Thoughts on Sharjah International Book Fair by Lisa Edwards

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Byte the Book member Lisa Edwards has just come back from her first Sharjah Book Fair, here are her thoughts on the conference…

I came to Sharjah not quite knowing what to expect, not least because it was my first experience of the United Arab Emirates, but also of its book fair, emerging from the shimmering desert landscape as one of the shining lights in the publishing calendar, being the fourth biggest in the world.

At the opening ceremony, the ruler of Sharjah, His Highness Sheikh Dr. Sultan Bin Mohammad Al Qassimi, gave an impassioned speech about the importance of reading and knowledge to a civilised society. His poetic lyrical phrasing, not lost in translation, lent the occasion an epic air, especially as he recounted the story of his exchanging his gold dagger for books as a young man. He and his daughter, Sheikha Badoor, are championing their ‘smiling emirate’ as a centre for the arts and culture, and the region is rich with museums and cultural activity.

Before the opening of the book fair, I’d been invited to attend the Sharjah Professional Programme, with its series of seminars, matchmaking and social events. Richard Charkin, Executive Director of Bloomsbury Publishing PLC and President of the International Publishers’ Association marked his keynote address with a reference to the bestselling book Eat, Pray, Love: as publishers we ‘eat’ (we did, extensively, due to the hospitality of the Sheikh), we ‘pray’ for success, and we ‘love’ what we do.

I attended a series of informative seminars, including Translated Books and the Global View of Sales in which Simon & Schuster’s Seth Russo outlined the rise of a multilingual community and the increase in the popularity and connectivity of authors on social media. Amir Mohammed, of Malaysia’s Buku Fixi, talked animatedly about his foray into Malaysian translations of big names such as Stephen King, Neil Gaiman and John Green (because his language is three times longer than English, he has to buy rights to titles with limited extents!).

A seminar on new publishing models saw Penguin Random House’s Nathan Hull talk on subscription models and advertising within ebooks (as they are doing in China). The panel recognised that the much-vaunted ‘Spotify model’ doesn’t work for books – an eight-hour read is very different to a three-minute song. Authors and publishers may find themselves adapting in other ways to the subscription format, and we may see more short-form reading.

Hull and other panellists such as agent Lisa Gallagher recognised that consumers read both physically and digitally – should publishers be working on bundling as a solution to that demand? Vodafone Egypt’s Ashraf Maklad talked about the rates of piracy in Egypt and the Middle East – currently one of the region’s biggest challenges, and centred around young-adult fiction. He remarked that self-publishing is huge in the region – it’s the ‘American Idol’ of the Arab world.

John Ingram, Chairman of Ingram Industries Inc, spoke of the emergence of print-on-demand as a digital ‘platform’ back to the physical book, and whilst the rate of ebook sales had flattened, POD still continues to grow, with Lightning Source producing 80,000 titles in the last year, with same- or next-day delivery capability.

“The world is a big place,” he said, “but digital makes it smaller.”

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