Sharjah Book Authority’s inaugural International Booksellers Conference, with over 400 visitors from 57 countries around the world, was held on 16 and 17 May this year in the gleaming atrium of Sharjah Publishing City. Delegates included booksellers from Morocco, India, Singapore, Slovakia, Rwanda, Sri Lanka, Zimbabwe, Italy, Nigeria, Poland, Ghana and the UAE, and were welcomed by Ahmed Al Amari. The keynote was given by Bodour Al-Qasimi, founder of Kalimat Publishing Group and President of the International Publishers Association, who hailed the “excellent job” that booksellers performed in finding creative ways to engage readers and to put books in their hands.

The far-reaching programme included a panel with booksellers from the Middle East, Africa and Europe discussing effective digital communication, e-commerce and social media strategies; speakers from the Far East, Europe and Africa looking at stock curation, presentation and customer service; a session on the inventive ways in which booksellers are diversifying and creating new audiences with speakers from India, Sharjah and Malaysia, and an inspirational talk by Nadia Wassef, co-founder of the Diwan Bookshop in Cairo, about how “faith and luck“ helped the chain grow to six shops through “a global financial crisis, a revolution, a counter-revolution, four currency devaluations and a pandemic”.

Adedotun Eyinade of Roving Heights in Nigeria, a business set up originally as an online bookstore in 2015 and then as a physical store in 2018, appeared on the panel discussing Digital Marketing. “It was rewarding to learn from booksellers in other climes how they are leveraging the tools of social media to reach new customers” he said, “and comforting to learn that other booksellers were reaching out to new swathes of readers via social media and social media analytics were driving some of their commercial decision as well. ”

In Estonia, the very first Apollo bookshop was opened in central Tallin in 2002 but quickly diversified, opening first an Apollo cinema in 2014, and two years later an Apollo entertainment complex, complete with restaurants and a loyalty club. Agne Ahi, Product Manager of Foreign-language Books at Apollo Kauplused was on the panel discussing New Business Models. “Because all the speakers came from different markets, the changes they had made to traditional bookshops and the experiences they had to share were all very unique“, she said. “The most important lesson from our panel was that things in the book business are not as hopeless as they might seem to be, and even though we are forced to change, flexibility and stubbornness help to reach the goal. As long as we want to bring the book to the reader, anything is possible. ”

Delegates particularly appreciated the opportunity to learn from booksellers operating under very different circumstances and in very different environments. Eyinade commented: “I enjoyed the fact that a lot of the booksellers were from the global south, and that the event also had representation from Europe as well. Meeting and interacting with book-selling greats like Kenny Chan of Kinokuniya fame made the event even more worthwhile!”

Ahi also appreciated the opportunity to meet booksellers from other countries: “I have to admit that, as a European bookseller, my horizons have been very narrow until now, and my knowledge of the business was based only on the European market. There were speakers and participants from every region, and although we are all very different, our concerns are similar and there was a lot to learn from others’ solutions. The topics that were discussed are definitely international and affect all booksellers, and the panels talked about topics that may still be unfamiliar to bookstores, but are extremely important for our survival in current market.” She added: “Hopefully there will be similar events in the future and I would be very happy to take part in them again!”

The next International Booksellers Conference will take place in May 2023.