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Why is the Middle East Important to British Publishers?

Not only is the demand for academic titles from the UK growing, but Western bestsellers are hits as well.

Abu Dhabi International Book FairThis article is part of a series on publishing in the Middle East which is sponsored by the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair.

By Daniel Kalder

This year the United Kingdom will is the “country focus” at the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair, which starts this Wednesday and continues on through the weekend. Publishing Perspectives spoke to Emma House, Trade and International Director for the UK Publishers Association, and Suzi Nicklin, Director of Literature at the British Council to find out what the British publishing and cultural establishment has planned and why, as House says, “the Middle East is a really important market for British publishers.”

“It’s partly because it’s close in terms of proximity but also because the use of English is increasing in the region,” says House. “Not just that, but after the Arab Spring, there’s a lot of interest in Britain in writing of and about the Middle East.”

And it’s a good time then for the UK to be the country focus at the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair which, she says, is “double the size of previous years.” The Publishers Association is organizing not only the UK stand, which will showcase a range of British book titles, but also overseeing a Professional Program of workshops and seminars.

“We’re taking a twofold approach. There’s the pavilion of British publishers, and we’ve got fiction, non-fiction, academic and children’s books from 15 different companies, which are small, medium and large. But we’re also holding three professional seminars: one on local developments in English language teaching; another on successful Arab-UK partnerships; and a third on building an audience for books and the importance of marketing. It’s our biggest ever pavilion and cultural program.”

Education Market is Booming

In terms of trends, says House, the largest market in the Middle East is for educational books. “The biggest growth is academic, in schools, and in ELT (English language teaching). All the big ELT publishers, like CUP, OUP and Pearson are performing well. There’s a big emphasis on education in the region. We’ve seen the opening of lots of schools in the UAE, Saudi Arabia and other gulf countries.”

Indeed, in the UAE alone there are 410,000 students attending 702 private schools, and another 290,000 in 765 state schools. But it’s not all about ELT, stresses House:

“Due to the large expat population, much of what British publishers sell in the region is in English, and not translation. However the rights business is growing and there are more translations. It’s not easy to get statistics but some research I have found is that one big publisher in Lebanon who does a lot in translations states his bestsellers right now as Dan Brown’s The Lost Symbol, DaVinci Code, Deception Point, Angels & Demons and The Digital Fortress; Danielle Steel, and Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games.”

UK/Middle East Co-editions

Although the rights market at Abu Dhabi is growing, House says it is still more common for British and Arab publishers to work together on co-editions. “One interesting development for us is that the art books publisher Phaidon Press is coming to Abu Dhabi for the first time. It’s an opportunity to build their brand, but they’re most interested in co-editions, such as forming partnerships with museums. Publishers can use this as an opportunity to meet their distribution partners. Abu Dhabi is a good channel to the market.”

While Emma House sees many business opportunities for British publishers at Abu Dhavi, Suzi Nicklin of the British Council, the UK’s leading cultural relations organisation, is just as optimistic regarding the possibility for fruitful cross-cultural exchange.

“We wanted to bring over a range of writers who are popular in UK,” says Suzi Nicklin. “So for instance, we are bringing over Marina Lewycka who is much loved by her audience. She is a good example of serious literature with a big following.”

Aside from the multi-million selling author of A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian, the British Council is also seeking to introduce book fair visitors to authors who reflect not only different aspects of the country’s culture but also the state of contemporary writing. For instance, Tishani Doshi from Wales will represent the devolved regions and poetry, graphic novelist Ilya represents illustrators, Philip Ardagh is a prominent children’s author and Ken McIntosh, the celebrated travel writer.

“We want to show the different types of writing that exist in the UK, and to choose the best representatives of that writing.”

Dickens Bicentennial Highlighted

Meanwhile 2012 marks the bicentennial of Charles Dickens’ birth, and the British Council has organised 197 projects in 66 different countries to celebrate, with an emphasis, says Nicklin, on “Dickens through a contemporary lens.” At Abu Dhabi, they will announce the winners of an international competition based on Dickens’ breakthrough work, Sketches by Boz, a series of short narratives documenting life in the city. The idea, says Nicklin, it so “find the “Boz” of today.”

“The goal of the British Council is to create relations with other countries through language teaching and art. At Abu Dhabi we hope to introduce the audience to contemporary British literature, and we hope they will keep reading it. Perhaps we will show them a different way of thinking about British literature. We expect also to introduce British writers to Middle Eastern writers. It’s a good opportunity for exchange, and sharing.”

DISCUSS: Publishing Perspectives London Book Fair Call for Stories

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