and some serious government investment in the book business. That could translate into opportunity for American publishers as the UAE is determined to transform the region into a new, bustling hub for the global book trade.
The UAE now hosts three rapidly growing book fairs: the Dubai International Children's Book Fair (February), the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair (March), and the Sharjah International Book Fair (November), one of the Arab world's oldest and largest book fairs, and perhaps its most ambitious. These fairs may not mean much to U.S. publishers right now—indeed, most U.S. publishers consider the prospect of doing business in the Middle East as exotic as the region itself—but as the money dries up for U.S publishers in other overseas territories, a vibrant publishing market in the UAE could prove to be an oasis in the desert.
“My goal,” said Ahmad Al Amri, director of the Sharjah International Book Fair, “is to make Sharjah one of the top book fairs in the world.” Competing with established fairs like London and Bologna may be a challenging long-term goal—but Al Amri is serious. And according to Tony Mulliken, chairman of Midas Public Relations in London, who recently signed on to promote the SIBF, organizers have reason to be optimistic.
“You travel to other book fairs around the world and they are all pretty much the same, they are mostly rights fairs,” explained Mulliken. “Not this fair. This is the biggest bookshop I have ever seen. And it is at the same time very much a cultural event.”
Indeed, Arab book fairs are nothing like their Western counterparts; rather they are highly consumer-oriented events where people come to actually buy books, and lots of them. SIBF officials said this year's event drew a reported 600,000 visitors, the most in its 28-year history, with 770 publishers participating. Book sales were in the vicinity of $30 million over a 10-day span. Indeed, the aisles of the SIBF show floor can become packed in the evening hours with shoppers wheeling around carts brimming with books, and when the peak evenings end, fair officials sometimes must literally herd consumers out of the hall, Al Amri said.
That kind of consumer frenzy exists largely because, traditionally, Arab publishers have also functioned as booksellers and the distributors of their catalogs, explains Nasser Jarrous, a longtime Lebanese publisher who now serves as the Middle East Representative for BEA and the London Book Fair. With fewer bookshops to serve consumers in the region, book fairs in the Arab world are more than just promotional, they are critical links in the distribution chain—indeed many Arab publishers do a sizable percentage of their business at the many fairs in the region.
That consumers must attend annual book fairs to buy their books is reflective of the kind of inefficient distribution model that has plagued publishing in the region—something that must change if the industry is to grow and thrive. But at the same time, the consumer element is a strong part of the region's culture—and a potential advantage for the SIBF.
“This is how it is done in most of the Arab world,” explained Sheikha Bodour Al Qassimi, founder and CEO of publisher Kalimat, and the daughter of Sharjah's ruler, Sheikh Sultan bin Mohamed Al-Qassimi. Sheikha Bodour is a driving force behind efforts to establish a more modern, international publishing regime throughout the UAE. Sheikha Bodour, however, does not want to lose the traditional consumer aspect of the SIBF. “Publishers really enjoy meeting their consumers and interacting with them like this,” she said. “It is very important.”
Mulliken agreed—in fact, he envisions promoting the SIBF as not only a chance to network and strike deals in a region still mostly untapped by Western publishers—but also as a great place to actually sell books by the box load.
If you're skeptical about opportunities in the region it's understandable. Historically, the Arab book market has been a complex mix of patchwork copyright law, inefficient distribution, frustrating bookselling rules, and limited demand. And that's to say nothing of a lingering cultural divide with the West. That gap, however, is shrinking. English, for example, is commonly spoken is the region. While establishing a market in the UAE that can attract—and reward—American publishers may not be an overnight proposition, the efforts underway both to modernize the industry, and to boost literacy and literary culture, are making considerable progress
On the professional side, the upcoming Dubai International Children's Book Fair will be an almost entirely professional meeting in 2010—and it is set to launch an international rights trading center—an initiative designed to establish “a strong international rights market” catering to the Arab children's book market.
The 2010 Abu Dhabi International Book Fair, meanwhile, will host the 7th International Publishers Association Copyright Symposium from February 28 to March 1, just before the Fair begins on March 2. Hosting the symposium, which is held every four years in locations around the world, sends a strong message to the international community—that the region recognizes copyright awareness is key to its growth.
"A strong and confident publishing industry is essential if we are to achieve the vision of a knowledge-based economy for Abu Dhabi and the wider Middle East region," explained Monika Krauss, KITAB General Manager. "At the 2010 ADIBF we will be showcasing the work KITAB is doing to boost the book business from our subsidised licensing deals, to the new E-Zone and bringing literary agents to the Fair for the first time."
heikha Boudour, meanwhile, a graduate of Cambridge University, recently spearheaded the formation of the Emirates Publishers Association to help improve publishing efforts in the region. “We're a very new publishing industry in the UAE, and there is still a lot of need for training and workshops,” she told PW.
So far, the EPA, in conjunction with a host of international organizations, has helped to educate UAE publishers on everything from rights issues to negotiating better discounts. “It is really good to buy books from other parts of world,” she said. “But we also want to the world about our culture. We are very proud of our culture, and you can see that everywhere. I want to see our publishers not only buy, but sell their rights.”
With Mulliken's help, the effort to establish the SIBF with Western publishers has begun to ramp up. This year featured slick new branding and a new slogan—For the Love of the Written Word—a campaign crafted to announce Sharjah's plan to turn its regional book fair into a major international event, and the foundation upon which a robust modern publishing business can rise. Mulliken said he can envision a day when top-flight international authors will make appearances on SIBF author stages, give talks and readings, sell a bunch of books—then head off to soak up a little sun and hospitality—both of which are abundant in the UAE.
Amid the steady stream of efforts in Sharjah, meanwhile, two efforts spearheaded by Sheikha Bodour may be the most indicative of the region's commitment to publishing—and the opportunities therein. The first is called Knowledge Without Borders—a campaign under which the government is paying to put a small library of books in the home of every citizen in Sharjah. The effort will take at least three more years to complete she said—but this year alone, Sharjah bought 65,000 books at the fair for the project, across all genres.
The second is the Etisalat Prize for Arab Children's Literature—which awards a whopping one million dirham—roughly $275,000—to the outstanding children's book as selected by the Sharjah-based Arab Children's Book Publishers Forum. The prize is open to all entries—including translations. It is, outside of the Nobel Prize in Literature, the richest literary prize in the world.
“These initiatives are to encourage publishers and authors,” Sheikha Bodour said, and “raise the standards of the industry.”