With 971 publishers registered from 92 countries, the 12th Sharjah Publishers Conference, which runs for three days ahead of the 41st Sharjah International Book Fair, got off to a busy start on Sunday morning, October 30. Visitors were welcomed by Ahmed bin Rakkad Al Ameri, chairman of the Sharjah Book Authority, who praised the “flexibility and ability” of the industry in finding novel solutions to the many challenges confronting publishing.

Bodour Al Qasimi, president of the IPA and founder/CEO of the Kalimat Group and the PublishHer network, gave an inspirational keynote. Promoting diversity and inclusion has been on the top of her agenda in her time leading the IPA as, she said, we need “new voices and fresh perspectives” to help us tackle “complex questions such as sustainability, freedom to publish, copyrights [and] data driven publishing.”

This year’s SIBF Guest of Honor is Italy who will next be at Salon du Livre in Paris and then be the market focus at Frankfurt. The first business session saw a panel of publishers, LeeAnn Bortolussi of Giunti editore, Carlo Gallucci of children’s specialist Carlo Callucci editore and Marco Sbrozi of Hoepli, in conversation with Jacks Thomas, guest director of Bologna Books Plus, the general trade extension to the Bologna Children’s Book Fair.

Data provided by the research department of the Italian Publishers Association (AIE) shows that the Italian publishing industry to be the sixth largest in the world and the fourth largest in Europe, with 2021 showing growth of 10.7% over 2020 and 10.2% over 2019.

Last year, some 85,000 new titles were published in Italy, 15% of them translation: the main language of origin is English (61%), followed by French (16%), German (8%) and Spanish (4%). While buying of foreign rights by Italian publishers has been declining, the sale of Italian rights abroad has increased over the past few years. European countries represent the main market for rights sales, but Arabic-speaking countries now account for 4% of all rights sold by Italian publishers and there are, said Bortolussi, lots of grants available to help with the cost of translation. She sees a trend in rights sales in light-hearted, humorous fiction alongside more serious nonfiction, particularly self-care and sale-improvement titles.

With children’s books accounting for around 11% of the market overall, the sector is growing rapidly, said Gallucci, particularly in the pre-school age range. With Arab-speaking children the second largest group in Italian schools, in 2018 Gallucci launched a partnership with Kalimat to publish dual-language Arabic/Italian children’s books, a program that has proved a success.

Italy's program at the fair includes about 20 authors and illustrators, artists and chefs, as well as a collective national booths that will be hosting 15 publishing houses offering as complete an overview as possible of the Italian publishing and cultural world. The presence of so many Italian publishing professionals at this year’s book fair reveals the importance they place on growing rights sales to and from the Arab world.

The second day of the conference began with a talk between Karine Pansa, vice president of the International Publishers Association, and Perminder Mann, CEO of Bonnier Books U.K., in a discussion of “publishing and representation.” Mann said that there is a “commercial, social and moral imperative” for publisher to produce “lists of books that speak to every reader.” She added that the commissioning editors tend to come from a narrow demographic who have a traditional view of what a makes for a “quality” book. Mann said that the company has invested in a great deal of “unconscious bias” training to counteract this tendency. She cited the genre of “smart thinking,” a category of business-oriented self-help that was an area where being able to address a diverse audience offered an opportunity for publishers. In addition, Bonnier Books is launching a series of live and video-recorded events called “Open Books,” that aim to explain and demystify career opportunities in publishing. “The aim is to reduce barriers to entry for the industry,” said Mann.