Sharjah Book Fair: Arabian Nights and Days

M.S. in Publishing students and Sharjah Book Fair volunteers (l-r) Christian Scarlett, Janea Brachfeld, Molly Bagshaw, and blogger Leigh George at the Al Noor Mosque
M.S. in Publishing students and Sharjah Book Fair volunteers (l-r) Christian Scarlett, Janea Brachfeld, Molly Bagshaw, and blogger Leigh George at the Al Noor Mosque

To attend the Sharjah International Book Fair (SIBF) in the United Arab Emirates, you don’t have to be an author or publisher; you just have to be passionate about reading. The fair’s tagline, “For the Love of the Written Word,” was posted proudly throughout the exposition center.

Each year, international authors, publishers, agents, and families from this emirate next to Dubai are invited to the ten-day fair. And this year, four NYU M.S. in Publishing: Digital and Print Media students were also invited to volunteer at the fair and at the three days of publishing events that preceded it. Molly Bagshaw, Janea Brachfield, Christian Scarlett, and I were thrilled to take part in a world far removed from Book Expo America and other U.S. publishing events. In Middle Eastern book fairs, publishers not only promote their books, but sell them as well. Families with shopping carts maneuvered through the aisles, perusing more than 400,000 titles on display at the 32nd SIBF. Exhibitors from 53 countries, including 23 Arab nations, displayed books in 180 languages. Having volunteered at many publishing events in the United States, Janea thought the experience at SIBF was the most rewarding: “I was surprised by the level of involvement of the attendees during the fair and Professional Program. Everyone was determined to make the most of their time and connect with as many other publishers from around the world as possible. All in attendance [at the rights sessions] had the common goal of translating books in and out of the Arabic language. It was such a pleasure to help facilitate those connections!”

George, Brachfeld, Christian, and Bagshaw at the Souq Al-Arsa
George, Brachfeld, Scarlett, and Bagshaw at the Souq Al-Arsa

Our newly stamped passports had yet to dry before we set out for a quick tour of Sharjah. Our first stop was the Al Noor Mosque, followed by a brief shopping trip at the Blue Souq, also known as the Central Market. A few inevitable scarf purchases later, we were off to the Sharjah Heritage Museum and the Souq Al-Arsa. The group also visited the Sharjah Museum of Islamic Civilization. We concluded our tour with a delicious stop (and multiple samples!) at the nearby date market. Molly noted of the experience, “Our tour guide explained that because the UAE is a relatively new country, its history is limited. What will be the history and the mark of their culture is happening right now. It was thrilling to be part of Sharjah history.”

Our work at the fair began with the three-day Professional Program, which kicked off the book fair-related activities. The program  brought together 120 publishers, authors, and literary agents from 25 countries. Because the Middle East is still an emerging player in the ebook marketplace, Arab publishing professionals were eager to attend the multiple panels and lectures.

Two NYU M.S. in Publishing instructors flew to the UAE to share their expertise with Emirati and Arab publishing professionals. Devereux Chatillon, Owner of Chatillon Law and former General Counsel at Scholastic, who teaches Publishing and Internet Law in the Publishing program, conducted a morning seminar on contract terms, negotiating rights and permissions in the global marketplace, piracy control, and other matters regarding international publishing law. Matthew Baldacci, Vice President of Marketing and Sales operations at St. Martin’s Press, who teaches Introduction to Marketing and Branding in the Publishing program, led an afternoon seminar. He highlighted effective strategies for marketing print and digital content, new technology and channels, as well as how to help authors build and expand their online presence.

The duo was well received and the audience was eager to ask questions, including how to best negotiate with online retailers and the effect of social media on sales. Both professors also spoke on panels with publishers from all over the world.

George and Christian work the Registration desk.
George and Scarlett work the SIBF Registration desk.

While our professors were lecturing at the SIBF Professional Program, we assisted with registration, circulated presentation handouts, and prepped for the translation grant meetings taking place the following two days. Our busiest time was during the “matchmaking” sessions. During these sessions, publishers, authors, and literary agents sat down to buy and sell translation rights. While the emphasis was on content translated in and out of Arabic, many other languages were involved. We set up schedules and appointments for participants and took special care to make sure each match would serve the needs of each attendee. Christian summarized the experience best when he said, “While the structured events of the week provided us with the chance to mingle and meet with the international publishing community, the real pleasure was watching the professionals at work in the rights souk. While moving between tables and delivering messages, I had the chance to listen in on pitches and responses, hard and soft, without a translation and learn firsthand how literature spreads throughout the globe. It was an amazing testament to the warmth and congeniality of the publishing world—even while conducting serious business.”

Together with SIBF staff, we helped process over 150 translation grant applications in the course of two days. SIBF generously offers grants up to $4,000 for translations into and out of Arabic.

One of the highlights of our trip was the opening of the book fair, presided over by His Highness Dr. Sheikh Sultan bin Mohammed Al Qasimi, Ruler of Sharjah. An elaborate breakfast ceremony featured an awards presentation for the best books in multiple genres. The Sheikh himself was recognized for the publication of the fourth installment of his autobiography.

Bagshaw and Brachfeld peruse the booths.
Bagshaw and Brachfeld at the Sharjah International Book Fair.

After the breakfast, we had time to explore the five huge halls of the book fair, and briefly meet Lord Jeffrey Archer (author of Kane and Abel and multiple other international bestsellers), who was attending the fair to deliver a lecture. Although our Arabic is limited, it did not deter us from buying a few beautiful children’s books written in the language. On our last evening in the Emirates, we headed off to explore nearby Dubai, visiting the Marina, Atlantis, and the Jumeriah Palm, not to mention ascending to the observation deck of the Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world.

Overall, the Sharjah International Book Fair was an enlightening experience. As four students of the publishing industry, it was amazing to witness the blossoming international book trade in the Middle East. We were delighted at the opportunity to participate in the exchange and make a few new friends in the process. The group couldn’t have agreed more with Molly’s closing statement on the week’s events: “The thing I love most about publishing is that, while it is a business, it’s a business comprised of people who share a love of books. They’re passionate and they’re my people. It was clear in Sharjah that people are enthusiastic about publishing; they were excited to make deals and translate content. They were fascinated with learning and connecting with other people. We exchanged business cards and Instagram handles. It was an experience I will cherish always.”

by Leigh George

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