Sharjah grows as deals are cut at pre-fair publishing conference

John Maher
News - International Thursday, 01 November 2018

John Maher reports from Sharjah, where attendees at the publishing conference nearly doubled


The 37th Sharjah International Book Fair flew in nearly 380 publishers and agents, up from roughly 200 last year, to the third largest of the United Arab Emirates for the pre-fair professional publishing conference. The dramatic upswing in attending publishers marked another strong year for the fair, which aims to rival the fairs in Frankfurt, London and Beijing in size and influence in the global publishing rights market.

After more than a decade of courting global publishers, Sharjah's publishing ambitions are coming to fruition. This year's fair marks the one-year anniversary of the opening of governmental agency Sharjah Book Authority's 430,000 sq-ft Sharjah Publishing City and the launch of an Arabic-language edition of Publishers Weekly - which will soon become a monthly, in addition to a proposed weekly newsletter - with many of the facility's promised features due to be completed by next February 2019, director Salim Omar Salim said.

Sharjah has also been named World Publishing Capital 2019 by UNESCO, just over 20 years after the organisation designated the emirate as the Cultural Capital of the Arab World. Salim added that discussions with Ingram Content Group, which has indicated interest in opening a Lightning Source POD facility on site, were reaching final stages, and that parties including Baker & Taylor and Penguin Random House had indicated interest in the space as well.

Positive mood
The space was put to good use at the publishing conference for a banquet on Monday night, which followed the first of two mornings of panels and afternoons of matchmaking sessions held at the Sharjah Chamber of Commerce and Industry. The mood of the show seemed positive overall, among old hands and newcomers alike. Much of the US and UK publishing contingents, in particular, made clear that the fair felt tighter this year than ever before despite the larger crowd, and a number of the US publishers mentioned, on background, that they found the matchmaking sessions (pictured below) productive.

Many of the Americans in attendance this year were repeat visitors, including Interlink founder and publisher Michel Moushabeck, Steve Rosato of OverDrive (which has partnered with Sharjah libraries - managed by the Book Authority - to bring ebooks to libraries in the emirate), Akashic Books's Ibrahim Ahmad, Ishmael Tree's Gigi Ishmael, and former S&S v-p and director of international sales Seth Russo. Russo accompanied, as he has in years past, a contingent comprised of editor Jennifer Brehl of William Morrow and Andrea Chambers, director of the New York University's Center for Publishing, which runs a training session focusing on strategies and best practices from the American market for Arabic-language publishers on the Sunday preceding each international professional program.

Others in attendance from the US, some of whom were first-timers, included William Morris Endeavor agent Caitlin Mahony, Kimberly Williams of the American Psychological Association, Jaime Levine of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Andrew Cummings of Lerner Publishing Corp, Felice Pilchik of Macmillan Learning, Ariel Kane of Restless Books, Maksim Rutenberg of World Book, Inc, and Barry Johnson of Human Kinetics, Inc.

As in years past, everyone flown in for the fair was housed together at two hotels, and a number of social events outside the matchmaking sessions ensured a collegiate mood. The fair also had the advantage, a number of attendees made clear, of being newer and quickly-growing, allowing for an easier development of newer relationships than at fairs like Frankfurt and London, where pre-existing relationships tend to get cemented each year in lieu of the development of novel connections.

Among incentives for publishers to cut deals at the fair, the greatest is perhaps a huge grant programme offered as support for translation projects brought forth at the event. As PW's Ed Nawotka previously reported, an adult title can receive up to $4,000 and a children’s book $1,000; the total pool of funds for translations to and from Arabic is $250,000. For translations between two other languages, it's $50,000.

Panels and keynotes
The publishing conference, organised by the Sharjah Book Authority in conjunction with Midas PR in London, opened on Monday with a welcome from Ahmed bin Rakkad Al Ameri, chairman of the Authority, followed by a brief keynote address from outgoing International Publishing Association president Michiel Kolman.

Introducing the morning's panels, Kolman stressed the necessity of freedom to publish and the importance of data and forward-thinking, technology-embracing publishing. "The digital transition continues, and perhaps in contrast to what some may believe, publishers are playing a leading role in that transition," he said, disputing traditional wisdom that print would remain the backbone of the publishing industry in years to come. Kolman also stressed the need for data produced by "both industry and governments" in determining "decisions about the future of our business".

The first panel, conducted in Arabic by Moushabeck, focused on trends in the Arab publishing world. Panelists described difficulties getting their work presented to English-language readers, asserting that bringing Western works into the Arab world in translation was a much easier task. Baker Ramadan, of Al-Shamel Publishing in Palestine, said Palestinian publishing was an especially difficult space, but established his commitment to "try to unify the Palestinians in the diaspora and reproduce their work in Palestine itself", while Jordan's Jordanian Publishing Association helps Palestinian publishers distribute outside Israel. Distributing, the panel concluded, was one of the biggest issues in the Arab publishing world, with Moushabeck noting that the Middle East needed a distributor like Ingram in the region as much as it needs international publishers to take more chances on Arabic books.

Following the panel, Ahmed Saadawi, an Iraqi writer and filmmaker who won the 2014 International Prize for Arabic Fiction for Frankenstein in Baghdad and is published in 32 languages, discussed his path to international success in a keynote describing how he bided his time waiting for the right English-language deal, with Penguin Random House's One World imprint. Saadawi also criticised assumptions from Western readers that Arab artists would also inevitably have something political to say about their region. "How can I protect my writing from politicians and political comments," he asked, adding: "To make a novel a servant of politics is something dangerous."

Politics was also central in the day's second panel (right), moderated by Sheikha Bodour bint Sultan Al Qasimi, daughter of the ruler of Sharjah, Sheikh Sultan bin Muhammad Al-Qasimi, and founder and ceo of Sharjah-based children's and educational books publisher Kalimat Publishing Group; she will be named v-p of the IPA next year. The panel focused on "freedom to publish in peril", and brought the IPA's chair of the Freedom to Publish Committee, Kristenn Einarsson, into conversation with Dr Razia Rahman Jolly, widow of murdered Bangladeshi publisher Faisal Arefin Dipan, and Nogaam Publishing founder Azadeh Parsapour, whose house publishes Iranian books subject to pre-publication censorship in that country.

The panel, in addition to calling out issues of censorship in countries where freedom to publish has been a right long refused, noted the rising worries of censorship in the Western world. President Donald Trump received his share of scrutiny from this panel and from other speakers throughout the day.

The final panel on Monday focused on how international publishers and agents could best do business with Arab publishers in general, while Tuesday's panels were specific to the educational and children's markets in the Arab world, paying extra attention to education, as the morning's first keynote was delivered by Hussain Ibrahim Al Hammadi, the UAE minister of education. Al Hammadi stressed the necessity of more diverse books outside the traditional textbook market in educating the children of his country. The UAE, he said, "seeks to empower the new generation with reading and creativity". He added: "We have to diversify our knowledge base."

The children's panel, in particular, proved somewhat contentious, with publishers from the UAE, Egypt and Jordan expressing markedly different concerns about what sorts of works from international publishers would be acceptable, let alone desirable, in translation. While the UAE's Dr. Alyazia Khalifa, of AlFulk Translation and Publishing, showed more openness in taking risks on international books that described worlds the children of her country were unfamiliar with, Jordan's Mones Al Hattab, of ABC Publishers, said Western publishers should be more aware of what works were appropriate to try to sell to the Arab world, citing books about divorce as being particularly divisive. "Foreign publishers," he said, " should focus on this region for having its own special identity."

Tuesday also saw current IPA v-p and incoming president Hugo Setzer stress the importance of publishers across the world working together and "building bridges". A balance must be struck, Setzer said, between focusing on local communities and on international engagement, and publishers needed to be cognisant of the need for both. Setzer will take the reins of the IPA in January for a two-year term, and will be succeeded by incoming v-p Al Qasimi, who will then become the first woman president of the association since Ana Maria Cabanellas ended her term in 2008.

Photos by John Maher

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