Abu Dhabi Diary, Part I

Philip Patrick lecturing in Abu Dhabi

“It’s profoundly important to be willing to fail. What’s important is trying new things,” said Philip Patrick, a publisher at Crown Publishing, a division of Random House, as students from 14 nations listened raptly. Most were thousands of miles from home, seated at student desks at the brand new campus of New York University Abu Dhabi, participating in the inaugural executive publishing training sessions for publishers from the Arab world (and beyond).

As director of The Center for Publishing at NYU-SCPS, I was there to help make sure all went smoothly at this exciting new program we co-sponsored with KITAB, a joint venture company between the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair and the Frankfurt Book Fair. Many of the visiting publishers from Africa (Senegal, Algeria, Tunisia, Nigeria), from the Middle East (Iran, Iraq, Syria, Jordan, the UAE, Lebanon and The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia), from Russia, Malaysia and the Netherlands were directors and senior managers of major publishing companies. Yet, they were remarkably modest about their own accomplishments—something not always so apparent in a roomful of their New York counterparts.

Day one of the four-day program was devoted to “Mission and Vision: Creating a Successful Title List.” Patrick, Vice President, Digital and Marketing Strategy and Publisher of Crown Group Digital, conveyed the importance of what he called the overlapping spheres of passion, marketplace need, and sales history. “How can you be successful when the market does not need something?” asked Ibrahim al-Rajab, Director of Al-Muthanna Library, booksellers and publishers in Baghdad. “Great question!” responded Patrick,  who agreed that the world does not need another cookbook or novel: “But if you package and market them well, you can sometimes override the obvious lack of need.”

As the session continued, publishers from around the world shared their own unique experiences and ideas about trying new things and about reaching a wider audience. They were frank and forthcoming about overcoming the challenges of publishing in a world where bookstores are limited to urban regions, censorship, copyright violations and bad debt are prevalent in some countries, and ISBNs are anything but universal. Walid Soliman of Walidoff International in Tunisia shared the story of how he reached out to the Peruvian author Mario Vargas Llosa and asked to translate his book La Verdad de las Mentiras (“The Truth about Lies,” published as A Writer’s Reality in English) into Arabic.  “I loved him. He was one of my favorite writers,” explained Soliman. To ensure that readers understood that the book was not pirated, he asked Vargas Llosa to write a special introduction, which he happily agreed to do. Soliman  printed 1000 copies of the book in 2009 (small printings under 2,000 copies are quite normal in the Arab world) and sold 30. Imagine Soliman’s  expression some months later when he was manning his booth at The Frankfurt Book Fair and heard that his author had just won the  2010 Nobel Prize  for literature.“I sold all my copies,” he reported with a wide smile.

Mario Pulice discusses cover design

Day two, Mario Pulice, Vice President and Creative Director of Little, Brown and Company, presented a PowerPoint that was in itself a work of art. In his presentation on “Cover Concept and Design,” Pulice  shared examples of covers that worked, those that didn’t and also told  juicy inside stories of some  Little, Brown covers.  The new biography of Cleopatra by Stacy Schiff was a sticky challenge for Pulice. “The only portraits of her were on coins, and she wasn’t so pretty,” he explained.  “I said: ‘Let’s use a photo that looks like a portrait.’ But I didn’t want to show her face. I wanted the readers to imagine Cleopatra in their own way.” The resulting  photo of a woman with pearls in her hair and her face turned away was controversial: “People wanted to know: ‘Where’s the asp? Where’s the eyeliner? Where’s the white dress?’”explained Pulice, who is himself very pleased with the results.

Similarly, Rolling Stone Keith Richards is thrilled with the cover of his new bestseller, also designed by Pulice. He selected a gritty black and white photo of Richards with a skull ring, smoking. ”He loved it. It’s his favorite photo of himself,” explained Pulice. Did the dramatically dark cover help shoot the book up the bestseller list? “If a cover bombs, it’s all  the creative director’s fault,” lamented Pulice. “If it sells, who knows?”

Students in a breakout session

At the conclusion of the first two-days of the session, students had  exchanged stories and best practices over coffee breaks and group dinners; they had shared business cards and camaraderie and learned the meaning of learning (and publishing) across borders.

Coming up: Part II on digital strategies

by Andrea L. Chambers
To read more about the NYU-KUTAB executive training in Abu Dhabi, click here:

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