The Riyadh International Book Fair opened with a two-day long Publishers Conference, held September 27-28, which offered of talks from global publishing executives to foster professional development. Topics under discussion included audiobook trends, children’s book publishing, distribution challenges, the future of storytelling, book marketing, self-publishing, translation, and the best means of developing the book marketing the Middle East.

Professionals attended from across the region, including from Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Lebanon, Tunisia, and Turkey, as well as from Australia, India, the United Kingdom, and the United States. Among those from the U.S. were Michele Cobb, executive director of the Audio Publishers Association; Dan Gerstein, CEO of Gotham Ghostwriters; Kempton Mooney, director of client development for NPD Group; publishing consultant Lorraine Shanley; and Chad Post, publisher of Open Letter Books.

Saudi Arabia has long been considered a closed book market, but the past few years have seen the country open to more international collaboration, as part of the Saudi Vision 2030 program, which aims to reduce Saudi Arabia's dependence on oil, diversify its economy, and develop such public service sectors as education, health, infrastructure, recreation, and tourism. As part of this, the new Literature, Publishing and Translation Commission (LPTC) was established in the government’s ministry of culture with a mandate to foster more publishing activity in the country. Professional education for publishers is part of that agenda.

One key challenge facing the industry is a relatively low literacy rate of just 60%, though the country’s 330 publishers produce some 8,000 books per year, according to Abdulkarim Alagil, chairman of the Saudi Publishing Association, who cited statistics dating to 2018. Data, it became clear over the two days of panels, is sorely needed for the industry to advance, and a study of the market is underway— as is an effort to begin establishing a unified database tracking books and book sales in the country.

Translation is top priority for the 2030 program, and Alagil said that the industry would like to see some 25,000 books translated in the next few years, with as many as 5,000 coming from English. “Saudis have to read to learn about other people’s point of view and vision,” he said.

To this end, the LPTC established the Tarjim translation initiative. “The first year, 2021, we funded the translation of 292 books and 42 academic cultural journals, all from a total of 11 languages” said Hailah Alkhalaf, director of translation at LPTC. A total of 23 Saudi publishing houses participated in the program, though Alkhalaf would like to see many more take part. “This year, we have doubled the number of grants to 500 and we are actively looking for books in key subject areas that have been underserved by translation, such as philosophy and nonfiction children’s books and graphic novels,” she said, “but we are open to talking to anyone with good ideas and good books.”

Among the books that have been funded by the program are translations of several titles by 2021 Nobel Prize winner Abdulrazak Gurnah, classics including At Swim-Two-Birds by the Irish writer Brian O'Nolan, and such contemporary bestsellers as The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett. But the translation of ideas isn’t just going one way: the Saudi Research & Media Group, one of the most prominent media companies in the Middle East, is also planning on launching a new books division.

The Riyadh International Book Fair runs from September 29-October 11 and will feature booths and book stalls from 1,000 exhibitors, as well as numerous cultural events throughout the city of Riyadh.