By Porter Anderson, Editor-in-Chief | @Porter_Anderson
The Business of Culture: ‘A Real City’Years in the making, Sharjah Publishing City will have its grand opening Monday (October 30) as hundreds of leaders from many parts of the world industry convene to see the inception of the world’s first free trade zone for publishing.
One of the key components of Sheikh Sultan bin Mohammed Al Qasimi and the Sheikha Bodour bint Sultan Al Qasimi‘s vision for the third largest of the United Arab Emirates, Publishing City is the newest office for some 150 internationally engaged publishing-related companies already signed for the sprawling new complex.
As one of the ventures that has prompted UNESCO to name Sharjah the 2019 World Book Capital, the building and its program is providing a new gateway location and destination for international publishing firms, large and small, in the Middle Eastern and African markets.
“There’s no more marble left in Italy,” says one wry, admiring British observer who’s closely familiar with the project. Indeed, so compelling is the space that free zone consultant Mohamed Noor Hersi tells of leasing one office space to a publishing executive from India during an elevator ride at Frankfurt. And he swears that’s no joke.
And in an interview at Sharjah’s stand at Frankfurt Book Fair earlier this month, Sharjah Book Authority chair Ahmed Al Ameri proudly showed Publishing Perspectives videos made in the gleaming interior of the huge facility, which is set near land that companies can use to build their own structures if they prefer.
‘Tax-Free, Freedom of Speech’
As we reported in June shortly after BookExpo in New York City, the word then was that the structure’s office space and “flexible spaces” for companies’ use was selling out quickly. By mid-October, Al Ameri said, the site had more than 500 companies interested in leasing, which is well beyond the capacity of the facility.
And even as Al Ameri grins (understandably) whenever telling colleagues of the success at hand, he’s perfectly serious when he tells you just what the “free zone,” as many in Sharjah are calling it, means: “Tax-free,” he says, “and free in terms of freedom of speech, and free in terms of 100-percent ownership” by a leasing company of its own assets and interests. Then he adds his favorite lines: “And 365 days of book fairs.”
The opening of Publishing City will coincide with the extensive professional program, October 30 and 31, that kicks off the 36th Sharjah International Book Fair, running November 1-11 this year with the UK as its Guest of Honor as part of the British Council’s UK-UAE 2017 cooperative program.
In fact, the advent of the Publishing City program has helped swell the professional program’s registration to what Al Ameri predicts will be some 400 participants, a more-than 85-percent increase over last year’s program.
The results of that program’s trading activities are impressive. Al Ameri says that the professional program last year produced 1,800 meetings between rights representatives, resulting in more than 800 transactions.
And in a testament to the widening sphere of influence of Sharjah’s aggressive publishing-based cultural leadership in the Arab world, the Emirates Publishers Association (see Publishing Perspectives‘ story from Frankfurt Book Fair here)—an organization founded by its royal patron Bodour Al Qasimi—will have its offices at Sharjah Publishing City.
“A lot of people thought that culture ‘doesn’t make money back home.’ They thought there was no business in culture. They call this sometimes the soft power of the world.”Ahmed Al Ameri
In association with the International Publishers Association (IPA) work Bodour has led, this will put Arab publishers into close daily proximity to companies and organizations working in global publishing–all part of the plan to bring the Arab world’s literary culture forward and to open access to the Arabic populations for the international book industry.
Also headquartered at the new facility will be the Arab Writers Union, the Library Association of the UAE, and the Arab Children’s Book Publishers Forum, with more such announcements to come. “And we also will have ghost writers available for companies that need them, “along with a database of translators” who can work in the literature of the region.
Many points of engagement and programming are under wraps at this writing–to be announced around the opening next week.
But a glance at the professional program’s plans, which include a keynote by IPA president Michiel Kolman of Elsevier and a host of speakers including PW Star Watch 2017 ‘Superstar’ Gabriella Page-Fort, editorial director of the translation powerhouse AmazonCrossing, makes it clear that this is an inflection point for the long-term efforts of the royal family in Sharjah to create what Simon & Schuster’s Seth Russo has called “a reading culture on the way to a knowledge-based economy.”
‘The Soft Power of the World’
The fully built-out corporate campus will eventually feature the new Sharjah Publishing City at its center, with the associated printing bloc and towers nearby, parking underneath.
What Sharjah Publishing City’s Al Ameri knows is that the arrival of the project as a tangible, functioning reality is “an amazing point,” he says.
“We are regaining now,” he says. “We’re regaining the investment” that Sharjah, its royal family, and its government have made for decades.
“And a lot of people thought that culture ‘doesn’t make money back home.’ They thought there was no business in culture, you see,” he says, clearly recalling years of skeptical onlookers and qualms about such programs as Knowledge Without Borders, which has put libraries into the homes of tens of thousands of families in Sharjah and of Bodour’s creation of the Kalimat Foundation for Children’s Empowerment, with its Ara Initiative for sight-challenged children and its delivery last month of some 2,000 Arabic-language books to 25 Swedish library programs.
“They call this sometimes the soft power of the world,” Al Ameri says. But what Sharjah’s leadership is doing is demonstrating the hard business that can be attracted and built on such “soft power.”
“Let’s keep it going,” he says to one of his associates who stops to update him on leasing progress at Publishing City as he speaks.
“We’ll be offering offset printing,” Al Ameri says, “as well as POD,” publishing on demand. And as Publishing Perspectives has reported, Ingram Content is among the companies that has researched having a presence in the new project.
“We’re building a huge facility for printing,” he says, “and then we will have our G+8.” That’s a building with nine storeys, ground plus eight floors. “This is Stage Two.” He quickly draws a ground plan of a complex that features the new Sharjah Publishing City at its center, with the associated printing bloc and towers nearby.
“The basement will be parking space,” he says, and the entire Stage Two project is to be finished by 2019. “In fact, we’re planning to open the printing facility in 2018 with the rest of the campus rising around it.
“We’ve started to take orders already” for Stage Two, which will, in his estimation, finally start forming the hub he has worked to direct for years. Sharjah’s new development is drawing special interest from Brazil, Italy, France–but this changes weekly as new applications for space arrive.
“This will be a real city,” Ahmed Al Ameri says, beaming. “A real city.”