The second Sharjah Booksellers Conference in the U.A.E., held May 1–2, attracted some 200 booksellers and another 100 publishing professionals from across the world. The event opened with an introduction from Ahmed al Ameri, chairman of the Sharjah Book Authority, and Sheika Bodour al Qasimi, CEO of Kalimat Group and former president of the International Publishers Association. Al Qasimi noted that the U.A.E. will host COP28, the United Nations climate change conference, later this year, and she encouraged the attendees to prioritize sustainability. “Climate change poses a profound risk to our industry,” she said. “We must find ways to do better—to change the way we produce and distribute books.”
Markus Dohle, former CEO of Penguin Random House and current Bertelsmann board member, followed. He said the industry is currently in one of the greatest moments of change in publishing since Gutenberg. He added that global revenues are growing, and praised the “healthy coexistence between physical and digital” products, with physical products accounting for about 80% of all sales. “Print has prevailed, and it is the life insurance of the publishing industry,” he noted.
Furthermore, Dohle said that as the population of the world grows and literacy spreads, the total market for books grows with it. For years, “children’s and young adult books have been the fastest-growing category” in the industry, and, he added, that should be reassuring to those at the conference. He also praised the new efficiencies in distribution.
However, book distribution bottlenecks persist around the world. Brexit, for example, means that U.K. distributors that previously had significant export sales to Europe have seen that business grind to a halt; Gardners, the dominant book distributor in the U.K., opened a company in France to accommodate European orders. Ordering from U.K. publishers also has slowed.
“It is so difficult to order from the U.K. now,” said Sonia Draga, CEO of Sonia Draga Publishing House and Bookstores in Poland. She added that it can take up to three weeks for English-language books ordered from the U.K. to arrive at her stores as a result of customs delays.
As an alternative, publishers in the U.K. and those further afield are looking to the U.S. as a market for expansion. Wonder House and Prakash Books, now the largest publisher in India, have signed a deal with IPG to begin distributing their bestselling children’s board books in June.
That said, U.K. publishers report they have found a newly fertile market in China after several years of stalled rights sales, as diplomatic relations between the U.S. and China have been strained in recent years. “China is very interesting, but very tricky now for U.S. publishers,” said one international sales director, who asked not to be identified.
The Sharjah Book Authority flew in a wide variety of booksellers from some remote markets, including a coalition from French-speaking West African countries such as Benin, Cameroon, Djibouti, and Niger; others came from Central Asia, including some from Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan; and still others traveled from New Zealand, the Philippines, and Singapore.
After two days of conversations, it became clear that everyone shared the same concerns: how to attract customers to their stores, promote reading, build community, curate stock, reduce returns, and eke out a profit. Attendees included Ivana Simic', the publishing and licensing manager of Dexyco, a chain of 50 children’s goods stores in Serbia; El Kamouni Hassan, director of the Librarie de Paris bookstore in El Jadida, Morocco; and Akshay Routray, founder of the Walking BookFairs bookstore in Bhubaneswar, India.
Many participants said they’re eager to stock more English-language titles, but find them difficult or too expensive to order. Reading books in English is an aspirational activity for some. “The desire is there,” said Aidai Maksatbekova, owner of IQ Bookstore in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. “While we’re doing fine, we could do even better if we could find a more affordable and efficient way to get English-language books. Bishkek may seem far away from everyone, but the books make us feel close and connected to the international community of book lovers and readers.”