Abu Dhabi Training, Day 2: If Arab Politics Can Change, So Can Publishers

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Several times a year KITAB, the organization behind the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair, and the Center for Publishing at New York University’s School of Continuing and Professional Studies, hold professional training courses for publishers on the campus of NYU Abu Dhabi.

Salwa Shakhshir of Al Salwa Books, a children’s book publisher from Amman, Jordan is documenting her experiences here throughout the week. Read yesterday’s post on Day One of the Publishers Training event (or take a look at her coverage of last year’s event).

By Salwa Shakhshir

Class is in session

Day 2 of the Publisher’s Training session started with John Sherer, publisher of Basic Books, saying that today we were going to take a more leisurely pace than the day before, because we covered a lot already. To our pleasant surprise, we managed to cram a lot of information today as well, especially when we started talking about e-books — a highly anticipated topic for everyone in the room.

Does the Arab World Need a Universal Bestseller List?

Matthew Baldacci, Associate Publisher of St. Martin’s Press, had just started addressing the importance of “positioning and identifying your competition” when creating a marketing plan for your book, when the conversation diverged into bestseller book lists. Who creates them? What’s the main goal behind them? Are they considered important for publishers and consumers nowadays? This sparked a serious discussion among the publishers. Some, like Omar Chebaro (Nilofurat) and Azza Tawil (All Prints) from Lebanon, noted the urgent need for such a list in the Arab world. Amira Aboulmagd (From Shurouq in Egypt), on the other hand, said that an official “best-seller list” does exist in Egypt. Instead, it is created by book sellers who basically report cash register sale numbers and translate them into best-seller lists. Ahmad Al Haidari (from a publishing house in Kuwait ) cast doubt on credibility of these lists, saying that they can be easily manipulated.  Matthew explained that The New York Times collects their own data to generate the “Bestseller list,” and as a publisher you want your book to be on this list because it’ll generate more sales.

This made sense to me, but then the conversation moved to how The New York Times the list has evolved into a much more complex list, one that includes segmented topics like fiction, non-fiction, e-books, etc. Now the list no longer represents just the top 10 books, but more like the top 200 or so books! And I wondered about the effectiveness of such a list in that case. But going back to the idea of the purpose of a book list, the answer is that it not only helps generate more sales, but also promotes books and encourages reading, which is something we sure need a lot of.

Q&A time in Abu Dhabi

In the Arab world, while there is a lack of a universal “list” to look up to, perhaps what might fill the need are the prizes and programs meant to highlight good literary works and encourage the production of high quality books in the region. For example, we have the Anna Lindh Foundation which has established a list of the best 101 children books in the region, and the Etisalat Prize for Arabic Childrens Literature, the Arabic Booker Prize for adult books, and so on. But as important as these programs and prizes are, they are not enough, they don’t translate into major sales for these books.

Ghayath Maktabi (Syria) passionately pointed out that since we keep on complaining about the situation, maybe it’s time to do something about it. We as publishers should unite and celebrate each others’ achievements because a successful book in Syria, for example, will promote the whole book industry, and we should all be grateful for that. I think this rang true to a lot of the publishers in the room. I hope the ripple effects of this conversation will actually result in seeing more collaboration among us publishers in the near future.

Stepping outside of creating a marketing plan for our books, it is also important for us as publishers to create marketing tactics that promote reading in general. As John mentioned, engaging the media could be one of the ways. An insightful comment, because media customers are mostly readers as well, so tying books and media together can be of mutual benefit to all and should be explored further.

E-books: The Phenomenon

The conversation got really interesting when talking about e-books, which Matthew explained can either be verbatim (meaning a digital format of the physical book) or enhanced (links, videos, sound etc. embedded in the book). Apparently 99% of the market still consists of non-enhanced e-books, something of which I was not aware; from reading articles, it sounds as if enhanced e-books and apps were being produced by the dozens each day. But upon hearing Matthew and John, there has been a lot of talk of what an enhanced e-book is but very little action. Some publishers think that people are looking to mimic the physical reading experience in digital format, so by adding videos and links you’re taking away from that experience and it may no longer be considered a book. But on the other hand, many writers are now writing books with enhanced e-books in mind: they keep video logs, photos and whatever it is that they think will “enhance” their work. This seems to be the right way to go. So, in essence the author will be participating a lot more in the editorial production of the book. Not not only that, but also the role of marketing might also change and come into play even earlier than with physical books. Marketers will get involved in in the actual production of the book and in a discussion of possible enhancements.

Another thing we learned was that the right marketing tools for promoting e-books aren’t there yet, and that what is happening now is that if the physical book is marketed well, then the e-book sales will surely follow. We’re just not good at marketing e-books and enhanced e-books at the moment, said John, and I actually heard myself give a sigh of relief! We’ve recently published an Arabic children’s book App and were quite honestly struggling with how to market it, so to hear that giant publishers in the States haven’t yet figured it out kind of made me feel good!

The growth of e-books, however, is really something to consider as growth  is estimated at 10% per month, John told us. E-book retailers are really growing fast, and we were all cautioned to learn from the US experience with Amazon and make sure that we as publishers get to control the price of our e-books, not only to safeguard the rights for our authors but also to control the message that is sent out to the consumer on the value of our content.

We touched upon the emergence of Google Editions and how that is going to change everything, because we’re going to move from tens of e-book retailers to hundreds and thousands of e-book sellers; the main idea behind Google Editions is that anybody can be an e-book seller. It is going to become so easy to discover and download your book. This is such an incredible concept that I can only imagine how much it will affect the industry!

If Arab Politics Can Change, So Can Publishers

We were left with some key takeaways from the two days. The first and most important one for me was that there is a huge opportunity for collaboration among the publishers. What Ghayath said really struck a nerve, and if we as Arab countries are just awakening politically and calling for change, then I feel the same should happen in the publishing industry. So many different discussions ensued at lunch; about shipping costs and the difficulties of shipping books borders; about piracy and the lack of proper law or government enforcement; about promoting a reading culture when there isn’t much commitment to reading. I really feel that if we join our efforts and energy and make our voice heard, then we can eventually change the status quo and control our situation instead of just complain about it.

It really was a great pleasure listening to both Matthew and John share their wealth of experience with us so generously. They took their time explaining some of the alien concepts to us, and also tried to understand where we were coming from and offered us pathways to explore, or examples from their own experience to compare with. They gave us heartfelt advice on where to be cautious and how to learn from mistakes of others. I think we all felt lucky to be there and to have a chance to interact with both John and Matthew. So really, I send them a big thank you!

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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.