The start of the Sharjah Book Fair educational program began at the Sharjah Chamber of Commerce with an introduction by Sheika Bodour al Qasimi, president of the Emirates Publishers Association and founder of the children’s publishing house Kalimat. When her daughter was born nine years ago, al Qasimi said, she became aware that all the children’s books were imported. Where,” al Qasimi asked, “were the Arabic books, the UAE books?” Since stories were the basis of Bedouin community and the UAE has always been the center of trade between East and West the EPA was founded to continue this trading tradition with publishing, al Qasimi explained. The EPA is addressing such issues as high rates for ISBN numbers, distribution challenges, censorship, and piracy as well to provide help to independent publishers.
The panel that followed al Qasimi remarks included Noura al Kaabi, CEO of twofour54, Ruediger Wischenbart, industry consultant, and Mohamed al Shehhi of Abu Dhabi Culture and Heritage Foundation. The panelist presented the theory that the UAE is poised for expansion of digital publishing which at present in the Arab world is only 2% of publishing. Two signs that point toward a brighter digital future--there are 10 million mobile subscribers and a large, and growing, number of young people who speak Arabic.
At a second panel, Shadi Hassan, the managing director of Rufoof, a company that distributes digital content, said that while there are many challenges facing the digital market, he has partnered with 25 publishers to distribute for them. In a response to a question from a Lebanese publisher as to the potential for profit from digital, Hassan said that he believed the investment would return profits in the future.
Narain Jashanmal, whose grandfather established the Jashanmal Bookstore in 1919 in Basra Iraq (there are now 20 bookstores in the UAE and Bahrain), agreed that the digital book market was in a nascent phase, but had interesting things to say about retail bookselling. As in the U.S., there has been a decline in bookstores; the UAE competition for mall space favors more lucrative retailers, so his company is moving toward pop-up stores and non-traditional venues equivalent to the big box stores in America. One trend identified by Jashanmal was a preference for heavily-illustrated and photo books and graphic novels (these especially because of superhero movie tie-ins), “because,” Jashanmal said, “they yield a higher profit on relation to space on the shelves.”