Sharjah hopes to turn the page in the Arab publishing world

The prestigious Frankfurt Book Fair had a disappointing Arab representation, with only three publishers from the region invited to put up their stalls. Shadiah Abdullah Al Jabry says this is a sad reflection on the Middle East’s ailing publishing industry.

It is hard not to be impressed by the hustle and bustle inside the vast exhibition halls of the Frankfurt Book Fair, the oldest such event in the world.

Any publisher worth his name must have been there. It was, after all, the world’s largest centre for the trade.

This was not an event catering only to the public but very much about business, with 7,300 publishers from 104 countries promoting their latest offerings this year. This was the place to be, where book deals were clinched and copyrights sold.

Amid the flurry of contracts made and cancelled, the Arab presence was disappointing.

Only a few independent publishers such as the Sharjah-based children’s publisher Kalimat, had their own stalls. Other well-known publishers were content to be represented by their country’s pavilions.

Cornelia Helle, from the Middle East section of the fair, says that through an invitation programme run by the German foreign office, three independent Arab publishers had the chance to take part this year.

“We encourage such participation as we would like to hear the Arab’s intellectual voice. Only through books can you get an insight into a culture,” Ms Helle says.

The weak representation at such a prestigious event, held from October 14 to 18, is a sad reflection on the Arab world’s ailing publishing industry.

High illiteracy levels, the low income of potential readers, a lack of distribution networks, absence of statistics about the market, censorship and piracy are some of the challenges facing the industry.

The result is that the average print run of books in Arabic is tiny – rarely more than 3,000 copies and usually much fewer. The figure is shocking, considering there are more than 300 million Arabic speakers in the world.

In Egypt, with a population of 90 million, a new book’s average publishing run does not exceed 1,000 copies. It rarely runs into a second edition.

But all is not doom and gloom. Recently, there have been many initiatives and new projects to promote books, publishing and reading habits in the Arab world. The UAE has been in the forefront of such initiatives.

Sheikha Bodour Al Qasimi, founder and patron of the Emirates Publishers Association, is aware of the challenges facing the Arab publishing industry.

“Despite the launch of several initiatives, grants and awards that support the translation of books from Arabic into other languages, Arabic books are still among the least translated books in the world,” Sheikha Bodour says.

“This is due to many reasons but primarily it is the lack of agents in the Arab world working on the promotion of Arab publications. That is responsible for this state of affairs.”

She points out that publishing is a profoundly intellectual business, well established in the West over hundreds of years.

“We in the Arab world must communicate and cooperate with international experts to develop our industry and reach international markets,” Sheikha Bodour says.

But she is optimistic, noting that there were significant opportunities for the development and prosperity of publishing in the region, although more effort was needed to use them.

Sheikha Bodour says the UAE can continue to make progress. “We have supportive laws that appeal to Arab and foreign investors in the publishing sector.”

She highlights the importance of Arab countries joining the International Publishers Association (IPA), of which the UAE became a member in 2012.

Other Arab countries, including Saudi Arabia, Tunisia and Jordan, were accepted as members during the fair, raising the level of Arab representation at the IPA.

This will allow Arab publishers to work more closely with member states in promoting Arab culture, publications and authors.

The Sharjah delegation is also promoting the 3rd Arab Publishers Conference to be held in the emirate on November 2 and 3.

The conference, under the theme “Publishing Industry: Prospects and Challenges of the Digital Age”, will bring together experts and specialists from around the world to discuss issues related to libraries, education, property rights, digital piracy, electronic distribution, freedom of publication, translation, and content development.

“As hosts of the 3rd Arab Publishers Conference, we will shed light on the challenges facing the industry today and through dialogue, panel discussions and workshops find solutions, possibilities and opportunities to advance the publishing sector in the Arab region”, Sheikha Bodour says.

The Sharjah Book Authority, which runs the Sharjah International Book Fair, is also prominently represented at the fair.

Ahmed Al Ameri, chairman of the SBA, says “the Frankfurt Book Fair offers a wider insight into the global book industry in terms of the views of industry experts, stakeholders and people interested in the book industry, which is still energetic, dynamic and witnessing continuous growth despite challenges”.

Mr Al Ameri stresses the importance of the fair and its focus on industry experts and professionals, rather than the public.

This, he says, offers a chance to introduce publishing houses and translation agencies to the SBA, which includes the book fair, the Sharjah Children’s Reading Festival and the fair’s translation grant, as well as many other initiatives.

“The Ruler of Sharjah, Dr Sheikh Sultan bin Mohammed Al Qasimi, believes that any country’s journey towards renaissance and development can only be achieved through knowledge, which begins with nurturing one’s mind with culture and knowledge, the main source being literature,” Mr Al Ameri says.

“He also believes that no country can move forward and achieve a better future without culture and science.”

Perhaps the story behind the first Sharjah International Book Fair can be an inspiration for those working in the Arab world’s beleaguered publishing industry.

In 1982, the fair received very few visitors and no sales were made. This prompted Dr Sheikh Sultan to buy books from the participating publishing houses in his determination to create a cultural project.

Today, after 34 years, the Sharjah International Book Fair has grown to become one of the three most important book fairs in the world.

“The Sharjah book fair is not merely a place for the sale of books and intellectual rights,” Mr Al Ameri says.

“It is an exhibition and a cultural and literary festival that offers an inspirational platform for industry professionals, academics, artists and the public.”

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