The challenges facing arab publishers, book sellers, authors and readers

Is there a need to review the publishing industry?

A literature forum at the 35th edition of Sharjah International Book Fair taking place at the Expo Centre Sharjah, brought together an elite panel of literary experts to discuss the publishing industry in the UAE.

The panellists in the discussion included: Jamal Al Shehhi, an Emirati author, Founder of Kuttub publishing house; Sultan Al Amimi, Emirati literary critic, researcher, short story writer and Director of the Poetry Academy; Isobel Abulhoul, OBE, CEO and Trustee of the Emirates Literature Foundation and Director of the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature and the session was moderated by Emirati Novelist, Noura Al Noman.

The session, ‘The Publishing Industry in the UAE and Current Challenges’ focussed on the quality of writing and publishing, the rise of new technology and how to make publishing profitable.

Isobel Abulhoul named sales, marketing and distribution as some of the biggest issues facing regional publishers today. “When we look at Kuwaiti author Saud Alsanousi and his book ‘The Bamboo Stalk’, we are talking in terms of a Middle East best seller with 55,000 sold copies. Generally speaking, there may be thousands of books that are published, but it is only the top 50 bestsellers that will keep the others on the shelves. Publishing is a business and if you can’t make a profit, you shouldn’t be a publisher.”

Sultan Al Amimi believes that it is the quality of the authors and the publishers which needs to be reviewed: “The number of writers and publishing houses is increasing, but is that the direction we want the industry to go? Many of the authors here are looking for fame and celebrity far more than critical acclaim. They think that one book – no matter whether it is written well or not – should give them a certain status. This cannot be good. There are some publishing houses who are not particularly interested in looking at the quality of the writing or the story itself; there are publishers who are not even interested in proofreading the material.

In his role as a publisher, Jamal Al Shehhi said that he did not believe his industry was as bleak as it had been painted, but he could see a massive future for electronic books, a medium which is becoming more and more prevalent in the UAE: “E-books have revolutionised the publishing industry in the West and we are an emerging market – emerging very quickly – and that is the way things will go for us here as well. Around 30% of publishing is now made up of e-books. There can be no doubt that publishing changes the world at large and ideas and practices must change with them.”

Al Amimi disagreed, saying that traditional material will always be preferable. “Readers, authors and most publishers want to be able to hold the books in their hands and feel the paper on their fingers. Even people who do download books often print them off and then cover them just so they can have that emotional connection. If people pay for something they want to have it in their hands, they want to own it, they want it to be personal, not just on screens.

Abulhoul concluded the session by agreeing that there is a place for both formats. “E-books have a real place in our lives,” she said. “Particularly publications such as art books, children’s books and cookery books. It is a wonderful resource to be able to browse through some titles whenever you want and download something immediately. It’s instant intellectual gratification. Sadly, there is an element of piracy that has to be addressed as it does with music. Despite the ethics involved, many people do not want to pay for something if they can get it for nothing.

“What is interesting about e-publishing is that having firmly established itself in recent years in the UK, last year saw sales diminish and the number of sales in paper books increase. The market is finding an equilibrium. It is also extremely encouraging to know how tech savvy young people are in the UAE and that e-books will help to foster a love of reading in any form. And that has to be good news.”

The Sharjah International Book Fair runs from November 2-12 at the Expo Centre Sharjah.