Sharjah’s Int’l Book Fair Makes a Big Push for UK and US Publishers

In Digital by Roger Tagholm

• Sharjah’s International Book Fair, October 26 to November 6, emphasizes collaboration with western publishers.

• Several new awards were bestowed at this year’s Fair to highlight excellence in English-language publishing.

By Roger Tagholm

SHARJAH, UAE: It was a good day for Chicago at the Sharjah International Book Fair’s inaugural international awards, presented by His Highness Sheik Dr. Sultan bin Mohammed Al Qasimi at the fair’s opening ceremony on Tuesday this week. Chicago companies collected prizes for Best English Language Bestseller -– Piracy: The Intellectual Property Wars from Gutenberg to Gates, by Adrian Johns, published by University of Chicago Press (UCP) –- and Best English Language Children’s Book, which went to How Many Donkeys? An Arabic Counting Tale, by Margaret Read MacDonald and Nadia Jameel Taibah, published by Chicago-based Albert Whitman & Company.

The Koran statuette trophies and checks for $2,500 were collected by Saleem Dhamee, UCP’s International Sales Manager, and Albert Whitman’s President, John Quattrocchi. A third award, for Best English Language Business Book, went to Stalking the Black Swan: Research and Decision Making in a World of Extreme Volatility, by Kenneth Posner, published by Columbia University Press –- clearly not a Chicago company, but the city can take some reflected glory since CUP’s Publicity Director, Meredith Howard, who collected the trophy, originally hails from there.

These awards are another example of just how much the SIBF is reaching out to western publishers, backed, as always, by Sheik Sultan Al Qasimi, whose love of books well known and zeal to establish Sharjah as the cultural centre of the UAE is a personal priority.

“I can’t think of any other power where there is such a belief in books and culture,” said Peter Weidhaas, the former long-time director of the Frankfurt Book Fair who was making his first visit to the Sharjah International Book Fair this year. “Some powerful men like tanks or ships or whatever, but he likes books. It’s wonderful.”

His Highness Sheikh Dr. Sultan bin Mohammed Al Qasimi (on left) with SIBF Director Ahmed Al Amri, on walkabout on the opening day of the Fair on Tuesday.

This year the fair invited largest ever international delegation and hosted more seminars and discussions than ever before. UK publishers on hand included Bloomsbury CEO Nigel Newton and his Digital Media Director Stephanie Duncan, as well as a trio from Orion -– Deputy CEO Malcolm Edwards, Paperback Publisher Susan Lamb and Trade MD Lisa Milton.

The two houses had specific reasons for being here: Bloomsbury is publishing Sheik Sultan’s memoirs, My Early Life and Orion has signed a deal with Sharjah-based children’s publisher Kalimat to publish one of its titles in English.

Newton, whose company opened offices in Qatar in April, is eager to forge closer links with the region, and told Publishing Perspectives: “There is a great belief here in enabling Arabic culture in general and literature in particular to be enjoyed and read around the world, and at the same time they are keen to embrace the best writing from the UK, the US and Europe through translation. It’s a two-way street.”

Also from London came HarperCollins Sales and Marketing Director David Roche, London Book Fair Director Alistair Burtenshaw, BBC Radio 4’s Arts Correspondent Rebecca Jones and Andrew Senior, who established the British Council’s Creative Economy Unit and is now a freelance consultant for creative economies and entrepreneurship. There were more authors than ever before too –- controversial revisionist historian Gavin Menzies, the Lebanese-Iraqi writer Tamara Chalabi, the graphic novelist Ed Hillyer, the cookery writer Sally Bee and the book trade commentator Nick Clee, whose equine biography Eclipse will surely be of interest to Sheik Sultan who famously owns racehorses himself.

Jon Malinowski, President of the Combined Book Exhibit. which showcases titles from US and UK publishers, helped establish the awards, and worked closely with SIBF Director Ahmed Al Amri, who continues to do so much to put the fair firmly on the international calendar. “We invited publishers to submit and drew up a shortlist of 30, which were judged by a panel from the universities here,” said Malinowski. “It’s all part of the healthy competition between the Gulf states to make their fair the best –- they all watch each other — and that’s a good thing.”

This is Malinowski’s fifth SIBF and he has a good picture of what is possible. “It’s a potentially lucrative emerging market for the US and UK,” he said. “The whole Gulf is a huge region of some 300 million people, and the desire for English-language material, certainly in the UAE, is huge. Sharjah is very educationally driven, from the kindergarten up. There are a lot of book readers out there and these shows are where they buy their books.”

The reason for that, as has been well documented, is the relative lack of distributors and bookshops. “The chains just aren’t as prevalent here as they are in the west,” Malinowski said. “We came five years ago to see what it was all about and we could see that there was this thirst for books. But it has taken us until this year to find a partner to sell the books. We’re with Jashanmal this year –- they have stores here, and a stall in the hall. It takes a while to find a partner. It’s all about face to face, about breaking bread and sitting down and talking.”

Malinowski believes it is a market that some US publishers are still not fully aware of –- and he thinks they are missing out. “It’s mainly the UK publishers are who taking the time to come here. I know that Jashanmal would like to hear from more US publishers and I have people coming to me here asking for particular types of book that I know are available in the US. I want to try and put these people together, but there’s a degree of fear in the US –- a fear of the unknown, perhaps, because the culture is so different. I think London is more awareness of Arab culture than the US.”

There is clearly a desire for books if they are put in front of people, as the groups of children crowding some of the stands demonstrated. The fair is full of memorable images –- Arab schoolboys holding hands as they enjoy a morning off school to walk the aisles; parents pushing shopping trolleys piled high with books as if they are groceries –- and one leaves it with that feeling of warmth that can so often seem like the international book world’s trademark.

And a glance at the books on display shows that some of the cultural differences between the Arab world and the west aren’t as vast as me might think: “Msass dema” are as popular in Sharjah as they are at home. “Msass” means “drink” and “dema” means blood. Yes, Stephenie Meyer does the business here too.

DISCUSS: Can You Have Too Many Book Awards?

About the Author

Roger Tagholm


Roger Tagholm is based in London and has been writing about the book industry for more than 20 years. He is the former Deputy Editor of Publishing News and the author of Walking Literary London (New Holland) and Poems NOT on the Underground (Windrush Press).