International sales account for as much as 35% of Diamond Book Distributors business, said Kuo-yu Liang, v-p sales and marketing at DBD, the trade book distribution unit of Diamond Comics Distributers. He was speaking at the Sharjah Book Fair to bring comics, graphic novels and manga to the Middle East. Sharjah will attract more than 600,000 people over the ten days of the fair and Liang said there’s an excellent market here for graphic novels and comics of all kinds. American comics are popular with boys and manga appeals to Arab girls in a market where 32% of the population is 15 to 24 yrs old.

Many of the bookstores here are entirely English language and that includes the Japanese bookstore chain Kinokuniya, which is also here. This is the first time comics have had a substantial presence at the Sharjah Book Fair and Liang said the show reminded him of another important international market for English-language books, "there's 5.1 million English speaking people in the UAE. Sounds like Singapore to me!” At the same time, he pointed out the retailing, distribution and marketing infrastructure of the UAE is not as developed as Singapore's but Liang is convinced that will happen. The DBD strategy is to have a booth presence as well as hold events at the fair—he’s brought Chinese manga artist and publisher Yishan Li fron Shanghai to do drawing workshops with kids. In addition, Liang is moderating a panel with indie comics publishers IDW and TOP COW as well as local comics publishers like the Teshkeel Media Group.

The Middle Eastern publisher Teshkeel Media Group is publishing The 99, a graphic novel and comic book series about Islamic super heroes based on the 99 tenets of Islam. Developed by Teshkeel founder Naif Al-Mutawa—and publically praised by President Obama—to create peaceful role models for Islamic kids as well as foster a dialogue between the East and the West, Al-Mutawa is also developing a cartoon series based on The 99 for the U.S. market with the HUB channel.

The popularity of Japanese comics or manga is also on the rise and another local firm, Page Flip, a UAE-based manga publisher, is the world's first original Arab manga publisher. Page Flip is working with Japanese mangaka (comics artists and writers) to develop The Gold Ring, a new manga series based on Arab culure. And Liang said there are plans underway in Abu Dhabi to launch to the first Arab Comic Con.

The Survival of "The Book"

The question of the survival of "the book" in the face of technology was not debated at the English-language panel Tuesday on how to encourage reading across all ages, moderated by Rebecca Jones of the BBC. The focus was reading, not delivery systems, with a healthy regard for books. Alistair Burtenshaw, group director of the London Book Fair, explained his work with the Book Trust, a U.K. book gifting program. Marwan Jassim Al Sirkal, deputy head of the Sharjah initiative Knowledge Without Borders, explained his organization's goal: to put a library in every house in Sharjah. Each family receives 50 books of interest to different family members, a four-year plan begun in 2008. "There's a challenge to reading in the Arab world," he said. "We want to create a relationship between the reader and the book. Neighboring families get different books to encourage sharing. So far the program has given away 60,000 books with a plan to distribute 2.1 million. Andrew Senior, whose agency deals with business development in the creative sector, noted that today people are visually stimulated yet reading is still an important skill and new technology can encourage reading. "The physical book is not important," he said.

Lisa Milton, managing director of Orion trade publishing in the U.K., discussed encouraging reading early on for children, and while she acknowledged that reading is on the decline she has great faith in content as king and spoke of enhanced e-books and creating a world "outside of books" to encourage children’s involvement. ILYA (a.k.a. Ed Hillyer), a comic book creator who's adapted King Lear for Self Made Hero's Manga Shakespeare list, has great hope for comics which have become more respected and elevated in importance since his work first appeared in 1987.

Deal Report

Sharjah-based Kalimat Publishing House has signed with U.K. publishing group Orion to translate into English and sell internationally the children's book Tareeqati Al Khassa (My Own Special Way). Sheikha Bodour bint Sultan Al Qasimi, the Sharjah sheikh's daughter, is the CEO and founder of Kalimat. The book is written by Emirati author Maitha al Khayat and illusrated by Maya Fidawi, and shows how wearing the "hijab" can be a positive affirmation for Muslim girls. In the book, a young girl named Hamda finds her own style of wearing it. The book will also be in e-book format. Kalimat is the first publishing house in the UAE dedicated to publishing and distributing Arabic children's books for ages up to 16. The company was founded in 2007 and has 75 titles in print.