Some 150 publishers - from the U.K. and Europe, from the U.S. and Latin America and of course from across the Arab world - gathered at Sharjah's Chamber of Commerce this week for the two-day professional program that preceded the 32nd Sharjah International Book Fair.
In addition to the match-making sessions, which occupied Monday and Tuesday afternoons, there were a half-dozen panel discussions, some more substantive than others. The stand-out session tackled the question of book piracy in the Arab world during the course of which it was suggested that "piracy" did not adequately sum up the crime. "Piracy is theft, and that's what we should call it," declared Bill Kennedy of Avicenna in an intervention from the floor.
Emma House of the UK Publishers Association chaired "Creative Ways of Tackling Book Piracy in the Arab World," a session which pulled no punches as it offered perspectives from the U.K. and U.S. as well as the UAE.
Consultant Ruediger Wischenbart kicked off with a discussion about an Arabic alphabet book from Kalimat, Sheikha Bodour's publishing company, that had been pirated by a Saudi publisher - not the entire book, but some of the characters -and sold at a lower price. "Piracy has many faces. It's not just about an entire book. It can be elements taken out. It can be a photocopy. It can also include entire illegal libraries," continued Wischenbart, showing a screen grab of a Facebook page with an image of just such a library. Web sites routinely promote pirated books as they trumpet the benefits of reading and culture - but the download turns out to be pirated. Web sites claim to have neither the interest or the ability to determine what's legal and what's not.
The star turn was Richard Fisher, who heads up PIPCU - the Police Intellectual Property Crime Unit, set up just a few weeks ago and funded for two years as part of the City of London Police. Britain's smallest police force, it is focused on financial crime and is independent of London's Metropolitan Police. And Fisher got the joke in first - intellectuals and police are not words that go together he quipped. He hoped to change that.
The most important word in fight piracy he said is please. That's what Fisher said to Visa and Mastercard, for example, when he asked for their cooperation. They refused at first, saying it wasn't their problem. He and his colleagues pointed out the fine print of the money laundering laws, which carry a maximum sentence of 14 years. Evidence was provided arguing prima facie cases. Their lawyers quickly agreed that the credit card companies were facilitating the acquisition of criminal property.
The figures were gob smacking: in 2010, a dozen sites transacted $61 million - and that was just for music files. Following the money trail is difficult, for the cash is quickly dispersed into small accounts.
Fisher advised: "The consumer is not where the focus should be. It's not about arresting kids. We need to look up the chain and get the people who are making the money."
Ola Khudair, of the Arabia Anti-Piracy Alliance, agreed. "Create awareness, educate," she instructed, adding that piracy problems in the Arab world had tended until recently to be more about handbags than music and books. Consistently infringing Web sites should be blocked, though Khudair admitted they really needed to be able to levy significant fines.
Parents had a role to play too. "Piracy is not smart - it's theft," she concluded - prompting Kennedy's intervention from the floor. Children and their parents need to be educated: hacking, she suggested, can sound clever - parents might be quite proud of their children's ability. Let's call it what it is: stealing. People who engage in piracy are "stealing the future and stealing jobs. Unemployment is high in the Middle East because no one wants to invest. The government needs to take action and support is needed from rights holders. we must educate the public."
An update on Sharjah's smart learning plans, adoption of which has begun in the UAE, opened the proceedings. It included a contribution by Sheikha Bodour Bint Sultan Al Qasimi, whose energy and vision has done much to drive the tranformation of Emirati publishing (a necessarily gradual process). The founder and CEO of children's publisher Kalimat talked about her latest move, the launch of Horouf Educational's e-learning programs. Her goal is to combine education and fun, enabling children to develop their physical, intellectual and sensory abilities.
Another panel, chaired by Hasan Yaqoub, a Sharjah TV anchorman, debated the challanges and opportunities for publishers after the Arab Spring. While the region's various revolutions had whetted public appetite for political titles, particularly in regions where such books had been restricted, book sales have in general been harmed by the instability. In some cases, publishers' lives had been physically disrupted (Al Masriah has offices on Egypt's Tahrir Square, for example, while events in Syria blight the book business as they do everything else) and book fairs (including Cairo) have suffered badly. Print runs and sales are low, the economics difficult. As in the west, mergers between some of the players are surely inevitable.
The lion's share of the discussion on maximising IP in a digital world was with western publishers, including Hot Key's Ruth Logan, who engaged the audience with her story of The Story Adventure, an interactive writing project led by Fleur Hitchcock and involving 2,300 children in schools across the country. An incredible feat of logistics and organization which involved kids contributing story ideas limericks, even video and much besides, the results of the experiment will be on sale in January.
Eric Huang, now of Made in Me, reminded everyone that whatever they're working on, "it's a story not a format." Shadi Al Hasan of Rufoof explained an "if we build it they will come" approach, encouraging third parties to sponsor e-content in order that Arab youngsters might come to appreciate that computers and hand-held devices can provide something rather more meaningful than much of what's currently on offer. Hook them in, engage them - and then charge, though there must be concerns that creating paying customers from youngsters used to free stuff won't be easy.
If the Arabic language causes problems for digital publishing, it's not a walk in the park for translators either. Karl Bas of Nature said that translating that magazine required a large team, including freelances who were experts in their scientific field. Many scientific terms don't exist in Arabic and sometimes phonetic translation is used - for genome for example. Finding the Arabic equivalent of le mot juste is not easy: Bas took as an example cloning, which means copying which means exact duplication - which now has a Arabic translation. He and his colleagues are building a database of terms for scientific translation which aims to become a definitive website.
Alexandra Buchler of Literature Across Frontiers talked of her mission to "make literature travel", promoting literature as a diverse landscape - including that of the smaller countries. She and her colleagues at Comma Press have developed a translation app, Gimbal, available for iPAD now but with an Android version in development, which enables users to listen to the translation.
Jalil Khalil, the translator responsible for Lauren St John's White Giraffe series published by Klimat, stressed that translators cannot work alone - they need help from publishers. The challenge is to understand the cultural context of each work and the linguistic styles, and the difference between both to enable the production of a genuine Arabic text. The reader must feel s/he is reading a genuine text in his or her mother tongue, Khalil stressed, adding that he hoped publishers would take more of a interest in Latin American and African fiction. But the important thing is that publishers are able to find out about works which may be valid for translation.
There is scope for more training in translation but Buchler stressed that "literary translation is a skill - you can be trained, but you have to know both languages and both cultures." And of course Arabic titles have to be discoverable.
In a session on the challenges of global distribution, Ananth Padmanabhan of Penguin India forecast that the Penguin - Random House merger will improve the situation in India. Distribution in that country was less a challenge than "a competitive advantage," he suggested.
There was good news from Brazil, courtesy of the irrepressible Carlo Carrenho of Publish News: growth is forecast to be 2.4% this year. Basic rates of literacy are improving as the poor population diminishes and the middle class expands. The number of college students has doubled in the last decade - which bodes well for future book sales. At present, the market is heavily dependent on the government - the country's Ministry of Education buys books for all Brazil's state schools, which represents around 25-27% of turnover. Last year, the government bought fewer books and the market shrank.
Nielsen launched in the country just two months ago: stats so far revealed that 23% of ISBNs and 5% of revenue owe to foreign turnover, mostly British and American titles. Digital sales are currently just 0.22% of the total market, though Amazon, Google and Kobo launched last December (and within five hours of each other) so future figures seem certain to show significant growth - six million tablets have been sold this year.
Closer to home, Nasouh Al Ameen of Abu Dhabi-based All Prints Distributors noted that distribution is both "a challenge and a commitment" throughout the Gulf which, with its plentiful and well-structured ports, is ahead of the game. His company distributes trade, school and college titles - and there is censorship in all categories. The book trade, he said, "needs to respect culture", but the fact that censorship varies from state to state and from day to day makes life complicated.
A version of this story originally appeared in the London-based trade publication, BookBrunch.com.