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Abu Dhabi Training, Day 4: Branding, Reading, E-Retailing

Several times a year KITAB, the organization behind the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair, and the Center for Publishing at New York University’s School of Continuing and Professional Studies, hold professional training courses for publishers on the campus of NYU Abu Dhabi.

Salwa Shakhshir of Al Salwa Books, a children’s book publisher from Amman, Jordan is documenting her experiences here throughout the week. Read last week’s posts on Day OneDay Two, Day Three, (or take a look at her coverage of last year’s event).

In our second day with Stephen Lathroum -– Vice President, Digital Strategy & Business Development of eScholastic – he recapped what we talked about the day before. The gist: change is happening whether we like it or not, it’s whether we’re ready for it that makes all the difference. It is absolutely clear that publishers must change or they will become obsolete, so the question is how should they change? While, of course, there is no clear cut answer, the framework lies in being more customer-focused in the same way as technology companies, since they continue to play a major role in publishing.

Stephen commented that one of the publishers’ problems in the US have is that they don’t have strong brands. This, as it turns out, is one problem we don’t have in our part of the world.

Amira Aboulmagd (Shurouq, Egypt) said that they debated long and hard before naming their retail outlets Shurouq as well, but were grateful they did as they capitalized on their well-established name in the market.

Then Omar Chebaro (ASP, Lebanon) interrupted and took hold of the conversation by swinging it in a whole other direction, when he said quite passionately…“but nobody reads!”

Rehab Bassam (Shurouq – Egypt) stated that they felt a surge of interest grow in non-fiction books right after the revolution. Amira underscored this point when he pointed out that part of taking your fate in your own hands means being interested in your own education, and reading is an important and empowering tool in educating yourself.

Mohammad Saleh (Al Maalej,Tunis) said that to help solve the problem in Tunis, elementary schools started introducing reading classes, while Amina Alaoui (Yanbow Al Kitab, Morocco) talked about how she has come up with initiatives like “a book for each child” and got private corporations to fund such initiatives, to the point where she even secured pre-orders of several books before printing them.

Although the scale is different but in the US, and even though literacy is high, Stephen said that reading is in decline and publishers are doing what they can to create new customers.

To put a positive spin on all of this we have to think that, hopefully, this all means that the number of readers in our part of the world will only be increasing in the future; our role is to be prepared to give the customers what they want, when they want it and in whichever format they choose.

Management Games

The best part of the day was by far the management game that we played. We were asked to split into four groups, two of which were dubbed “management teams,” while the other two were identified as the “production teams.” The production teams were then lead into a completely separate room, where they received certain instructions. Management stayed put and received another set of instructions. Now, the idea was to form two opposing teams each made up of a management and production team, and the goal was to complete a “tanagram,” or puzzle made up of 16 pieces. After being given time for management to focus on the task, the production team comes in and receives verbal instruction from management on how to assemble the 16 pieces of the puzzle into the desired shape. Needless to say, it was hilarious to see the production team fumble with very minute detailed instructions given from management and, managements’ consequent dismay at watching the production team come with peculiar shapes that don’t resemble in the least bit what the puzzle ought to look like!

What we learned, though, was really eye-opening. First of all, management tended to treat the production teams like they an IQ of less than zero! The amount of detailed instruction they offered led not to empowerment, but frustration.  Communication was non-existent.

It was just amazing to see first-hand how much collaboration is necessary for teams to be able to maintain the same vision of the project or direction.

Neelwafurat.com

After lunch, Salah Chebaro (CEO, NeelWaFurat) spoke to us about the Web site neelwafurat.com which is the largest website selling Arabic books in the Arab world and one now looking to establish the biggest Arabic e-book portal, as well.

I liked this part of the day as it gave us a local application of all the management advice we’ve been hearing. Salah’s technical talk about the actual production of an e-book was useful information for all of us to hear. Their initiative to digitize books on behalf of a publisher into E-books is a good one (I think), although we did quiz Salah about his pricing model and marketing strategy.

Stephen concluded the session by urging us to think through and experiment with different business models for our publishing houses.

He showed us what the traditional value chain in publishing looks like, and how — as in the example of Stephen King’s Riding the Bullet, the author only produced his content digitally and went directly to the reader himself, without the need of a publisher and the book was a success.

What we’ve learned over these last two days with Stephen is that the new publishing models shouldn’t leave us feeling scared, but, instead, should excite us: we should be excited to embrace this new era of publishing, understand what it is that it’s changing into, and make sure we’re acquiring the new set of skills needed to be on top of our game.

I felt good at the end of the session; I think we truly are in a lucky position to learn from mature markets out there, to foresee problems that might occur, and to create better and stronger strategies for overcoming them. I think I will take a lot of the concepts and ideas that I’ve heard back home with me, and I have a feeling the rest of the publishers in attendance will do the same.

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