30 Nov 2 Seas at the 2016 Sharjah International Book Fair
What was it like to take part in the fellowship preceding the 35th edition of the Sharjah International Book Fair?
By Chrysothemis Armefti — article first published in December 2016
The last weeks of October were hectic. Preparing for the Frankfurt Book Fair, a strained foot, the rush of the FBF meetings themselves and then their follow-ups was to be followed by a wonderful 3-day experience at the Sharjah International Book Fair in the United Arab Emirates, from October 31 to November 2.
A productive Frankfurt Book Fair
2 Seas Agency’s founder Marleen and I had a very productive FBF. I was so excited by all the deals we managed to secure during and after this fair, especially for Charles Pépin’s The Virtues of Failure. German rights were sold to Hanser just before the FBF and Garzanti pre-empted the Italian rights on the eve of the Fair. After that, Romanian rights were sold to Niculescu, and Estação Liberdade acquired Brazilian Portuguese rights at auction, in a two-book deal.
But there was no time to process everything…
Marleen had attended the Sharjah International Book Fair in 2014, and now it was my turn: the SIBF was waiting for me! This was going to be my first book fair on my own, an 8-hour flight away from Porto, in the Gulf region. I had started scheduling my appointments through their online system a week before Frankfurt and I was happy that all the meetings were confirmed.
Two hundred and thirty-five publishing professionals from all over the world were invited to the 6th edition of Sharjah International Book Fair’s (SIBF) Professional Program. This program consisted of two days of panel discussions and matchmaking sessions. It was a great opportunity to learn more about the local market and have the chance to meet publishers from the region and abroad.
After a short connecting flight to Lisbon, I boarded the Emirates flight to Dubai. Seven hours on a plane with free movies at my disposal! By the time we landed I had seen four movies, including the amazing Brazilian feature film The Violin Teacher (Tudo Que Aprendemos Juntos).
I finally arrived at the hotel at 2 a.m., local time. There is only a four-hour difference between Portugal and the Emirates but I didn’t manage to fall asleep before 3:30. I still kept the alarm set to 6:30 though, since I wanted to be super ready and on time for my first day of meetings!
Entering the Hilton’s breakfast buffet and eating something quickly—literally and figuratively like a Zombie, is quite the experience. The socializing started almost immediately, as I joined some other agents for breakfast; Magalie Delobelle (So Far So Good Literary Agency), Evangelia Avloniti (Ersilia Literary Agency, our co-agent in Greece), Katerina Frangou (Iris Literary Agency) and Gudrun Hebel (Gudrun Literary Agency). Evangelia was participating in the program for the second time so we were all asking her for information about the meetings and how the Application form for the Translation Grant worked.
First day of discussions and meetings
Day one’s discussions for the 6th edition of the SIBF’s Professional Program 2016 were centered on the importance of both print and electronic media, the presence of the latter growing fast in the Arab regions. It was stated that the number of writers and publishing houses was increasing and that e-books should be something UAE publishers put more emphasis on, since around 30% of Arab publishing is now made up of e-books.
Ahmed bin Rakkad Al Ameri, Chairman of SBA, opened the first day of discussions by underlining the cultural importance of Sharjah in the UAE. On that note, I was excited to see what they were planning for January 2017, with the creation of a “Publishing City”, to be located on the main Dubai to Sharjah road.
The first session by Alexander Bregman, Strategic Partnerships EMEA, Google, focused on the potential of digital books in the UAE, taking into account the huge number of Internet users. Google and Emirates Airlines were ‘Celebrating Arabic Reading’ through a special discount campaign in October, making Arabic books even more accessible. You can see the video here.
Michael Tamblyn, President and CEO of Rakuten Kobo, gave a session on how e-books can co-exist with books in print. Shadi Al Hasan, CEO and Founder of Flagship Projects shared how his company collaborated with Storytel, the first mobile streaming audio-book service, a leading Swedish sales channel for audio-books, providing unlimited listening to both local language and English content libraries.
The following panel discussion on the ‘Overview of Arab Publishing’, chaired by Marcia Lynx-Qualey, Arab literature blogger and translator, and Tamer Said, Managing Director of Kalimat Group, underlined the need to enhance the distribution of Arab literature everywhere in the world.
All the Arab countries share the same language and culture. So there should be a way to keep Arab readers and foreign publishers/booksellers informed about bestselling titles, booksellers, recommendations, and also provide statistics on the market.
The SIBF’s translation grant
Then we were given a short introduction to the Translation Grant. The Translation Grant, the SIBF and other initiatives have been a major factor in the development of the local and regional readership. The annual SIBF Translation Grant Fund of $300,000 aims to encourage the translation of books into and out of Arabic. The grant value will range up to $4,000 for general titles and up to $1,500 for children’s books, depending on number of words. However, $50,000 will also be given to support the translation of books from any language to any language (not Arabic), given that both parties participated in the SIBF Professional Program. Further information can be found here.
Following the explanations regarding the Translation Grant, the final panel briefly discussed access, rights and translation in Arab publishing, mainly focusing on the importance of understanding how the Arab world works and the need to be more flexible regarding the financial aspects of deals, aiming for long-lasting relationships.
After a short break with an amazing buffet—the food was an experience as interesting as the trip itself—we were directed to the upper floor to pursue our matchmaking sessions. Everything was well-organized and every company had its own table, 220 in total.
I was so glad that I brought autumnal weather clothing, despite the fact that it was over 33ºC outside. The air-conditioning was so low that I was freezing even with my big scarf on. Every time we had a break, I was going out to the veranda trying to warm myself up!
My first day of meetings had its ups and downs, but it was generally very successful.
The meetings were confirmed and prepared and I felt super-ready. But it was nothing like Frankfurt, where we have back-to-back meetings. There, a 30-minute meeting usually gives us enough time, at a normal to medium speed.
In Sharjah, in 30 minutes—even at high speed—it was hard to get to know new people, pitch titles, wait for them to make a decision, fill in the expression of interest forms and then move on to a different table for the following meeting. Now I understand why the meetings started at 11 a.m. and finished at 5 p.m. The good thing is that at lunch we also had time to meet with other publishers, ending up exchanging contacts and socializing.
Before we knew it, the day was over and we headed back to the Hilton, with a little bit of free time before a buffet dinner with guest speaker Elin Hilderbrand, best-selling author of The Rumour and The Matchmaking.
The next day, still lacking some sleep (being unable to sleep more than four hours) I skipped
breakfast, knowing that an amazing cocktail buffet was waiting for us at the Congress Centre.
The challenges and opportunities of publishing in the Arab World
The second day’s discussions opened with a panel entitled ‘Viewpoints on the Arab Market’ with panelists Matt Cowdery, Head of Sales, Hachette MEA; Kempton Mooney, Senior Director, Research & Analytics, Nielsen Book; Ahmed Rashad, Executive Director, Al Masriah Al Lubnaniah for Publishing; Nermin Mollaoglu, Literary Agent, Kalem Agency; and (Chair) Michel Moushabeck, Publisher/Editor, Interlink Publishing.
They spoke generally about the challenges and opportunities in the Arab World. The region is politically complex with a large land area and little in the way of regional infrastructure; the readership is diverse across the region and sometimes conservative and the subtleties are not well understood; importation restrictions can be complex and slow, the credit and payment challenges in some markets are big, not to mention the regional instability.
However, Arab countries are offering great opportunities, mainly: an open market region for rights due to the regional growth in the Gulf, with emerging markets like Qatar and Kuwait, especially in series of non fiction titles and children’s books.
Taking up a discussion on retail from a consumer’s perspective, Compton Mooney spoke about the lack of information regarding the general market and the need to increase consumer’s confidence in the local markets.
Providing a detailed overview of Arab publishing, Rashad underlined that despite thirteen countries having Arabic as their official language, there are no official reports about the Arab publishing industry. There are over 3,000 Arab publishers in the region for less than 1,000 active ones, with 1,500-3,000 titles or journals released annually per country. The average print run is between 1,000 and 2,000 copies for fiction titles, and 5,000 to 10,000 for bestsellers. The Arab publishing landscape has changed in the last few years: target readers are between 18 and 35 years old, new types of bookshops and outlets have emerged like Virgin and Kinokuniya, and a new generation of professional young publishers have appeared like Al-Balsam Publishing house and HUDHUD.
A series of reading initiatives like USAID from the American People, new translation projects like Kalima, the National Centre of Translation, and book awards like Sheikh Zayed and Arab Booker Prize have brought about positive change in the region’s publishing industry.
However, the absence of a list of translators for different languages, a list of translated books into and out of Arabic, the high cost of translation and buying of copyrights, the lack of professional entities presenting their work and the lack of Arab agents and scouts are few of the issues the Arab publishing market is facing.
Nermin Mollaoglu, with 10 years of experience in working with Arab publishers, closed the panel adding that the key to successful sales and distribution in the Arab world is to deepen our knowledge and understanding of other people’s cultures, to educate ourselves on the political and social conditions that influence the publishing industry in each country, underlining that both parties need to take a step forward, building a relationship of trust.
The second day of matchmaking sessions passed more smoothly, and I finally got the chance to meet with Kader Abdolah’s editor, Job Lisman at Prometheus. Kader Abdolah is a bestselling Dutch author with Iranian origins, whose translation rights 2 Seas Agency represents worldwide. Before dinner, I went for a short walk to the Al Qasba area, with a magnificent Mosque, an international bookshop and numerous restaurants, strolling along both banks of the river. Later on, we decided to visit Ajman, a city that is a 20-minutes’ drive from Sharjah. Two Macedonian publishers, Filip Batkoski and Dejan Trajkoski, explained to us the “tradition” of the Kempinski hotel. Apparently, every year the participants of the Professional program go there to enjoy a drink on the beach at night, Sharjah being a dry Emirate.
The following day we attended the opening ceremony of the Sharjah International Book Fair, the world’s third largest book fair. The 35th edition took place on November 2-12, at Expo Centre Sharjah under the patronage of His Highness Sheikh Dr. Sultan bin Muhammad Al Qasimi, Member of the Supreme Council and Ruler of Sharjah.
Opening ceremony of the SIBF
The opening ceremony took place in a disco-like atmosphere. HE Ahmed Bin Rakkad Al Ameri, Chairman of Sharjah Book Authority (SBA) launched the 2 million AED Sharjah Translation Award, entitled ‘Turjuman’. Then His Highness Sheikh Dr Sultan Al Qasimi used the stage to sign the Arabic copy of his book ‘Power Struggles and Trade in the Gulf (1620–1820)’.
Over 2.31 million visitors attended the Sharjah International Book Fair (SIBF) 2016—themed “Read More”—breaking all previous records.
This year, there were more than 1,680 publishing houses from 60 countries taking part, over 1,417 activities taking place, and more than 1.5 million books displayed at the event.
After our visit to the fair, Magalie, Evangelia, Katerina and Urpu Strellman (at the time of writing, publishing manager of Finnish company Art House) and I decided to pay a quick visit to Dubai, since our time was limited. We rented a taxi and drove to Jumeirah Beach, where we could see the Burj Al Arab Hotel. Then we passed through the Palm Island and headed to the Emirates Mall for a quick snack, before spending an hour and a half in traffic going back to Sharjah! At least I can say that I set foot in Dubai, and not just the airport! We got back just in time for dinner on the rooftop of the fair with His Highness (who never arrived).
Before I knew it, it was time to return to Porto.
In all, these three days in Sharjah were a very enriching experience. It’s one thing reading about the Arab publishing market online and doing some research, but actually experiencing it is another matter. There is no comparison, the vast difference in the kind of understanding you can get. Not only through the panel discussions and the face-to-face meetings, but most importantly during the socializing in our “free” time and visiting the stands at the book fair. Each fair I participate in continues to confirm the importance of relationships with foreign editors. We don’t only build new relationships and expand our database but mostly we deepen the ones we already have. I talk to dozens of people every day by e-mail, but in order to maintain these relationships and actually get to know them, it’s also important to meet them at some point in person, to better understand their editorial needs and build stronger bonds with them.
Each year, the SIBF brings together hundreds of book industry professionals and attracts thousands of visitors from across the world. Because of its many initiatives and projects to “support the publishing industry, promote translation and literary exchange” Sharjah has been named the Sao Paulo International Book Fair’s Guest of Honor for the year 2018.