By Porter Anderson, Editor-in-Chief | @Porter_Anderson
Toward a ‘National Culture of Reading’
This is the boggling level of speed with which the country’s cultural and educational growth is progressing. Of all the nations in Frankfurt Book Fair’s and Publishing Perspectives’ October 18 conference, The Markets: Global Publishing Summit, none will have arrived with a legacy of such fast development as new center of international publishing interest.
We hear today from both CEO Walid Aradi and from COO Wes Schwalje of the region’s Tahseen Consulting, a management and public policy firm.
You can read more about Aradi’s background public-, social-, and private-sector work in his speaker biography at The Markets site. His work includes the role of advisor to the Cabinet of the United Arab Emirates led by His Highness Prime Minister Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, and he served as a founding team member of the Al Maktoum Foundation, endowed with more than $10 billion.
His associate, Schwalje, is a business and international development strategist with experience in Africa, Asia, Europe, and the Americas, including the Arab world, the former Soviet Union, and the BRIC countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China). Schwalje was lead author of several regional and country level analyses on the Arab publishing industry, including Tahseen’s landmark publication on Saudi Arabia’s publishing industry.
Aradi and Schwalje have kindly coordinated their answers to our questions for our interview.
Tahseen Consulting has, for more than ten years, been involved in many of the United Arab Emirates’ and Arab region’s initiatives to enhance the competitiveness of its publishing industry and build national cultures of reading. These business partner speak from the experience of having had roles in structuring industry development and trade promotion programs, implementing literacy and reading promotion campaigns, and lobbying for regulatory reforms.
Four Points of Concern
“Just four decades ago,” Aradi and Schwalje tell Publishing Perspectives, “48 percent of Emiratis were illiterate. Today, the illiteracy rate has dropped below 1 percent because of the United Arab Emirates’ focus on improving access to quality education for all.
“The UAE’s significant educational, social, and economic gains, have produced an increasingly globalized and educated population eager to consume more locally produced and culturally-relevant content, particularly in Arabic. In the last decade, a small enterprising national publishing industry has sprung up to meet this growing demand.
“The UAE’s publishing industry is evolving at a transformative time. Publishers are faced with the challenge of redefining an industry which has traditionally focused on ink-to-paper content by finding new and innovative ways to merge high-value Arabic content and technology to meet evolving reader demand.
“Despite the youth of its publishing industry, the UAE has the potential to become a global hub for international and regional publishers, distributors, and complementary creative sectors. The industry is projected to grow at a compound annual growth rate of 12 percent to 2030. However, additional growth could be achieved if several industry concerns are addressed.”
The Tahseen Consulting leadership recommends:
“The international publishing community still has little awareness of the emerging UAE publishing industry. A growing portion of UAE titles are of sufficient quality and appeal for global export.”Walid Aradi and Wes Schwalje
1. Enhancing the export competitiveness of Emirati publishers. “In 2014,” write Aradi and Schwalje, “book exports from the UAE were $40 million versus imports of $126 million based on the most recent customs data available.
“Over the last decade, UAE book exports have grown at a compound annual growth rate of 1 percent, while imports have grown at a compound annual growth rate of 8 percent. Book publishing has so far failed to contribute to the diversification of the UAE’s exports. These statistics show that the UAE publishing industry remains insular and inward-looking, primarily because of its youth. The low number of titles produced in the UAE—estimated at approximately 500 titles per year—along with its unique demographic structure, can partially explain the imbalance between book import and exports. But the industry faces a range of other significant challenges that reduce export competitiveness.
“Although this is changing thanks to increased participation in international book fairs, the international publishing community still has little awareness of the emerging UAE publishing industry. A growing portion of UAE titles are of sufficient quality and appeal for global export.
“For example, Emirati-authored books now make up 11 percent of the top-selling Arabic books in the UAE, and the children’s book from Kalimat, Tongue Twists, was recently awarded the Bologna Children’s Book Fair Award. However, international publishers and literary agents still remain largely unaware of UAE published titles.
“An interesting initiative by Spain [also a nation featured in The Markets], called New Spanish Books, provides an online guide to titles from Spanish publishers and literary agents available for foreign rights sales. This is potentially a program that could be replicated in the UAE to increase awareness of the titles of Emirati publishers with export potential.
“While the use of Arabic is a common denominator which promotes export to other countries in the Arab world, export statistics show that UAE books also have a broader appeal in countries such as the UK, US, Germany, Spain, and Italy. “Walid Aradi and Wes Schwalje
“At the most foundational level, enhancing export competitiveness of publishers will require an industry-wide effort that brings together government entities that are concerned with the promotion of cultural industries and economic diversification as well as civil society institutions like the Emirates Publishers Association, and publishers.
“At the publisher level,” the Tahseen associates say, “two significant issues must be addressed: enhancing the market responsiveness of domestic publishers to operationally respond to the internationalization and globalization of the publishing industry and building the capacity of domestic publishers to access international markets through translation, selling foreign rights, and international marketing and promotion.
“While the use of Arabic is a common denominator which promotes export to other countries in the Arab world, export statistics show that UAE books also have a broader appeal in countries such as the UK, US, Germany, Spain, and Italy.
Although there are several government-backed industry support initiatives, such as translation and rights trading grants, more comprehensive publishing industry support programs, potentially similar to the Canada Book Fund, could be more impactful in increasing the export competitiveness of domestic publishers and addressing firm-specific challenges that limit export capacity.”
“A key challenge which must be addressed is ensuring that educational materials are appropriate to the local context and don’t perpetuate cultural and gender stereotypes which are at odds with evolving national values.”Walid Aradi and Wes Schwalje
2. Strengthening the domestic production of learning materials. “Approximately 54 percent of UAE book imports,” say Schwalje and Aradi, “are textbooks primarily from the UK and US. Imported textbooks generally cover science and mathematics subjects, while domestically produced textbooks, which are primarily published by the ministry of education, cover humanities and religion subjects.
“Emerging research on textbooks and their relationship to learning outcomes suggests a link between textbook design features, student reading levels, and student performance. Engaging textbook content with practical application to students’ lives influences reading of textbooks which ultimately affects student learning outcomes. In this way, the high portion of imported textbooks and regional textbooks which lag socio-cultural development, combined with other factors like poor quality teaching, may ultimately be having a significantly negative effect on student learning outcomes.
“Evidence of this complex linkage is potentially found in the UAE’s performance on the 2011 Progress in International Reading Literacy Study in which the UAE ranked 40th out of 45 countries in terms of average reading achievement at the 4th grade level.
“Because of the influence that learning and teaching materials have on learning outcomes and reading skills, a key challenge which must be addressed is ensuring that educational materials are appropriate to the local context and don’t perpetuate cultural and gender stereotypes which are at odds with evolving national values.
“More diversity in Arabic children’s books can enrich learning, allow children to build on what they learn at school through self-directed reading, and enable parents to complement the role of teachers .”Walid Aradi and Wes Schwalje
“The production of quality, Arabic children’s books and digital content is also essential to complement Arabic teaching with age-appropriate, culturally relevant material to inspire children and help educators teach more effectively. While recent studies have shown that children would prefer to read in Arabic, the lack of genre diversity available in Arabic children’s books and online content forces children to consume English publications and media. For this reason, many children have come to perceive reading in Arabic as difficult and boring.
“Many UAE publishers have begun to focus on publishing books and digital content for children, but there still remains a shortage of children’s publications in genres including fairy tales, fantasy, suspense, action, and science fiction. The lack of engaging Arabic children’s books and online content reinforces the use of English and consumption of English language media in the classroom and at home which serves to further erode Arabic proficiency.
“More diversity in Arabic children’s books can enrich learning, allow children to build on what they learn at school through self-directed reading, and enable parents to complement the role of teachers by reading to their children and encouraging reading for pleasure.
“Enhanced capacity of domestic publishers to compete in the educational publishing market is critically important to ensure that Arabic retains its role as a foundation of national identity and to ensure that future generations are capable and proficient at leveraging Arabic as an effective tool. Publishers have a very important role in reversing the deterioration of Arabic skills by developing quality Arabic teaching and learning materials that engage students and support teachers in developing Arabic proficiency.”
“The UAE has come a long way in defining a common agenda for promoting a national culture of reading based on localizing promising international best practices.”Walid Aradi and Wes Schwalje
3. Building a national culture of reading. “Although improving, several studies have found that a national culture of reading for pleasure is still in its early stages,” Aradi and Schwalje tell Publishing Perspectives.
“These studies point to a range of issues from household access to books to low involvement of parents in building early childhood reading skills. Beginning in the late-2000s, a number of emirate-level initiatives sprang up to address national reading challenges. While the extent and breadth of these initial efforts to address national reading challenges were ambitious, collaboration and coordination across the many entities and initiatives was lacking. For this reason, the National Reading Law was passed this year to ensure the sustainability of government efforts to build a reading culture and clarify the objectives of government agencies in promoting reading.
“The National Reading Law is the foundation for the National Reading Strategy which is backed by $30 million in funding earmarked for 30 national initiatives to support reading and lifelong learning as national values.
“The National Reading Strategy also deemed 2016 the Year of Reading. The Year of Reading Initiative involves more than 340 major reading initiatives and activities taking place across the country, involving more than 100 local government entities working in coordination with the Higher Supervisory Committees for Year of Reading.
“The UAE has come a long way in defining a common agenda for promoting a national culture of reading based on localizing promising international best practices.”
“There are several significant questions surrounding the imposition of VAT on the publishing industry and e-commerce transactions that remain unanswered.”Walid Aradi and Wes Schwalje
4. Ensuring that implementation of GCC VAT does not negatively affect the industry. “In February, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries agreed to introduce a Value Added Tax (VAT) at a rate of 5 percent in January 2018,” say Aradi and Scwhalje. “While the education sector will be exempt from VAT—which will presumably be extended to textbooks and educational materials—it remains unclear how trade books and the raw materials for publishing will be treated under the new VAT system.
“Currently, the UAE does not impose customs on imported books and printed goods. A key question that must be addressed—as e-commerce grows in the UAE and global and regional online marketplaces increase book and digital content sales—is how VAT and customs should be imposed on online transactions in the UAE.
“A still larger question is whether trade book imports and sales should be exempted from VAT altogether,” say Schwalje and Aradi.
“Another issue that warrants discussion are potential customs and VAT exemptions for critical publishing industry inputs such as paper.
“Despite these large uncertainties facing the publishing industry surrounding VAT, there have been no policy impact studies conducted by the industry. There are several significant questions surrounding the imposition of VAT on the publishing industry and e-commerce transactions that remain unanswered.”
Another speaker from the UAE, the Sheikha Bodour Al Qasimi, is heard this week in Copyright Clearance Center’s Beyond the Book podcast with Chris Kenneally.
In addition to our Markets white paper, you can read our series of interviews and information in relation to The Markets: Global Publishing Summit (18 October 2016) from Publishing Perspectives and the Frankfurt Book Fair.
This year’s program will showcase the following seven markets:
- Flanders & The Netherlands (Guest of Honor)
- United Arab Emirates
- United Kingdom
The Markets’ programming highlights each of these seven publishing territories from three perspectives: analysis, vision, and industry players. The day is devised to provide attendees not only with information and insights into the most important features of each industry market, but also with extensive networking opportunities during the event.