Publishers Training Abu Dhabi: Lessons from Ian Ballantine

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This week Salwa Shakhshir, a children’s book publisher from Amman, Jordan, is attending the second annual Publishers Training program organized by KITAB in Abu Dhabi, UAE. (You can read our coverage of last year’s program here.)

It is the first year the program is being run in partnership with the Center for Publishing at New York University’s School of Continuing and Professional Studies, with several professors and instructors flown in from the US for the occasion. Salwa will be documenting her experiences for throughout the week.

Day 1 of Publishers Training in Abu Dhabi by Salwa Shakhshir

A Group Photo of the the participants in Publishers Training, Abu Dhabi 2010

What a great day! I had been eagerly anticipating this program for months now, and walking from our hotel to the NYU campus felt so good! With my new notebook in hand, I felt like a student again, but this time much more eager to learn, not only because the topic is now my choice of career, but also because of the chance to meet and share experiences with other colleagues in the same industry. To be honest, I hadn’t expected there to be so many of us, but we numbered around 30 executives from publishing houses not only from the Arab region like Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Iraq, UAE, Tunisia, and also from countries like Senegal, Malaysia, Russia, Nigeria. I’m grateful for this diversity because it has greatly enriched the program and made conversations that much more interesting.

We were first guided to this super hi-tech white room, clad with desks and microphones and screens. The seminar hadn’t even started yet but I was already giddy, for in front of me lay two bestselling books, which I guessed the speaker must have worked on. The first was Dreams from My Father by Barak Obama and the second was The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot, both of which I have heard of before and both of which I couldn’t wait to read. I felt like I was on Oprah being handed giveaways. I even looked up expecting to see the participants get up and start clapping enthusiastically – but I guess my imagination got a little ahead of me!

After a round of introductory talks, first the speaker was finally on and I think it was apparent to all of us how passionate he is about what he does and how obviously good he is about what he does . . . Phillip Patrick, the vice president for Digital and Marketing Strategy and Publisher of Crown Digital Media at Random House, briefly introduced himself and said that he was an avid reader since the age of five. The first thing that Phillip said which resonated quite loudly for me for obvious reasons, is that if we are to leave this lecture with one thing and one thing only it is this: acknowledging the importance of children books. To put it quite simply, the more children read now, the better it is for publishers later. I couldn’t have agreed with him more!

Publishers hard at work

Before getting into the basics of how to build a successful publishing strategy the participants were asked to name the challenges that they face in the industry. It was no shock to hear that distribution and lack of information availability were top of the list. But when one participant casually said “people don’t read!” I couldn’t help but laugh at the simplicity in which this problem was stated, yet at the same time realizing how sadly true this is. Again, the message was clear: visionary publishers should figure out that if they support children literature, at the end of the day it will end up supporting them.

Why are we starting off talking about the challenges? I wanted to hear about plans, strategies and overcoming challenges . . . but before I could continue my line of thinking, Phillip drew parallels by talking about the story Ian Ballantine, the man who helped popularize paperback publishing in the mid-20th century. He faced major challenges, such as the lack of import/ export agreements between countries, the rationing of paper during World War II. Yet, Ian found ways to get around those challenges and ended up establishing several of his own successful companies [First, Bantam Books, and then Ballantine Books].

“So, whenever you have a bad day at the office,” Phillip said, “think of Ian and how he couldn’t get paper to print on!” Not a bad way to motivate oneself I thought. To look at the bigger picture instead of focusing on your problems, find ways to adapt to new markets and turn challenges into opportunities. But what was also very clear from the story was that origins of great companies usually are entrepreneurial and spring out of passion. This warmed my heart and made me feel like I fit in perfectly with Ian and the gang. The start of our company (Al Salwa Publishing) was entrepreneurial with one woman who had a passion and a dream to publish quality Arabic children books, and who has now realized that dream.

We then had an hour long lunch break, served outside at the university campus, it was a welcome escape from the AC! The weather in Abu Dhabi at this time of year at a perfect 25 degrees centigrade and is perfect for being outdoors, so we were lucky for that. Lunch gave me a chance to mingle with other publishers and discuss our backgrounds. Business cards were exchanged (I should’ve known to get more, but I have already run out of business cards!).

The author, Salwa Shakhshir, engaging in the all-important exchange of business cards

The best part of the day I think came last, when we were asked to form groups and each write a SWOT analysis of our companies and share them with the rest. Some found it hard to write their company’s weaknesses to be discussed openly by everyone, but in the end the sharing gave us a real chance to connect with one another, understand and relate to what other publishers are going through, and realize that no matter how big or small we are we’re all in the same boat, trying to the best of our abilities to publish and sell books, continuously learning as we go along.

In short, it was quite a day, great networking opportunities and learning experiences . . . can’t wait for tomorrow’s seminar!

About the author: Salwa Shakhshir is a publisher at Al Salwa Publishing, an independent publishing house established in 1996 in Amman, Jordan. She previously worked in advertising and film production.

Al Salwa was originally founded by by renown children’s writer Taghreed Najjar and specializes in Arabic picture books for children. It now has a catalogue of over 40 books for children with ages ranging from birth to 10 years of age. Al Salwa has recently expanded into the digital electronic media by producing interactive CDs, DVDs, and audio books. Al Salwa’s publications are widely distributed across the Arab world. Its titles have been translated into several languages, made into plays, and produced as short animated movies, including ‘Al Ghoul’ story (The Monster), which was featured as a segment on Sesame Street Palestine.

About the Author

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Guest contributors to Publishing Perspectives have diverse backgrounds in publishing, media and technology. They live across the globe and bring unique, first-hand experience to their writing.