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Understanding the Arab publishing market

The 35th edition of the Sharjah International Book Fair brought together a panel of publishing industry and literary experts to discuss the state of the publishing business, quality of writing and impact of technology in the Arab world

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A panel discussion titled, ‘Viewpoints on the Arab Market’threw light on the commonalities and variations in publishing trends, consumer behaviour, presence of international publishers, e-commerce, and market situation dynamics in the 22 countries of the Arab world.

Ahmed Rashad, executive director, Al Masriah Al Lubnaniah for Publishing, provided an overview of Arab publishing industry: “The Arab publishing landscape has seen tremendous growth over the past decades.

Trends such as the age group between 18 and 35 years dominating our demographics, young publishers continually introducing global publishing standards and practices to our markets, numerous retailers like Kinokuniya and the Virgin Megastore featuring a rich collection of regional and international titles, reading initiatives, new translation projects, and establishment of prestigious recognitions and awards have brought about tremendous positive change in the publishing market situation in this region.

In order to make Arabic literature better known to the world, we need to have a more focused and workable plan for Arabic translation projects to facilitate the translation of more titles into foreign languages. Also, we need to strengthen our infrastructure for digital publishing, to capitalise on the growing demand for eBooks, which has spiked due to the penetration of internet usage on smart devices,” he explained.

Matt Cowdery, head of sales, Hachette MEA,added: “MENA has always provided us easy access and an open market for selling our trade titles here. While there are subtleties of readership trends in the different regions here, which are not the easiest to detect, our sales figures have gone up to double digits in a short span of five years. With UAE, Saudi Arabia and Lebanon capturing the largest market share, the genres of international non-fiction, celebrity titles, autobiographies, and a fast-emerging market for graphic novels, have done exceedingly well here.”

Kempton Mooney, senior director, research & analytics, Nielsen Book,presented the customer’s perspective: “Better job prospects and increased consumer confidence in personal finance are important to increase ‘consumer confidence’ in local retail markets. Book retailers must enhance consumers’ in-store experience, and sales & marketing strategies must keep in mind and cater to the uniqueness of each country in the Arab region. Online shopping motivations should also be regularly tracked, as a trend for ‘finding the best deal online’ is seen in 34 percent of the UAE’s consumers making purchases through e-commerce today.”

Nermin Mollaoglu, literary agent, Kalem, shared her decade-long tryst with Arabic publishing, stressing on the need for literary agents to be culturally and politically sensitive while approaching new business opportunities.“As literary agents, we must practice the healing art instead of simply the dealing art. It is our duty to educate ourselves to know the societal and political conditions that influence publishing in every country we try to approach expecting to close a few book deals with them. Doing so puts us in better light and helps building trust from the get go,” she said.

UAE’s publishing industry and current challenges

A panel discussion titled, ‘The Publishing Industry in the UAE and Current Challenges’ focussed on the quality of writing and publishing, the rise of new technology and how to make publishing profitable.

Isobel Abulhoul, OBE, CEO and trustee of the Emirates Literature Foundation and director of the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature, named sales, marketing and distribution as some of the biggest issues facing regional publishers today. “When we look at Kuwaiti author Saud Alsanousi and his book ‘The Bamboo Stalk’, we are talking in terms of a Middle East best seller with 55,000 sold copies. Generally speaking, there may be thousands of books that are published, but it is only the top 50 bestsellers that will keep the others on the shelves. Publishing is a business and if you can’t make a profit, you shouldn’t be a publisher,” she said.

Sultan Al Amimi, Emirati literary critic, researcher, short story writer and director of the Poetry Academy, pointed out that the quality of authors and publishers needs to be reviewed. “The number of writers and publishing houses is increasing, but is that the direction we want the industry to go? Many of the authors here are looking for fame and celebrity far more than critical acclaim. They think that one book – no matter whether it is written well or not – should give them a certain status. This cannot be good. There are some publishing houses which are not particularly interested in looking at the quality of the writing or the story itself and there are publishers who are not even interested in proofreading the material,” he observed.

Jamal Al Shehhi, Emirati author andfounder of Kuttub publishing house, said that he did not believe his industry was as bleak as it had been painted, but he could see a massive future for electronic books, a medium which is becoming more and more prevalent in the UAE: “E-books have revolutionised the publishing industry in the West and we are an emerging market – emerging very quickly – and that is the way things will go for us here as well. Around 30% of publishing is now made up of e-books. There can be no doubt that publishing changes the world and that our ideas and practices must change with them,” he said.

Sultan Al Amimi disagreed saying that traditional material will always be preferable. “Readers, authors and most publishers want to be able to hold the books in their hands and feel the paper on their fingers. Even people who do download books often print them off and then cover them just so they can have that emotional connection. If people pay for something they want to have it in their hands, they want to own it, they want it to be personal, not just on screens.”

Isobel Abulhoul concluded the session by agreeing that there is a place for both formats. “E-books have a real place in our lives,particularly publications such as art books, children’s books and cookery books. It is a wonderful resource to be able to browse through some titles whenever you want and download something immediately. It’s instant intellectual gratification. Sadly, there is an element of piracy that has to be addressed as it does with music. Despite the ethics involved, many people do not want to pay for something if they can get it for nothing.”

“What is interesting about e-publishing is that having firmly established itself in recent years in the UK, its sales diminished last year while sales of print books increased. There’s enough opportunity for both formats. It is also encouraging to see that e-books will help to foster a love of reading in any form. And that has to be good news,” she said.

 

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