Sheikha Bodour Al Qasimi of the United Arab Emirates is the second woman and first Arab woman to be appointed president of the International Publishers Association since it was founded in 1896. Al Qasimi, who took over as IPA president for a two-year term on January 1, has been the Arab world’s unofficial publishing ambassador since she came on the international publishing scene in 2007, when she founded the Arabic-language children’s publishing house Kalimat. Since then, Kalimat has grown into a publishing group with a list of more than 400 titles published through five divisions, covering children’s books, books in translation, education, and comics.
But Kalimat has not been Al Qasimi’s sole focus: in 2009 she founded the Emirates Publishers Association to assist other publishers in the U.A.E. The organization was granted full IPA membership the same year and remains one of a handful of groups from Arab nations in the IPA, alongside associations from Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, and, controversially, Saudi Arabia (whose trade group was given full membership in 2015).
Now that Al Qasimi heads one of the world’s preeminent organizations promoting freedom-to-publish initiatives and protection of copyright, she will be in direct conversation with publishers associations from member states where respect for freedom of speech, intellectual property, and women’s rights may not be the top priority. That said, Al Qasimi has long held a “big tent” approach to publishing politics, choosing to favor inclusion and open dialogue over censure. “As an industry, we need to try to get better at differentiating between the politics of countries and the counter balancing force that national publishers associations and the cultural industries often play in promoting shifts in government policy,” she said. “There is not a single silver bullet or approach to effectively engage countries and societies on highly contextual issues like copyright or freedom to publish—in some cases finger wagging may be warranted, while in others it could inflame the situation.”
When it comes to her leadership of the IPA, Al Qasimi will likely emphasize several issues she is passion about, such as the role of women in publishing—privately, she established PublishHer, a mentoring program for women in international publishing—and the advancement of publishing in emerging economies, particularly in Africa. She recently spent several days in Nairobi working with the Kenya Publishers Association, discussing the impact of Covid-19 on the industry and checking on the renovation of several historic libraries supported by the Africa Publishing Innovation Fund, a program she was also integral in starting.
At the end of 2020, Al Qasimi led a study for the IPA of more than 30 publishing industry associations, accounting for roughly 70% of the global publishing market and more than three billion readers, on the impact of the pandemic on the industry. The findings, she said, were mixed. “While traditional global publishing hubs like the U.S. and Germany experienced declines and then rebounded, for others—such as Argentina, Brazil, Egypt, Kenya, and Indonesia, where consumer purchasing power has been eroded and institutional sales have dried up due to government belt tightening—the impact of Covid on national publishing industries has been disastrous,” she explained.
Al Qasimi said the key lesson to be learned from the pandemic that should be applied to planning for 2021 and 2022 is that “we’re stronger together” and that the IPA’s influence and ability to lobby for change should not be underestimated. “We are positioned to have a strong leadership role in supporting our members globally in their efforts to convince their governments to offer support specifically tailored for publishing,” she noted. The goal, she added, is to ensure that publishing remains resilient at a time when, due to lockdowns, it is needed more than ever for education and entertainment.
Asked why U.S. publishers, so dominant globally, should concern themselves with the tribulations of nations far away and with whom for the U.S., unlike many European countries, there are no former colonial ties, Al Qasimi offered a pragmatic response. “It is true that about 10 countries globally export about 70% of all published goods,” she said, “but the ongoing shift in economic activity from developed to developing economies, along with growth in the number of consumers in emerging markets, has created larger untapped pools of consumers that are becoming too big to ignore.”
Al Qasimi said that interest in overseas markets and the IPA should come naturally to U.S. publishers, who in the past year have professed a desire to make the industry more inclusive. “There is surging interest in more diverse, original narratives from readers, and I think we will see significant interest by publishers in developed and developing markets in accessing these opportunities—particularly since pandemic-driven digitization trends make selling across borders much easier,” she noted. Ultimately, globalization and the internationalization of the publishing industry “present an opportunity for publishers in emerging markets to meet surging global interest in these diverse, original narratives in addition to providing growth markets for publishers in more developed markets.”
Al Qasimi does have one immediate priority for the IPA: helping members recover from the pandemic. “We are exploring the best ways to do that,” she said. “Our work to understand the impact of Covid on the global publishing market revealed many publishers are not well equipped to adapt the digitization trends and need support in making their businesses more resilient. One tool that we are currently considering to support the industry’s recovery is the publishing industry’s first global online academy, which would provide training and resources on digitization topics such as online selling and digital and social media marketing”—all to help the industry adjust to the new normal as best as they can.