The three day professional program of the 38th Sharjah International Book Fair in the United Arab Emirates opened with comments Ahmed al Ameri, chairman of the Sharjah Book Authority, who told an overflowing conference auditorium that more than 400 people were signed to participate in the event -- more than double the number from two years ago. This year, Sharjah extended the professional to run over three days, encompassing panel discussions in the morning, followed by matchmaking sessions for publishers and agents in a rights center-type environment.

Dominique Raccah, founder and CEO of Sourcebooks, was featured on a panel on the subject of globalization in publishing, She told attendees “the book business is healthier than it has been in 50 years.” She identified the growth in children’s book sales around the world as a primary driver, as well as the move to more inclusive publishing of “new and outsider voices” as contributing factors to the solid market. Others on the panel came from a variety of countries Elliot Agyare, president, Ghana Book Publishers Association, and CEO, Smartline Publishing (Ghana); Peter Dowling, publisher of Oratia Books (New Zealand); and Jade Robertson, international publishing director, Austin Macauley Publishers, which has offices in London, New York and the U.A.E.

The focus of discussion shifted as publishers reflected on their individual experiences of change. Raccah noted that digitization had not disrupted the business as much as many had predicted and 80% of her sales were of print books. Dowling concurred, and said that 95% of his sales were in print, but added that was because the digital market in New Zealand had yet to develop. “We know about the boom in audiobook sales around the world, and we’d like to be a part of it, but that’s not happening just yet,” he said. For Agyare, digitization offered an opportunity for publishers to reach a broader audience. “Globalization and digitization have been impactful on us,” he said. “I can now go online, get a quote for printing, and get my books shipped to Ghana in six weeks. It’s a remarkable change.”

For Robertson, digitization has meant a shifting focus to marketing her company’s books--which are published in English and Arabic-- primarily on social media, particularly on Instagram. “There are several bookstores here in the U.A.E. that exist entirely online,” she told PW, these include and dbxbooks. “Bookselling on Instagram is a thing here.” Still, the importance of having readers interact with physical bookstores cannot be understated. To wit, Robertson is opening a six-month pop-up bookstore in the U.A.E. next week. “It will sell Austin Macauley books exclusively to start,” she said, “and there will be a reading nook, perfect for Instagram photos, of course,” she said.

Challenges Facing Arab Publishers

A second panel on the first day addressed the topic of how Arabic publishers can reach a global audience and advice for working with publishers in the Arab world. Jayne Parsons, publishing director of Bloomsbury in the U.K., said that the audience for Arabic books is substantial — “it is the fifth most spoken language in the world” – and there’s a growing interest. But as a publisher, it is important not to view the market as a single entity. “We would like, ideally, to sell rights to Egypt and Lebanon and the U.A.E. separately,” she said, citing challenges of distribution as one reason. Her point: if a publisher bought world Arabic rights for a title, they might never try and sell it in another Arabic-language country due to the myriad of challenges of export, from different cultural norms (nee: censorship) to logistical issues.

Ramzi Ben Rhouma, publisher of Meskeliani Editions in Tunisia, agreed the that distribution issues was the single greatest issue facing Arabic publishers, and then added that another was a lack of sales reporting.

Mohammed Enad, whose publishing house Masaa Publishing and Distribution was founded in Kuwait but is now based in Ottawa, Canada, cited the dearth of literary agents working with Arabic-languages authors as an impediment to growing the number of Arabic writers translated and sold abroad. “The number [of agents] is very limited in scope,” he said.

Monday morning saw a panel of Arab writers take the stage to talk about their work, including the Kuwaiti author Abdulwahab Al Rifai, who has written 23 sci fi and mystery novels and cites H.G. Wells and Edgar Allen Poe as influences. "The potential audience of Arab readers is huge. It numbers 300 million," he said. adding "And they are young, with 65% to 70% below the age of 30."

The challenge facing all Arabic authors is enticing more Arabs simply to read. Ahmed Khaled Mostafa, an Egyptian novelist now living in Saudi Arabia, has written as series of fantasy-horror novels that have sold more than 100,000 copies, a very high number for the region. "My goal as a writer is simple: to convert non-readers into readers," he said.