In China and the UAE Book Fairs Civilize Business-Minded Metropolises

In Growth Markets by Edward Nawotka

Abu Dhabi International Book Fair

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

By Edward Nawotka

To most people around the world when you say the word “Frankfurt” the first association that comes to mind is banking. Of course, in publishing if you simply say “Frankfurt,” it conjures up images not of grimacing Hugo Boss and Jill Sander-clad executives pondering the fate of the Euro, but of publishing execs racing too and fro at the annual Frankfurt Book Fair.

Four ambitious book festivals will take place over the next two weeks featuring A-list international writers and important literary prizes.

Book fairs seem to have a civilizing effect on a city. Ironically, they are most successful in cities that seem on the surface the least likely to support them. In the United States the largest and most influential book fairs don’t take place in New York or San Francisco, the two cities most closely associated with book publishing, but in Miami and Los Angeles, cities best known for vice and Hollywood. And then there’s the National Book Festival, which takes place in Washington D.C., and was started by former First Lady Laura Bush, who took the inspiration from the Texas Book Festival, which she had launched a half-dozen years earlier in Austin. Politics and literature are not always the coziest of bedfellows.

Hong Kong Festival

Internationally, the same holds true. Anyone who has ever experienced Hong Kong knows knows the city specializes in three things: shopping, skyscrapers, and stocks. Evidence of capital “c” culture are relatively limited. And yet as China continues to maintain strict controls over its publishing business, Hong Kong is increasingly home to numerous Chinese publishing houses willing to take a risk on controversial works that are then smuggled into the mainland. Part of that ardor for literature has likely been fueled by the Hong Kong International Literary Festival, an event that before it finishes on March 18 expects to draw in some 900,000. Now in its 11th year, the HKILF offer book lovers the opportunity to see more than 60 authors and view exhibits, including a popular new one on digital reading, at some two dozen venues throughout the city. Among the highlights this year is the appearance of Lord Jeffrey Archer and a reading by all the shortlisted authors for the 2010 Man Asian Literary Prize — Bi Feiyu, Manu Joseph, Tabish Khair, Kenzaburo Oe and Yoko Ogawa — on March 16, the day before the winner will be announced.

Several of the authors appearing in Hong Kong –- including Emma Donoghue and Peter Hessler — are doing double duty on the mainland as guests at the the Bookwork International Literary Festival, which kicked off last Friday and runs simultaneously at the bookstore’s locations in Beijing, Chengdu and Suzhou. This is the fourth year of the event, which primarily features English-language authors, and for the second year in a row, the festival has vowed to become carbon-neutral with all flights for authors — such as David Eggers and David Sedaris, who are flying long distances to attend — being offset by the purchase of carbon credits.

Emirates Festival of Literature

Tomorrow the United Arab Emirates is also kicking off two weeks of literary festivals. The first is the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature which takes place in Dubai from March 8-12; then next Tuesday the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair begins and runs through March 20.

The Dubai offers an array of authors, from business self-help gurus like Tony Buzan (the creator of mind-mapping) and Edward de Bono (he of the “thinking hats”) to children’s writers like Ireland’s Eoin Colfer, celebrities such as Michael Palin, global bestsellers such as Margaret Atwood (who in 2009 withdrew after accusing the festival of censorship), and Arabic-language luminaries, such as Saudi author Abdo Khal, winner of the 2010 International Prize for Arabic Fiction for his novel Spewing Sparks as Big as Castles.

Abu Dhabi International Book Fair

Ninety minutes down the superhighway in Abu Dhabi, the new winner of the International Prize for Arabic Fiction will be crowned at a ceremony before the opening of the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair on March 14. The shortlisted authors and winners will be showcased the next day at the Fair, which otherwise features numerous A-list authors, from Norway’s Jostein Gardner and Asne Seierstad to Germany’s Ingo Schulze and American Sylvia Nasar, all in addition to dozens of writers from the Emirates and the environs.

Of the four, the ADIBF offers the most extensive professional program, which includes events covering digital publishing, social media, rights, illustration, and a full range of publishing “best practices.” You can follow much of the action and highlights from Abu Dhabi here and on our blog starting next week.

DISCUSS: Can Book Fairs and Cultural Institutions Change International Perceptions?

About the Author

Edward Nawotka

A widely published critic and essayist, Edward Nawotka serves as a speaker, educator and consultant for institutions and businesses involved in the global publishing and content industries. He was also editor-in-chief of Publishing Perspectives since the launch of the publication in 2009 until January 2016.