By Porter Anderson, Editor-in-Chief | @Porter_Anderson
‘Stubborn Publishing Challenges, Fresh Approaches’As Publishing Perspectives readers know from our reporting, a first Middle East iteration of the International Publishers Association’s (IPA) is in the planning stages for the end of this month in Amman, with the patronage and active engagement of Jordan’s Queen Raina Al Abdullah.
As programming is finalized and preparations are put into place, we’ve had a chance to interview IPA’s vice-president, the Sheikha Bodour Al Qasimi of the United Arab Emirates’ Sharjah, about the fast-building regional events series she has led with the backing of IPA president Hugo Setzer and the organization’s team based in Geneva.
Now with its speakers’ roster coming together as IPA works with the Union of Jordanian Publishers, the Amman event’s structure and content already are helping to define the value that the IPA sees in the development of these events and the context in which this world organization—with 81 member-associations from 69 nations—is gaining in its importance in international publishing.
Earlier this year, Bodour’s nonprofit Kalimat Foundation for Children’s Empowerment made a 700-book donation to Jordanian schools in Amman and in the Dead Sea sector.
This was one of a series of interventions she and her Sharjah-based team have made in literacy efforts for Arabic-language refugees. And this is a topic that Amman attendees will find on the agenda.
Bodour also has included in the Amman program one of the special PublisHer networking dinners for women in publishing, the program she spearheaded first at the London Book Fair and then, in June, at the IPA Africa Seminar in Nairobi.
And in our exchange with her about the approaching Amman event, September 30 and October 1, we began by asking Bodour if the IPA is following a sequence of areas of world publishing into which it hopes to expand these efforts.
As it turns out, she tells us, the rationale behind the regional seminars has several layers of value for both the world body and for member-nations.
‘Direct IPA Interaction … on the Ground’
Bodour Al Qasimi: The inaugural African Regional Seminar in Lagos, Nigeria in 2018 was hosted in response to member requests for more on-the-ground activities in Africa.
In addition to catalyzing future-oriented discussions on exciting emerging publishing markets in Africa, a key achievement from the Lagos seminar, and the Nairobi seminar in June, was validating a scalable approach to significantly increase direct IPA interaction with its members in developing publishing regions.
There were a lot of learnings from these events, and the Africa Seminar Series has emerged as a case study and road map for the IPA in developing a more field-driven approach to its work. We are leveraging many of the learnings from Africa in organizing the upcoming seminar in Jordan.
The IPA regional events are an ideal venue for meetings with current and potential IPA members to assess their needs and to meet with publishing industry stakeholders to identify common objectives that enhance the global impact of IPA’s advocacy objectives on the ground.
The IPA’s partnerships with Dubai Cares, African Publishers Network, and the Association for the Development of Education in Africa were a direct result of this effort. These partnerships are unique, in that they highlight IPA’s convening power to catalyze on the ground cooperation that benefits members as well as strengthens the overall publishing ecosystem in Africa.
IPA’s regional events also allow our global members to get the real pulse of frontier and emerging publishing markets. In addition to Africa and the Middle East, there is interest in hosting future regional events in Asia and Latin America. Enhancing publishing ecosystem connectivity between emerging and more traditional markets is an important priority of this strategy.
‘An Opportunity To Reset the Industry’s Dialogue’
Publishing Perspectives: Is it correct that the event in Amman is geared primarily toward defining and structuring the support and cultivation needed by Arab publishing, itself. Is this your sense, too?
“The Amman seminar attempts to address the structural challenges facing the publishing industry today while exploring ways to capitalize on the globalization of the cultural industries.”Bodour Al Qasimi, IPA
BAQ: The Arab world’s publishing ecosystem has long suffered from systemic challenges which we’ve spent several years talking about across multiple forums. The industry sentiment is quite the same as what was voiced by publishing industry stakeholders in Africa—stakeholders are frustrated with a lack of progress on systemic industry issues and having the same discussions year after year at industry forums.
In this sense, we took influence from the Africa Seminar Series in planning the seminar in Jordan. We worked with various stakeholders to develop an event that would define new, innovative, systemic solutions to decades-old challenges and position the industry for effectively responding to future opportunities.
The Amman seminar offers an opportunity to reset the industry’s dialogue on long-standing challenges.
One way regional industry discussions on key challenges have been lacking is that they’ve remained focused on luddite approaches to systemic challenges that ignore the demographics of our region and the rapid rise of the digital economy.
More than half of our region’s population is younger than 25, and over the last two decades, Internet penetration has grown by more than 5,000 percent, reaching a penetration rate of almost 70 percent. From this perspective, the Arab world has many commonalities with Africa—the youths’ embrace of technology and the wider ramifications of the digital economy on how people read, learn, and consume cultural goods.
In Africa and the Arab world, technology is viewed as an enabler critical to the reform of education systems and a workaround for addressing stubborn publishing industry challenges with fresh approaches.
This is precisely the reason why the minister of artificial intelligence of the United Arab Emirates is participating in a panel in Jordan and Her Majesty Queen Rania has agreed to host the event under her patronage—both are very strong proponents of the use of technological leapfrogging in response to the changing needs of regional youth in building reading cultures and promoting national development more broadly.
Cultural globalization also presents an immense opportunity for digitally connected regions like the Arab world to reach global markets with its cultural industries. The industry’s focus is on fixing the foundations of the Arab world’s publishing industry as a first step in taking advantage of emerging market opportunities in the increasingly globalized cultural industries.
The Amman seminar attempts to address the structural challenges facing the publishing industry today while exploring ways to capitalize on the globalization of the cultural industries.
There’s a significant, growing interest in alternative narratives and diverse cultures that has emerged through global digital convergence—which has led to the international diffusion of books, movies, and other cultural goods.
Countries like Egypt, Jordan, and the United Arab Emirates are increasingly being integrated into the global cultural industries through cultural globalization.
‘Rewriting the Future of the Arab Publishing Industry’
PP: Queen Rania is extending her patronage to the Amman event. How does this come to be the case?
BAQ: Her Majesty Queen Rania is a leading voice in the region and her whose interests are at the nexus of educational reform, educational publishing, technology, and entrepreneurship.
Due to Jordan’s position in the world, she’s also a strong advocate for the publishing sector’s contribution and the wider role of education in promoting a sense of normalcy and healing in conflict and refugee crises.
A common theme of Her Majesty’s work is a focus on technology in achieving scalable impact. She’s the type of leader with a strong bias for action who doesn’t shy away from taking on big, systemic regional challenges.
She’s a perfect public figure to support the cause of rewriting the future of the Arab publishing industry to enhance its contribution to the region’s socio-economic development and build bridges of mutual understanding.
More Book Fair Sales, Fewer Bookshops
PP: How easily do you foresee the region as a whole making a transition to a largely online retail pattern?
“In the Arab world, online retail sales growth is likely to come at the expense of book fair sales rather than take sales away from traditional brick-and-mortar outlets.”Bodour Al Qasimi, IPA
BAQ: Despite a lack of statistics, our best estimate is that only approximately 20 percent of books in most Arab countries reach readers through traditional brick-and-mortar outlets. The remainder are sold at book fairs and via institutional sales.
The independent, neighborhood bookstore, with the exception of a few Arab countries such as Egypt, Iraq, and Lebanon, and other North African countries with historical book markets, is increasingly rare. It doesn’t seem to be the rise of online retailers, ebooks, or digital content that have made bookshops in the Arab World a rarity — the ability of large book fairs to meet consumer demand and the dominance of educational publishing, which bypasses traditional bookstores is a more likely explanation for their decline.
Our region seems to be an exception to the narrative that digital and online marketplaces have killed the independent, neighborhood bookstore.
With Amazon’s acquisition of Souq, Jamalon’s consistent growth, the digital transformation of retailers such as Obeikan, and changing market dynamics—such as the growing popularity of audiobooks—online retail sales growth is likely to come at the expense of book fair sales rather than take sales away from traditional brick-and-mortar outlets.
‘Conflict Resolution, Peace Building’
PP: When it comes to the refugee issue, and—as the agenda has it, “the prominent role that the publishing industry can play in healing and helping refugees build new lives while remaining rooted in their culture”—what’s your feeling about how well Arab publishing on the whole has perceived this issue’s importance? Do you find that other publishers are ready to be involved in refugee-responsiveness as your Kalimat Foundation is? Or is this still something of a new issue for many Arab publishers?
BAQ: Her Majesty Queen Rania is a leading regional champion of the positive role that education, reading, and literacy can play in responding to conflict, displacement, and resettlement.
For this reason, the Amman seminar is an ideal venue to discuss the increased role the publishing sector can play in conflict resolution, peace building, and addressing the psycho-social impacts of conflict.
Of the 36 countries affected by conflict and instability on the World Bank’s 2019 Harmonized List of Fragile Situations, 10 are in the Arab World. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees’ report, more than 26 million refugees and vulnerable individuals are from these countries.
As an industry, it’s impossible for us to ignore the clear and urgent need to address literacy in conflict countries in our region to avoid a lost generation and also to support psycho-social healing and community integration for the displaced.
Several entities, including many publishers, in the Arab World are involved in refugee relief efforts, but these efforts can be better resourced and coordinated.
Access to Knowledge: ‘A Fundamental Human Right’
PP: In regard to refugee matters and other issues, is it fair to say that one of the most productive parts of the IPA’s regional gatherings is a chance to examine some of the political realities together and discuss how to promote the values of literature in spite of them?
“The intention of discussing book accessibility and literacy at the Amman seminar is not to politicize the issue, but exactly the opposite—to analyze the current regional crises based on the region’s common cultural tradition of access to knowledge.”Bodour Al Qasimi, IPA
BAQ: In several of the conflicts in the Arab world, politics is a key driver. This is a fact.
However, in my view, the issue of book accessibility and literacy is often viewed through a depoliticized frame of neutrality in the Arab world. There’s a very strong cultural tradition which places access to knowledge at the very foundation of the Arab psyche.
From the time of Bayt Ul Hikma, access to knowledge has been viewed as a fundamental human right linked very strongly to the region’s development. The intention of discussing book accessibility and literacy at the Amman seminar is not to politicize the issue, but exactly the opposite—to continue to analyze the current regional crises through a depoliticized lens based on the region’s common cultural tradition of access to knowledge.
Rather than devolving into a discussion on politics, this discussion is likely to focus on how the publishing industry, donors, and government can work together to combine diverse efforts into a much stronger, more cohesive collective effort. In all of the regional seminars, while many of the dialogues involve government stakeholders, the underlying politics of the challenges are often secondary to more important cross-sectoral interrelations and unfolding soico-cultural transitions.
Based on the seminars hosted so far, participating policymakers are often times in a similar position to publishers in seeking clarity and solutions rather than set on pushing a particular politicized agenda.
‘Compelling Use Cases for Publishing Tech’
PP: We’ve talked in the past about the supply chain and issues of distribution in the Arab world’s publishing industry. Is it still in these elements that developments in technology are most needed?
“Through the Amman seminar, we’re looking to put digital transformation firmly on the agenda of publishers and the wider publishing ecosystem.”Bodour Al Qasimi, IPA
BAQ: Through the Amman seminar, we’re looking to put digital transformation firmly on the agenda of publishers and the wider publishing ecosystem.
Previously, discussions on the digitization of the publishing industry often quickly turned to solving the Arab world’s distribution and retail challenges. However, the Amman seminar’s panels have been designed to discuss a range of compelling use cases for publishing tech at several points in the industry value chain to realize new sources of value and circumvent systemic challenges.
For example, to connect publishers, agents, and authors, digital rights marketplaces, such as IPR License, have emerged.
Translation is being revolutionized by developments in artificial intelligence, machine learning, and deep learning.
At the level of libraries, bookless libraries are possible with e-lending and print-on-demand technology, and libraries are becoming key institutions that impart 21st-century skills like computer programming, rapid prototyping, and digital literacy.
Technology is being used to enhance book access and provide open educational resources to communities in conflict, while Arab classrooms are starting to integrate digitized student-teacher interactions driven by artificial intelligence and mobile devices to facilitate more personalized, immersive learning experiences.
‘A Collective Vision for the Way Forward’
PP: Is there to be a kind of follow-up structure created, something like the Lagos plan from the African event, that can help guide and gauge progress from the kind of discussions we’ll hear in Amman?
BAQ: The Lagos Action Plan is unique in that it came about as a direct response to a call by a small group of committed seminar attendees to translate the discussions at the Lagos Seminar into action.
Their view, which is widely shared by many African publishers, is that African publishing industry forums, which began with the influential Arusha seminars in the 1980s, have not materialized into on-the-ground action.
There appears to be a similar sentiment as in Africa held by publishers in the Arab World, and I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s a call for a seminar action plan focused on the Arab world which would build consensus on a collective vision for the way forward.
More from Publishing Perspectives on the International Publishers Association is here, more from us on its ‘Africa Rising’ Nairobi seminar is here, more from us on the Arabic world is here. More details on the IPA’s Middle East seminar, the first of its kind in the Arab world, is here. Publishing Perspectives is the media partner of the IPA’s regional seminar program in Amman.