I first attended the Sharjah International Book Fair in 2005 with a publishing delegation from the U.S. and U.K. It consisted of representatives from my company, Combined Book Exhibit; the London Book Fair; BookExpo; Gardners;and Ingram. We had a small booth with about 400 titles from publishers both large and small. None of us had ever been to Sharjah before, with the exception of Emma House, who at the time was with the London Book Fair and most recently was the deputy CEO for the Publishers Association in the U.K.
It was a young Ahmed Al Ameri from the business finance office at the Department of Culture (which oversees the Sharjah Book Fair) who approached me with the invitation. “Come to Sharjah and visit the book fair,” he said. Of course, I was a bit skeptical, since I had never heard of Sharjah or the book fair. He was persistent to say the least and convinced me to put together the delegation. Ahmed is now the chairman of the Sharjah Book Authority, which oversees both the Sharjah International Book Fair and Sharjah Publishing City, as well as the University and Public Library System in Sharjah.
That first visit in 2005 was certainly eye-opening, as we not only experienced the incredible Arab custom of hospitality but also their insatiable appetite for books. We were one of the first organizations to bring English-language titles to the fair, a move that proved to be extremely popular. At that time, the event was significantly smaller than it is today and probably attracted a few hundred thousand people during the entire 10-day event.
After the success of the first year, Al Ameri and the director at that time, Yousuf Aydabi, asked us to bring more books from the West to future Sharjah Book Fairs. We came up with the idea of mounting a U.S./U.K. bestseller exhibit that would highlight the “Best from the West” as a special exhibit for public viewing. We’ve continued that exhibit each year, and we now include bestsellers from Canada, as well.
In 2013, the Sharjah Library Conference was introduced in association with the American Library Association and the Combined Book Exhibit. Now in its sixth year, the library conference attracts hundreds of librarians from the entire Gulf region. It’s held during the Sharjah International Book Fair so that the librarians in attendance can not only experience the fair but also purchase books for their libraries.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that, if it wasn’t for the vision and support of Sharjah ruler Sultan bin Mohammed Al Qasimi and his personal interest in the book fair, it wouldn’t be what it is today. When Al Ameri became the director of the book fair, it took on a life of its own and brought in such world-renowned authors as Dan Brown from the U.S. and Indian Nobel Peace Prize–winner Kailash Satyarthi, among others.
With the fair growing at staggering numbers each year, the decision to expand the exhibition center was made to accommodate the growing number of companies wishing to exhibit, as well as the growing number of professionals and other attendees from the region. While many book fairs have been shrinking in recent years, the Sharjah International Book Fair is expanding and now attracts almost 2.5 million visitors. It’s been amazing to experience the rise of what was basically a local book fair to one that is now a top-tier international event.
Jon Malinowski is president of Combined Book Exhibit and founder of Pubmatch.