Selling Rights at the Sharjah International Book Fair

Selling international publishing rights and discovering the Arab publishing scene in the United Arab Emirates.

images_events_sharjah_book_fairBy Marleen Seegers – first posted in November 2014.

From November 3-5 2014, I was invited to take part in a fellowship preceding the 33rd edition of the Sharjah International Book Fair. The Dutch publishing magazine Boekblad asked me to write a daily blog just before, during, and after this professional program. Below article is based on those daily blogs.

Friday October 31: Pre-Travel Pack Document

Less than three weeks after my return from Europe—I’d been on the road for five weeks, visiting publishing professionals in Munich, Paris, and Amsterdam before attending the Frankfurt Book Fair—my empty suitcase lies in front of me again, ready to be packed for my next business trip: I’ve been invited to participate in the fellowship that takes place prior to the Sharjah International Book Fair (SIBF).

What shall I bring? This is the first time I’ll be visiting the Middle East. Temperature-wise it isn’t very different compared to California, as it is about 33 degrees Celsius in Sharjah right now. But the Emirate has a conservative dress code, which is made very clear to us in the pre-travel pack document we received from the organizing team: it is recommended that women cover their shoulders and that skirts come to a conservative length below the knee. Right, I’ll just take trousers. That makes it much easier to choose my outfits anyway.

Earlier this year I took part in a panel discussion at BookExpo America, in New York. One of my fellow panel members was Ahmed Al Ameri, the director of the SIBF. During our panel discussion he showed the audience a copy of the Hungarian translation of the German bestseller Er ist wieder da by Timur Vermes. This edition, he said, was a direct result from the 2013 edition of the SIBF fellowship of 2013, during which the German rights seller and the Hungarian publisher had closed the deal. This meant that the Hungarian publisher was able to apply for a translation grant from the SIBF.

I couldn’t believe what I heard: a translation subsidy that is granted by the SIBF, even though Arabic isn’t the source nor the target language, merely because the deal had been concluded during the SIBF fellowship? Apparently many fellows see each other first in Frankfurt to discuss different potential titles. Then they close the deal three weeks later, during the SIBF fellowship, in order to qualify for the grant. Of course this sounded like music to my rights seller’s ears!

After returning from New York I wrote to Mr. Al Ameri, and within a week I received the application forms for the fellowship. I filled them out, and a month or so later I received an official invitation.

Last week I received a list with the names of all the fellows. There are no less than 120 rights sellers and buyers from non-Arab countries, and about 75 from Arab countries. I’m glad to see some familiar names on the list, among which Eric Visser, founder of Dutch publishing house De Geus and the recently launched English-language publishing house World Editions. The timing is excellent, since 2 Seas Agency recently started representing world translation rights on behalf of De Geus. There are also a couple of publishers who I already pitched several titles to in Frankfurt earlier this month. Could this lead to concrete deals, thanks to the SIBF’s financial support?

I’m very curious… Besides of course concluding many deals, I also hope to gain a better understanding of the Arab publishing scene. What kind of titles are Arab publishers looking for? What are their challenges? What is the distribution like between the different Arab countries, if there is any? How about the e-book market? We have yet to close our first Arabic language rights deal—hopefully my participation in the fellowship leads to excellent working relationships with Arab publishers.

Monday November 3: “We buy world Arabic rights, or nothing”
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Flight from Los Angeles to Dubai

Last night I collapsed on my hotel bed after having spent over 15 hours on the plane from Los Angeles to Dubai, and another hour or so in a taxi to get to Sharjah (it’s only 20 kilometers from Dubai, but the traffic is terrible). The long flight and the 12-hour time difference had taken their toll. A minute ago I almost set my hotel room on fire by plugging my American multi-plug into the socket without an adapter. Time to catch up with some sleep!

The professional program was officially opened this morning with a speech by Mr. Al Ameri, the director of the SIBF, and a keynote by Richard Charkin, MD of Bloomsbury UK and President of the International Publishers’ Association. The two seminars that followed, Translated Books and the Global View of Sales and Show Me the Money! New business models for digital and digital book business included varied speakers. During the first seminar my attention was caught by Amir Muhammad, founder of the Malaysian publishing house Fixi, because of his enthusiasm and no nonsense approach. Three years ago he had grown tired of the fact that 90% of Malaysian books were romance titles. So he set off to look for the books he would have read had he been a teenager now, and went on to publish them. These include titles from Stephen King, Neil Gaiman, John Green and Haruki Murakami.

Welcome speech by the Director of the SIBF

Welcome speech by the Director of the SIBF

During the second seminar, I paid close attention to Ashraf Maklad, who launched the Arab e-book platform Kotobi last February in Cairo. Currently it has 100,000 registered users, who have so far downloaded  about 200,000 e-books. His biggest challenge is to have enough content to offer. While the focus so far has been on trade books, he said time has come to make reference and children’s books also available in e-book format. He sees great potential for the e-book market in the Arab world: among the major distribution problems that printed books face between different Arab countries, the e-book brings a fast solution. He foresees that publishers will more easily publish e-books, and possibly follow up with a print edition at a later stage.

In the afternoon, matchmaking sessions were organized between the different fellows. Just before lunch I received my schedule and… only five of the appointments I had requested had actually been confirmed! Besides these five appointments my schedule was totally empty. Fortunately, Egyptian publisher Sherif Bakr of Al Arabi Publishing & Distributing came to my rescue. We’d met in Frankfurt three weeks before, and during lunch today he introduced me to a plethora of other Egyptian publishers. Before I knew it, my schedule for the afternoon had filled up.

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Matchmaking sessions

As some previous fellows had mentioned to me before my departure, the matchmaking sessions were very flexible and easy-going. I was able to stop and chat with everyone I ran into, while searching for the tables where my appointments were taking place. My first appointment was with Sherif from Al Arabi, who told me he wanted to publish an Arabic translation of one of the titles I had presented to him during our Frankfurt appointment. He pulled out a form from his papers: an application form for the famous SIBF translation grant. My meetings were off to a good start!

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SIBF Professional Program

Besides the afore-mentioned Egyptians and a publisher from Dubai, I also met with Wuping Zhao from Shanghai Translation Publishing House and Caroline Couteau from Editions Zoé, both of whom I had been wanting to meet in Frankfurt or London but had never managed to arrange a meeting with. At 2 PM the jet lag hit me big time (it was actually 2 AM according to my biological clock), which was quickly ended by a strong cup of coffee. An often-recurring topic during my conversations with Arab publishers concerned the territory they acquire Arabic rights for: for their specific country alone, or world Arabic rights? Their answer was unanimous: we buy world Arabic rights, or nothing. This despite the major distribution problems between the various Arab countries that was already addressed earlier today by Asraf Maklad of Kotobi.com. The Egyptian publishers I spoke with have no distribution in the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, etc. In order to sell their books in these territories, they personally travel to all the local book fairs (Sharjah, Abu Dhabi, Riyadh, Tunis… which are all open to the public) with large piles of books to sell to the public. Sometimes they also conclude agreements with booksellers in other Arab countries, but this is more complicated as they often encounter payment issues.

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Enjoying a drink in Ajman

After dinner at the hotel, I took off with a group of fellows to Ajman, an Emirate which is located a fifteen minute drive to the north of Sharjah. We all enjoyed a nice glass of beer/wine/any other kind of spirit—Sharjah is a “dry” Emirate, which means sale or possession of alcohol is forbidden). So I ended my first day of the fellowship dipping my toes in the warm waters of the Arabian Gulf.

Tuesday November 4: Last-minute meetings and dinner in the desert

After a rather short night, we were off again at 8:15 AM this morning. In the bus to the second day of seminars and matchmaking sessions I sat next to Ua Matthíasdóttir, who sells rights for the Icelandic publishing house Forlagid. We had an interesting conversation about the impact of Iceland having been the guest of honor of the Frankfurt Book Fair in 2011. The Netherlands and Flanders will be joint guests of honor in Frankfurt in 2016, and France will be guest of honor the following year which I couldn’t be more thrilled about: the majority of titles that 2 Seas Agency represents comes from these language territories. Besides a lot of extra attention from Germany in the two years prior to the 2011 FBF, Ua also received more interest than usual from neighboring countries such as the Netherlands and France. What is more, after the 2011 FBF a considerable number of publishers from other countries around the world reached out to her since they had heard about her titles during the Fair. All in all she was very satisfied about the results, which I was glad to hear.

Skyline Sharjah

Sharjah’s skyline

My schedule for the matchmaking sessions this afternoon was almost full, thanks again to Sherif. But I’d also arranged several last-minute appointments with publishers whom I met yesterday during the day, at dinner or during our drinks in Ajman. My urge to have a perfectly organized schedule well in advance has been completely suppressed here, and I must say it’s quite liberating. About half of my appointments were with non-Arab publishers, from countries as varied as France, Czech Republic, Croatia, and Poland. I already knew all of them, but I hadn’t spoken to  some of them personally since I left Editions Stock in Paris before co-founding 2 Seas Agency. So it was nice to be able to sit down and take our time to catch up. I was also very satisfied with my appointments with Arab publishers, and I hardly had any “no-shows”. Some other fellows needed an interpreter since some of the Arab publishers they met with didn’t speak English well enough, something I didn’t experience—though my knowledge of French came in very handy.

Translation Grant corner

SIBF translation grant corner

I filled out no less than five further application forms for the SIBF translation grant—all of them concerned translations into Arabic. While I slightly hesitated yesterday when I put my signature down (several conditions still had to be agreed on), I knew better now. The application form is not binding for either party. Rather, it is nothing more than a letter of intent. I realized this during my first appointment this afternoon, when a Dubai-based publisher told me she thought one of the novels I presented to her seemed excellent, and wanted to sign the application form. I’m sorry? was my response. You haven’t read the book yet? She asked me to send the PDF to her as soon as possible after the SIBF, so she could start reading and make a final decision. Should the deal eventually fall through due to whatever reason (the book doesn’t fit her list after all, we don’t reach an agreement on the terms, etc.), then we can leave it at that. But if she really wants to publish this title in Arabic and we do reach an agreement on the terms, we will already have put the translation grant process in motion. All this sounds a little surreal to me, but after having talked to several other rights sellers it turned out that this is the usual procedure. And many application forms were signed: it was very crowded in the SIBF translation grant office where the forms had to be handed in.

Tonight we were treated to a dinner in the desert: after a 1.5-hour bus ride, we were dropped off at an oasis in the middle of the desert. We were welcomed at a camel farm owned by the Sheikh’s family, where great food, henna painting, Arabic calligraphy and—of course—camels were waiting for us.

Wednesday November 5: Waiting for the Sheikh and Dan Brown
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SIBF opening ceremony

Once again I met a couple of new fellows during breakfast this morning. This time I sat next to a Spanish and an Italian publisher, who were both here for the first time as well. I still had the feeling I hadn’t talked to everyone yet. Today was my last chance: the first fellows were starting to go home again. After breakfast we headed to the last part of the professional program: the opening ceremony of the 33rd edition of the Sharjah International Book Fair. We were in good company: the Sheikh himself opened the exhibition, and a visit by Dan Brown had also been announced.

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Sharjah International Book Fair

We were led into a spacious hall, where breakfast was waiting for us—the second one for me yet I simply couldn’t pass up on the traditional delicacies that were lying in front of us. The start of the ceremony was announced by an impressive music and light show; a Las Vegas show would’ve been meager in comparison. Suddenly everyone stood up: His Highness the Sheikh had arrived.

After several keynote speeches, a great number of prizes were handed out by the Sheikh, for amongst others Cultural Personality of the Year, Best Arabic Children’s Book of the Year, and Best Arabic Non-Fiction Book of the Year (the latter went to Yusuf/Cat Stevens and his autobiography Why I Still Carry a Guitar). After the Sheikh cut the ribbon and the SIBF had officially been opened, Eric Visser (Uitgeverij De Geus), Emmanuelle Collas (Galaade Editions) and I took a stroll along the booths of several Arab publishers we’d previously had appointments with. I always like to see the actual, physical books, which gives greater insight and builds confidence. Sherif Bakr of Al Arabi proudly shows us the Arabic edition of Herman Koch’s international best-seller The Dinner. I also notice a strong presence of publishers and cultural institutions from India at the fair. This an important market for them since a large part of the UAE’s population is of Indian origin (besides English and Arabic, Hindi is the third most spoken language).

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Sharjah’s Blue Souk

In the afternoon we’d been given some free time. Timothy Bent (Oxford University Press), Denise Shannon (Denise Shannon Agency), Suzanne Brandreth (The Cooke Agency), Ruth Byrne (Curtis Brown) and I went out to visit Sharjah’s most famous souks. Sharjah’s “old” city center will be significantly renovated over the next sixteen years. After the discovery of oil in the 1960s its traditional buildings were demolished at a rapid pace, and replaced by blocks of tall apartment buildings. Some of the latter will now be torn down again to be replaced by new, “traditional” buildings.

In the evening we went to a gala dinner organized on the rooftop of the fair building, where both the Sheikh and Dan Brown were to attend. When we arrived, we discovered beautifully laid tables that were waiting just for us.

Waiting for the Sheikh and Dan Brown

Waiting for the Sheikh and Dan Brown

Unfortunately we had to sit there and stare at the dishes and plates for the next 1.5 hours before we could actually start our dinner—we weren’t allowed to start eating before the Sheikh arrived, and apparently he’d been held up somewhere with Dan Brown… Once they’d arrived together with the Sheikh’s entourage, we once again enjoyed a delicious meal together.

 

Sunday, November 9: After a trip around the world

On Friday afternoon I landed again in Los Angeles, after more a 16+ hour flight from Dubai. On my way from LA to Dubai we flew eastbound via Greenland, and about an hour after takeoff I realized we were flying eastbound once again, via north-eastern Russia and the North Pole. In less than a week I had flown around the world!

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From Dubai to Los Angeles

In the end the Sharjah dress code that the organization had made us aware of before-hand had not been extremely restrictive. It was fine as long as women had their shoulders covered and their knees were covered in case they wore a dress, shorts or skirt. In fact I thought it had been very helpful to have been told in advance to ‘cover up’: everywhere we went the AC was on maximum. At times it so bad that as soon as I had a short break in between meetings, I ran outside to warm myself up again in the November desert heat. Had it not been for the dress code, I would probably have been less prepared for the cold temperatures inside!

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The 33rd edition of the SIBF

In many ways I spent an unforgettable week in Sharjah. It may sound like a cliché, but I am grateful for the fact that thanks to my job I can gather such great experiences and meet interesting, passionate people from around the world. The SIBF fellowship allowed me to expand my network with fun, new connections and to deepen already existing relationships. It is essential for a foreign rights seller to develop and maintain good relationships. Even though you regularly meet people at the London and Frankfurt Book Fairs, you rarely have enough time to really get to know each other there. In Sharjah the fellows spent four days together, from early morning till late in the evening. Obviously I didn’t get to know each of the fellows equally well (it was a very large group), but I grew close to several people and will likely do business with them in some way.

I also have a much better understanding of the Arab book market, the challenges it faces (large distribution problems between the various Arab countries), its developments (expansion of material available in e-book format which could facilitate the distribution of printed books) and what Arab publishers are currently looking for (World Arabic rights! And also quite a lot of children’s, YA and text books, although I also met with some brave, admirable publishers looking for literary fiction from minority languages).

Hopefully I will close a couple of concrete rights deals with Arab publishers following my participation in the SIBF fellowship. We’ve already started negotiations for the first one… to be continued!

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