A Book for Everyone: Students at the Sharjah International Book Fair

Center for Publishing Director Andrea Chambers (far left), Professional Programme faculty Seth Russo (far right), and M.S. in Publishing student volunteers with author Dan Brown (center) at the 2014 Sharjah International Book Fair
Center for Publishing Director Andrea Chambers (far left), executive education program faculty Seth Russo (far right), and M.S. in Publishing student volunteers with author Dan Brown (center) at the 2014 Sharjah International Book Fair

A sea of sheikhs in white robes and a moonlit dinner served from gold tureens on a rooftop terrace: that marked our last night in Sharjah, United Arab Emirates, where four NYU M.S. in Publishing: Digital and Print Media students, Jessica Lei, Allie Levick, Kevin Murphy and I were fortunate enough to have attended the 33rd annual Sharjah International Book Fair. When we embarked on our six-day journey, we had no idea we would have the chance to attend a dinner presided over by His Highness Dr. Sheikh Sultan bin Mohammed Al Qasimi, Ruler of Sharjah. Nor did we know we would pose for a photo with bestselling novelist Dan Brown, who attended the fair and gave a keynote address broadcast all over the Arab world.

And that was only part of the Sharjah story! From interviewing Arab-region publishers, to helping with sessions devoted to the buying and selling of translation rights, we encountered graciousness and enthusiasm at every interaction. To us, the color green in the flag of the United Arab Emirates represents not only the lush palm trees lining the roads, but the generosity of spirit in this warm-hearted Emirate.

Our initial day in the Emirates consisted of a whirlwind driving tour through Dubai and Sharjah, a debriefing meeting at the lavish Sharjah Chamber of Commerce and Industry, and an early night to combat jet lag. The next day our real work began. We returned to the Chamber of Commerce to attend an executive education program  co-hosted by the Sharjah International Book Fair and the NYU School of Professional Studies Center for Publishing. Lisa Gallagher, a literary agent with DeFiore and Company and a professor in the NYU M.S. in Publishing: Digital and Print Media program, lectured on how to negotiate the best deal possible for translation rights. In the afternoon, Seth Russo, Vice President of International Sales at Simon & Schuster, and a lecturer in the NYU Summer Publishing Institute, spoke about the importance of international sales and distribution. Our job was to interview local publishers attending the program to better understand their needs for the upcoming “match-making” sessions (where publishers buy and sell translation rights).

Allie Levick interviewing
Student Allie Levick interviewing a  visiting publisher

Following each of the presentations, lively Q&A sessions provided insight into some of the differences between the US/UK and Arab market. In response to Lisa Gallagher’s mock rights negotiation with Richard Charkin, Executive Director of Bloomsbury Publishing Plc., one publisher voiced his frustration regarding previous interactions with foreign publishers. “We want to meet people who are the decision makers,” he declared, complaining that Western publishers sometimes need higher approval or follow up before a deal is done. In his case, he noted, his word was final. Relationships have high value in the Arab culture, and this was evident in the conversation. It was clear that both Arab and Western publishers are trying to work well together, but sometimes need to improve their communication.

Observing all this, student Allie Levick said that her experience in Sharjah was very relevant to her graduate course entitled “The Global Marketplace: Challenges and Opportunities.” Yet, as she explained, classroom learning goes only so far. “I don’t think you can really understand the global book market until you experience it for yourself. While a lot of what we saw followed what we have learned in our classes, it was entirely different to see it first-hand, “she said.

Jessica Lei with Sharjah co-worker
Student Jessica Lei with Sharjah co-worker

Over the next two days, the four of us assisted with the Translation Grant applications during the SIBF’s Professional Programme. The government of Sharjah provides $300,000 worth of support for translation deals made at the Fair. The majority of our duties involved entering in data, directing attendees to their tables, and helping make connections. We continued to conduct surveys and got to meet publishers from all over the Arab world as well as from the United Kingdom, France, and Italy to name just a few of the countries in attendance. Everyone was truly cooperative and surprisingly open to being surveyed. “I am most excited by how happy everyone seems to have us here,” noted Kevin Murphy.

We were also invited to attend panel discussions that proved to be particularly fascinating. John Ingram, CEO of Ingram Content Group, gave a keynote address on leadership. “I own the failure and we share the success,” he said, describing the benefits of running a family-owned company. This dynamic has allowed him to experiment with innovative new technologies at stages when they are still unproven. In many cases, his efforts led to shared success in Ingram’s wide-ranging book distribution, print-on-demand and other services.

Mallory Conder and Kevin Murphy interviewing
Students Mallory Conder and Kevin Murphy (far right) interviewing Arab publishers.

The next talk was equally as forward-thinking. Susie Nicklin, Executive Chair of The Marsh Agency, Michel Moushabeck, Founder of Interlink Publishing and member of the Board of Trustees for the International Prize of Arabic Fiction, and Daniel Hahn, National Programme Director of The British Center for Literary Translation and Chairman of the UK Society of Authors, discussed the inherent pitfalls of publishing in translation. Michel stressed the importance of literature in translation as a tool for understanding people of other cultures. He said: “Literature mirrors a country’s story. It is the peoples’ language. It reveals what history books hide. It takes you on a journey through the minds of the people. It fills the baffling silence.”

Our final day was the most glamorous by far: we attended the opening ceremony for the book fair, complete with book awards, dramatic music, and some stellar lighting effects. The most moving and impressive moment of our time in Sharjah was listening to His Highness Dr. Sheikh Sultan bin Mohammed Al Qasimi, Ruler of Sharjah, speak about the power of books. His speech began as a conversation between himself and his heart about “these disgraceful, destructive, devastating acts” happening elsewhere in the Arab world. “Is this the teaching of our tolerant vision? ” he asked his heart. “Push me, my heart, to light a candle to show the way in this dark world, to dispel these dark clouds so that the light of truth and virtue may shine through books.”

As someone who is rarely emotional, I was almost moved to tears: I realized that I was witnessing a piece of history. After that, everything seemed anticlimactic.

His Highness Dr. Sheikh Sultan bin Mohammed Al Qasimi, the Ruler of Sharjah
His Highness Dr. Sheikh Sultan bin Mohammed Al Qasimi, Ruler of Sharjah, signing books at the Fair

My fellow students were similarly moved. Summing up her time in Sharjah, Jessica Lei reflected: “Throughout the fair, you could feel the Arabs’ love for books.”

by Mallory Conder


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