With a call to “raise the voice of peace and moderation and reinforce the call for peace and prosperity” through the dissemination of knowledge, the 2016 Sharjah International Book Fair was underway. These words from His Highness Sheikh Dr. Sultan bin Mohammed Al Qasimi, leader of Sharjah (one of seven emirates in the UAE), resonated with the four NYU MS in Publishing: Digital and Print Media students sitting in the audience for the opening ceremony. With peace and the sharing of knowledge in mind, fellow students Marina Salamon, Bernadette Deron, Eric Greene, and I spent our six-day trip fully immersing ourselves in the fair’s goals of bridging countries and markets to foster understanding.
The four of us were in Sharjah to help out at the Sharjah International Book Fair (SIBF), as well as the education program conducted by the NYU Center for Publishing as part of the pre-fair “Professional Program.” Ahmed Al Ameri, the Chairman of the Sharjah Book Authority, opened the session, discussing the importance of “exchanging ideas worldwide” between industry professionals. Andrea Chambers, Director of the NYU MS in Publishing: Digital and Print Media program, followed with a discussion on how a major American bestselling author, Elin Hilderbrand, worked with her publisher, the Hachette Book Group, to nurture and expand a brand. In a follow-up interview, Hilderbrand talked about her path from aspiring writer to successful author, as well as the importance of social media and connecting with audiences in new ways. During the Q&A portion of the interview and a discussion of the role of the agent in the US, I learned from a member of the audience that there are almost no agents in the Middle East. Fascinatingly, a Middle Eastern author’s path to success often relies on his or her ability to directly and successfully reach out to publishers.
NYU Center for Publishing Professor Bryan Christian, Senior Brand Manager, Time Inc. Books, Time Inc., presented a workshop on social media marketing and how to use specific platforms to strengthen publishers’ brands. Professor Kempton Mooney, Senior Director of Research and Analytics for Nielsen Book, discussed the steps to making smart publishing decisions based on data and research. Afterwards, we heard from a panel consisting of Elin Hilderbrand, Bryan Christian, and Shadi Al Hasan, Founder and Managing Director of Flagship, an Arab digital content communications and branding company. Approaching publishing from different perspectives—editorial, marketing, and digital—each panelist touched upon the differences between the US and Arab markets. While all agreed that successfully breaking into the market as an author is difficult, Al Hasan opened my eyes to the Middle East’s less regimented publishing ecosystem. We learned that some authors currently are wary of publishing houses and often turn to self-publishing. Many in the audience agreed and recommended taking measures such as standardizing advances to foster more trust and draw more authors to traditional publishing.
During the next two days, the three students and I engaged much more closely with industry professionals as we assisted with “matchmaking” sessions devoted to the selling of international rights. As student Eric Greene stated, “acquiring rights and lining up distribution deals is a lot more personal in Sharjah, where people have developed relationships and do all their business in person.” If a mutual deal is reached between two publishers, they draft a contract and subsequently submit an application for an SIBF Translation Grant. (The Sharjah Book Authority grants a total of $300,000 to support qualified translation deals at the fair.) From assisting and observing, student Bernadette Deron noted that these sessions are “critical for the Arab market and the success of Arabic translation rights—not only will English books be translated into Arabic, but Arabic literature will reach new markets beyond the Arab world.”
While we spent some of our time handling applications for the translation grants and helping publishers find their matches, we also shadowed an agent and an independent publisher to see the process from a close-up perspective. Marina Salamon and I spent some time with Alexander Cochran, an agent from Conville & Walsh Literary Agency in the UK. He met with Kaloyan Ignatovski, a literary rights manager at the Bulgarian publishing house, Prozoretz. Initially, the two had different interests, but they were able to find common ground in books on military history and classics.
Left: Marina Salamon and Alexandra Hightower shadow Alexander Cochran (center) at the 2016 Sharjah International Book Fair; Right: Eric Greene and Bernadette Deron discuss publishing and philanthropy with Michel Moushabeck (left).
Eric and Bernadette had an engrossing conversation and shadowing session with Michel Moushabeck, the founder and owner of Interlink Publishing, a small publishing house in Massachusetts. “It was interesting to discover that there’s an incredible number of high-profile Arab authors, yet relatively few foreign publishers are sourcing work from this market,” Eric observed. By shadowing Moushabeck, we learned about the publisher’s commitment to the region on both a publishing and philanthropic level: Interlink’s book, Soup for Syria, features recipes from celebrity chefs; profits from the sale of this book will be donated to help fund food relief efforts for Syrian refugees.
In our spare time, we managed to squeeze in a little tourism to gain a broader perspective on the region. As we drove out of Sharjah on our way to a desert safari, we passed “University City” and feasted our eyes on the magnificent domed structures of Al Qasimia University. Not long after, we took in a vast area of Dubai desert, where we watched the sun set over the dunes and visited a Bedouin-style camp, complete with camel rides, a Middle Eastern barbecue, and henna painting. That night, we headed back to the hotel in Sharjah with full stomachs and shoes full of sand.
After the official Wednesday opening of the fair, a magnificent, elaborate ceremony including speeches and an amazing sound and light show, we dove into the crowd of fair attendees. We managed to catch a glimpse of the Sheikh himself as he and his retinue walked from stand to stand, welcoming the visiting Arab publishers. Once the crowd dispersed, our group spent some time observing the various stands. Like most Middle Eastern book fairs, SIBF is open to the general public, and full of families with shopping carts loading up on books. In fact, as there are relatively few book stores in the region, book fairs like SIBF are the principle way readers purchase a wide range of books in the Middle East.
As we made our way around the five expansive halls, we stopped at the stand of the leading children’s publishing company, Kalimat, and briefly met with the Sheikh’s daughter, Sheikha Bodour bint Sultan Al Qasimi. Like her father, she has a deep passion for reading and established Kalimat to offer quality children’s books. In addition to creating a publishing house, she founded the Emirates Publishers Association and is the first Arab woman to serve on the International Publishers Association’s executive committee. At the booth, Bernadette and I even purchased bookmarks featuring some of Kalimat’s picture book images. As we made our selections from the wide array of merchandise (notepads, bookmarks, coasters, and more), one of the team at the booth pointed out Kalimat’s ability to move ahead of the competition by offering “high quality books, and merchandise” that is attractive, draws younger populations, and encourages them to read.
Later, Marina, Bernadette, Eric, and I split into pairs and were assigned to conduct publisher and attendee surveys for the Sharjah Book Authority. iPads in hand, we approached publishers and asked what drew them to the fair. Although we do not speak Arabic and some of the publishers and attendees did not speak much English, we found ways to share valuable insights. Interestingly, I found that more than a few survey takers struggled to answer the question: “How did you hear about the Sharjah International Book Fair?” It turned out that the fair is such an important gathering place for publishers and the reading public alike that most people “just know about it!” Additionally, we learned that the translation grant and matchmaking sessions are crucial features that continue to draw publishers from across the region. The sessions offer structured time for the face-to-face connections, while the grant helps make the deals financially viable.
Overall, the trip to the UAE was a treasured chance to gain insight into the Arab market, widen our international publishing knowledge, and learn about another region of the world. We even made friends with local volunteers, and carved out an evening to grab coffee and chat! Marina put it best when recalling a statement from one of the publishers during our first day in Sharjah: “When you come to the UAE, you come as a businessman or a tourist, but you leave as a friend.”
Marina noted that no other quote could accurately sum up our time in Sharjah. Like all of us, she was “incredibly grateful…to take part, and see firsthand that the love of the written word extends across the globe.”
by Alexandra Hightower