A Bold Move to Redefine Publishing in Asia and Africa: The Sharjah Initiative

At my 20th Book Expo since 1997, and having seen so many amazing innovations on the technology side over the years, really bowling me over takes more than it used to. But I got my socks knocked off at the 2017 “sleeper” panel, “Reaching The Arab World – The New Gateway & Hub–The Sharjah Publishing City Initiative.”

Moderated by Seth Russo, who heads the international initiatives at Simon and Schuster, the panel featured Ahmed Al Ameri, former Director of the Sharjah International Book Fair and current head of the Sharjah Book Authority, which is spearheading the remarkable Sharjah Publishing City project.

Adding an American perspective were Steve Potash, founder and CEO of the electronic book distributor Overdrive, and John Ingram, Chairman of Ingram Industries, Inc. and of Ingram Content Group. By far the largest wholesaler in the US, Ingram’s portfolio has expanded in recent years to include purchasing several prominent book distributors and developing a content creation arm.

The city-state of Sharjah is one of the member countries of the United Arab Emirates, a neighbor to Dubai. Only 90 square meters, it’s the third-largest and third-most-populous city in the UAE, with 1.4 million population, and is considered the UAE’s cultural capital.

For the most part, what follows are paraphrases as close to the original speaker’s voice as possible. Exact quotes are in quote marks, and my summaries are in brackets. I reordered some remarks to bring disjointed but related comments into a coherent whole.

SR: The Arab world population is 400 million, half of them under 25. Sharjah has its own international book fair and a literary festival.

AA: We’re reaching not just the Middle East, but across Asia and Africa. Publishing in the UAE is a $250 million market, expected to reach $650 million by 2030.

JI: Governments in the region are moving toward a post-natural-resource [i.e., post-oil] society, turning to education. The biggest thing Ingram does there is digital content serving university communities. It’s only the tip of the iceberg of what’s possible there.

“Our most attractive partner there is His Highness Sheikh Dr. Sultan bin Muhammad Al-Qasimi [ruler of Sharjah and Al Ameri’s immediate boss]. I saw Publishing City as a real opportunity to address issues both in-region and in other regions. And I trust Ahmed and His Highness.

“A lot of publishing in-country is in ministries. Libraries can be the university presses of the region. But I wouldn’t discount the opportunity for English-language publishers. The market is growing and there’s a commitment at the highest level. Not to participate is leaving opportunity on the table.”

SP: “Aramco (the Saudi state oil company) came to us several years ago to set up a digital library and world center of excellence in literature and culture. They’ll be purchasing hundreds of thousands of dollars in English books. Sharjah gives us a platform to go into Egypt, Lebanon,” and throughout the Arab world.

“I’m so excited that through Sharjah Book Authority, all our publishers have created a channel and planted a flag to reach hundreds of millions of users. They’ve provided a platform and network that reaches hundreds of countries” in Sharjah Publishing City. [Overdrive sold $1 million worth of product into Arab markets last year.]

AA: His Highness is a passionate reader, historian, and author of many books. $43 million was sold at the most recent Sharjah Book Fair. Sharjah is the cultural capital of UAE.

SR: Sharjah is not based on the oil industry.

AA: Correct, its strengths are in manufacturing and shipping. It’s 8 hours or less to fly to anywhere between the UK and China, or 16 days by boat. When China ships to Africa through Sharjah, it cuts a 60-day trip down to 50 days. The success is through West and East meeting in an open, free-trade market.

In some ways, the Arab publishing industry has been tied to habits long-extinct in Western publishing. “In our world, the distributor, publisher, and bookseller are the same person,” historically. But that’s beginning to change. [Demand-based printing is very exciting to publishers in the Arab world, where runs typically start at 3000 copies.]

Publishing City will be a “United Nations of publishing, 10 minutes from the Dubai airport, five minutes from Sharjah airport…365 days of a book fair: editors, translators, publishers, offset and on-demand printers” coming together in an environment offering “no taxes, no censorship, and distribution to multiple continents.” Once you have a visa for the UAE, you don’t need more visas to visit a number of other countries, among them Saudi Arabia and India.

“Sharjah Publishing City is the first publishing free [trade] zone in the world.” Sharjah’s free trade zone also has a media city, healthcare city. Publishing City will open officially at the next Sharjah Book Fair in November, with a soft launch in September. Sharjah is also partnering with Publisher’s Weekly to launch an Arab-language edition at the Book Fair.

SP: “We’re selling Arab literature all over the world. There’s a global audience.” We see a big need for bilingual Arab/English children’s books.

AA: “We provide an opportunity for US publishers to meet 950 million readers in the Middle East, Asia, and Africa.”

JI: It’s important to be aware of the cultural differences within regions, not just in the Middle East but elsewhere, including Europe. “You don’t send a Frenchman to sell to a German. But the power of this movement [is the strong support of the government]—this is the ruler. This will be done and done beautifully. We look at it as an opportunity to expand our offerings” and cross-pollinate.

AA: There are 20 million Arab customers in southern Africa; there are opportunities around the world. Also for English books. There’s no border anymore. We’re getting vendor demand from India, France, the Arab world, Africa, and the US to set up offices. We participate in 30 book fairs, and promote the opportunity for publishers to bring their authors to Sharjah.

The children’s sector is especially strong. “We take the author to schools and they sell 400-500 copies. We’re promoting literature around the world.”

And the free trade incentive is especially welcome as a way to bypass the byzantine restrictions on book imports in some other countries. “Each country has different export/import regulations. They say it’s easier to smuggle drugs than books.”

Shel Horowitz’s coverage of Book Expo since 1997 can be found at http://frugalmarketing.com/dtb/dtb-publishing.shtml. His award-winning 10th book is Guerrilla Marketing to Heal the World.

Click to read the rest of Shel’s reports on the 2017 Book Expo:

The “Elena Ferrante” Model: How Independent Publishers Excel In Promoting International Literature

When Does Nastiness Cross the Line From Free Speech to Hate Crime?

The Year of Female Empowerment: 2017 Show Report