The 2019 Sharjah International Book Fair in the United Arab Emirates, which began October 29 and runs through November 9, hosted more than 2,000 exhibitors from 81 countries. Among approximately 173 authors participating in the fair are several bestsellers from the U.S., including James Clear, author of Atomic Habits; Mark Manson, author of The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck; crime writer Kathy Reichs; and television personality and author Steve Harvey.
The fair began with a three-day professional program that saw some 400 people—including publishers, foreign rights directors, editors, and agents—convene for panels and matchmaking. Panels covered a range of topics, including recent digital developments, the role of the Arab writer, and the state of freedom of expression across the globe. A full morning was dedicated to presentations about publishing in Africa, a region that Sharjah’s most prominent publishing figure, Bodour Al Qasimi, founder and CEO of Kalimat Publishing Group and vice president of the International Publishers Association, has been passionate in supporting.
A highlight of the program was the announcement of $170,000 in grants from the Dubai Cares charity, which were awarded to African publishers to help kick-start projects across the continent. Winners included digital publishing startup OkadaBooks, from Nigeria; audiobook publisher Positively African, from Kenya; and the Puku Foundation, a South African organization that focuses on producing children’s books in African languages.
“I believe that Africa, the Middle East, and Asia, are the places to watch,” Al Qasimi said in a closing speech for the professional program. “They have the growth potential. They are attracting more attention on the global stage as publishing and pop culture become more globalized.” She went on to note that some 90% of the global population under the age of 30 are living in emerging markets, primarily in Africa and the Middle East, calling them “the book buyers of the future” and adding, “It’s our duty as publishers to provide them with the material they need so that they can lead successful, fulfilled lives.”
Indeed, the SIBF is contributing a tremendous amount of support to publishers in an effort to bring more attention and books to the Middle East. Not only are flights and accommodations covered by the fair for most of the people attending the professional days but it also offers $300,000 worth of grants each year for translations. These grants support translations to and from Arabic, with a maximum grant of $4,000 for an adult title and $1,000 for a children’s book.
The professional program, though it follows just a week after the Frankfurt Book Fair, is particularly popular, as it offers participants an opportunity to meet with people they may have missed in Germany. “There are just so many people [at SIBF] from countries I don’t typically do business with,” said Kerstin Schlosser, rights manager of GABAL, a business and self-help book publisher in Offenbach, Germany. Among the smaller nations with representatives on the professional program were Armenia, Georgia, Ghana, Lithuania, Slovenia, and Togo.
Nine representatives from the U.S. attended the professional days, including people from Hay House, Human Kinetics, and Restless Books, and from the literary agency Susanna Lea Associates. Regulars on hand included Steve Rosato, business development director of OverDrive; Michel Mouschabeck, founder of Interlink Books; and Ibrahim Ahmad, editorial director of Brooklyn’s Akashic Books. “We’re committed to finding great books wherever we can, and Sharjah gives me an opportunity to meet face-to-face with publishers from places that really interest us as publishers,” Ahmad said, adding that he has been able to sell rights as well.
Maricio Velasquez De Leon of Duopress, based in Baltimore, was in Sharjah for the first time. “I came because of a lot of my colleagues recommended it,” he said. He added that he was intrigued by the presence of publishers from Turkey and Southeast Asian countries such as Indonesia. “You normally don’t have time at other shows to meet with these publishers, but here you do.”
Ingram Book Group was also at Sharjah and reaffirmed its intent to create a print-on-demand and distribution facility in the Sharjah Book City Free Zone—now rebranded as SBCFZ. David Taylor, Ingram’s senior v-p of international content acquisition, told the professional program attendees that the facility is expected to open in the first quarter of 2020.
Canada was represented by 14 publishers as a part of a trade delegation organized by Livres Canada Books. “We have many immigrants from the Middle East in Canada,” said François Charette, executive director of Livres Canada Books, “so it is important for us to be here.”
Semareh Al-Hillal, publisher at Groundwood Books in Toronto, observed that there were so many publishers in the Middle East growing their lists of children’s books. She was particularly taken with the work of several Jordanian publishers. “We already do bilingual books, and it has made me think about adding Arabic as a language for that series,” she said.
Andrew Wooldridge, publisher of Orca Books in Vancouver, was also heartened by the experience. “I was impressed to see all the interest in indigenous publishing, in places like New Zealand and Africa, which is something we already do a lot of in Canada,” he said. Woolridge added that he’d had 12 publishers sign letters of intent to pursue rights contracts with Orca, some for multiple books. “It was more interest than I thought we would get. But it seems in the Arab world there’s a strong interest in nonfiction books for children, particularly in areas of the environment and social justice.”
There were a significant number of Syrian publishers present, many of them displaced and representing themselves under the flags of their new homes in countries including Jordan, Lebanon, and the U.A.E. Syrian children’s book publisher Brightfingers, for example, now describes itself as a Dutch publisher, having moved to Amsterdam from Damascus, via Istanbul, where it famously opened the Arabic-language bookstore Pages, which has also relocated to the Netherlands.
Many international publishers were keen to find books to serve communities of immigrants, refugees, and “new arrivals.” Among them was Flora Majdalawi Saadi, editor of Fenix, the Arabic-language imprint of Bonnier in Sweden, who was acquiring children’s and middle grade titles. “We are seeing more and more people arriving in Sweden who need own-language materials,” she said. “As Sweden’s top publisher, we feel it is our duty to serve them and those who have assimilated but want their children to learn to read Arabic.”
Sharjah, which is serving as World Book Capital this year, is preparing for turns as a guest of honor at several book fairs next year, including Bologna, Guadalajara, and London. Accordingly, SIBF hosted numerous Italian, Mexican, and U.K. publishers. This agglomeration of publishers can sometimes lead to some unexpected book deals. To wit: Roberto Amezquita, publisher of Circulo de Poesia, a poetry publisher based in Mexico City, came to the U.A.E. and signed a deal with the Guantanamera Literary Agency of Seville, Spain, for a book from Cuba. “Who knew that could happen?” he remarked. “And in Sharjah of all places!”