Exclusive: A New Year Opens With Bodour Al Qasimi’s IPA Presidency

In Feature Articles by Porter Anderson

‘Our industry is constantly changing and evolving,’ says Bodour Al Qasimi. This week, she begins her term as the second woman president of the International Publishers Association in more than 50 years.

Bodour Al Qasimi. Image: Ivana Maglione

By Porter Anderson, Editor-in-Chief | @Porter_Anderson

‘The Industry Is Stronger Together’
In the closing days of our publishing year 2020, we were glad to have an interview with Hugo Setzer as the end of his two-year term as president of the International Publishers Association (IPA) approached.

Setzer, CEO of Mexico City’s Manual Moderno, turned out to have been the man in the seat as the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic made its deadly assault. His and the IPA’s response became—as has happened to leaders and organizations in virtually all fields and professions—the unavoidable hallmark of the era.

As 2021 opens, the United Arab Emirates’ Sheikha Bodour Al Qasimi begins her term in office, having worked closely as vice-president with Setzer and, for years, in leadership positions among the association’s committees.

And in our term-opening interview with her, she’s by no means free of the pandemic crisis.

“Though the global publishing industry would like to close the chapter on COVID-19,” Bodour says to Publishing Perspectives today (January 7), “the International Publishers Association’s discussions with its members and the wider publishing ecosystem suggest that 2021 is also likely to be a tough year.”

While working with Setzer and IPA’s secretary-general José Borghino to contact each of IPA’s 71 member-associations in 86 nations to assess the early impact of the virus’ outbreaks, Bodour was also developing the From Response to Recovery survey, targeting 33 representative member-associations as a first effort to appraise international effects of the health emergency in the book business.

Engaged and Influential

Bodour is one of the most recognizable, energetic, proactive, and influential professionals in the business today, and her work with the IPA leading up to her presidency has served as an aptly broad platform for her initiatives, projects, and explorations of the state of publishing and its challenges.

Like so many top-level leaders, she’s a charismatic conversationalist, a poised speaker, a skillful director of staff and resources, and—perhaps most of all—intensely focused. Even while maintaining a demanding schedule as a member of Sharjah’s royal family with its emphasis on building a reading culture, she moves from one publishing issue to the next—and from one event to the next destination—with an authority that has earned her respect across continents and cultures.

A gracious host when in Sharjah, she’s a thoughtful guest in her colleagues’ markets, ready with a big smile and a laugh for each associate she runs into.

Only the second female president of the IPA in more than half a century—and with Brazil’s Karine Pansa as her vice-president—Bodour is the founder of Kalimat Group, the first publishing house in the Gulf dedicated to children’s literature. Look a little deeper and you’ll see that Kalimat also produces a wide array of adult titles from outside the Arab world, translated for the first time into Arabic. Some of this is quite gutsy, ranging from James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room to Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad.

Bodour is also the founder of her home-base industry organization, the Emirates Publishers Association.

Less than two years ago, she created the fast-growing PublisHer international network of women in the book business. (Publishing Perspectives publisher Hannah Johnson is a frequent interviewer in the program’s #Unmasked video series.)

And in her term as IPA vice-president, Bodour has led the development of the organization’s groundbreaking regional conferences in African publishing (Lagos in 2018Nairobi in 2019) and the Middle East (Amman in 2019), all the while steering her Kalimat Foundation for Children’s Empowerment to become a leader in providing literature for Arabs in diaspora, particularly refugee populations settled in more than a dozen nations.

She has been instrumental in the creation of the US$800,000 Africa Publishing Innovation Fund in a unique partnership with Dubai Cares. That program is something she discussed in leading a symposium at the 2020 World Economic Forum’s 50th anniversary week of meetings at Davos. And Bodour leveraged Sharjah’s long track record of a literature-led context to attract the designation of UNESCO’s 2019 World Book Capital.

The Sharjah World Book Capital in 2020—even after the handoff of the honor to Kuala Lumpur—worked under Bodour’s direction to relieve the struggles of libraries and publishers in Lebanon, following the August 4 blast in the Port of Beirut, in addition to its support of the historic McMillan Memorial Library in Nairobi.

We begin our new year exchange with Bodour by asking about industry pressure points. And that, of course, means we have to start with the pandemic. Nevertheless, she’s looking for positive signals.

‘Green Shoots of Recovery’

Bodour says that the coronavirus’ progress has spotlighted various realities in publishing markets, falling into three primary groups of mutual aid and cooperation; digital capability and fluency; and a need for the industry to stay “open for business,” at a time when it’s customary events have been hobbled.

“One clear theme that has emerged in many publishing markets globally that have begun to recover,” from the onset of the pandemic’s effects, Bodour says, “is that the industry is stronger together. Markets in which publishers, booksellers, libraries, teachers, technology companies, regulators, and other publishing stakeholders came together in response to COVID-19 are seeing green shoots of recovery.

“In 2021, supporting these coalitions that were built in a time of adversity will be key to the industry’s ongoing recovery and building future resilience.

“IPA’s report From Response to Recovery clearly showed,” she points out, “that there were two different types of markets—one where the infrastructure for shifting to digital sales existed alongside a strong reading culture, and another where infrastructure needed to be developed and competition from other media was strong.

“In the former, publishing did ok. In the latter, publishing struggled. We need to bridge that divide urgently,” she says.

“And with the shift to online learning and spikes in reader interest in digital formats,” Bodour says, “determining which reading and purchasing digitization trends will persist will also be key to ensuring the success of many publishers and the long-term viability of the industry as a whole.

“Finally, with cancellations of major book fairs and industry events likely to take place again this year, there is an industry-wide need for innovation in digitally-enabled, experiential literary events that allow the industry to remain open for business despite ongoing logistical and travel challenges.”

‘A Coordinated COVID-19 Recovery Plan’

When asked what sorts of patterns of progress Bodour sees as promising, she says, “The global publishing industry, led by IPA members and its partners, has to come together as an industry to develop a coordinated COVID-19 recovery plan.

“It’s critical that we continue to build our membership base by recruiting and welcoming new members, and supporting countries to establish national publishers’ associations.”Bodour Al Qasimi, IPA

“The pandemic has revealed an urgent need for industry upskilling. Publishers—particularly small, independent publishers—require support in adopting operational strategies to adapt to evolving industry dynamics including implementing digital transformations, managing the impact of increased input costs, adopting digital marketing and sales strategies, reducing supply chain risk, and diversifying revenue streams.”

She also reiterates her support for the regional conference programming initiated in Africa and the Middle East prior to the coronavirus’ spread.

“I’ll be looking at ways,” she says, “to move forward with the very successful IPA regional events to engage directly with members on these critical topics, even if physical events will likely remain off-limits in the near term.

“While providing assistance to our member associations which have been particularly hard hit by COVID-19, I think it’s also critical that we continue to build our membership base by recruiting and welcoming new members, and supporting countries to establish national publishers’ associations. Of course, this focus on supporting industry recovery,” she says,” will be done while also sustaining IPA efforts to protect the freedom to publish and respond to evolving copyright challenges.”

‘A Broad Spectrum of Members’

Like executives in so many disciplines and industries, the book business’ leadership has to look for that pathway “from response to recovery,” as the IPA’s study calls it, while maintaining as much as possible of existing gains and opening new areas of traction.

“The value of publishing—whether we look at STM, educational publishing, or the trade—has been pushed into the spotlight over the last year.”Bodour Al Qasimi, IPA

In our interview, Bodour points out that the IPA’s stance as a service-driven organization is a key to its way forward.

“We serve a broad spectrum of members,” she says, “so we spent a lot of 2020 engaging with them to understand their priorities and unique needs.

“In Africa, for example, based on member feedback, we focused the Africa Publishing Innovation Fund on surfacing digital innovations in remote learning to increase literacy and access to books among Africa’s significant out-of-school population. I think this is a good example of IPA remaining nimble in responding to evolving member needs.

“In 2021,” she says, “as our industry stages its recovery, it will be more important than ever for us to remain in sync with member needs. The value of publishing—whether we look at STM, educational publishing, or the trade—has been pushed into the spotlight over the last year. IPA will continue to champion our industry in international policy forums to ensure we can keep providing that value to society.

“Regarding our work to support the achievement of the UN Sustainable Development Goals,” she says, “we were honored when the secretary-general of the United Nations, Antonio Guterres, spoke at our general assembly in November.

“Not only did he applaud the role publishers play through the books they publish, but he also paid tribute to the way they conduct themselves as businesses.

“The publishing community takes its social responsibilities seriously,” Bodour says, “which is why publishers made valuable research and data freely available to the global vaccine race. So much is being done by our members that’s forward-looking. We’re happy to help promote that and share best practices.”

A ‘Risk to Diversity and Inclusion’

Much has been made, of course, about the unprecedented female president and vice-president leadership now going into place at IPA as Bodour and Pansa take up their new roles. But it’s an open question, of course, how readily the world publishing industry can capitalize on the moment when so much attention and so many resources are being poured into pandemic-related issues.

“A growing problem we face as an industry is that many of the small, emerging independent trade publishers—which take chances on diverse voices and push genre boundaries—may disappear as a result of the COVID-19 crisis.”Bodour Al Qasimi, IPA

“I think there’s a real risk of diversity and inclusion potentially taking a back seat to other organizational issues in this time of industry uncertainty,” Bodour says.

“In my work with PublisHer, I’ve found significant variation in progress on diversity and inclusion in publishing markets internationally. In some countries, the dialogue remains focused on gender equality and representation, while in other countries, the diversity and inclusion dialogue has been expanded to include a broader diversity spectrum.

“A growing problem we face as an industry,” Bodour says, “is that many of the small, emerging independent trade publishers—which take chances on diverse voices and push genre boundaries—may disappear as a result of the COVID-19 crisis.

“With many publishing markets of the world being highly consolidated, small, emerging independent trade publishers are just starting to take root, and this crisis has been very damaging to smaller publishers. The failure of small independent publishers and booksellers—particularly in developing markets—could mean an end to trade publishing altogether in some markets and an almost certain decline in biblio-diversity globally.”

She’s pleased, Bodour says, to have had former IPA president Michiel Kolman of Elsevier as IPA’s envoy on issues of diversity and inclusion, “and I hope he’ll continue his great work in this arena with his recent nomination as chair of the Inclusive Publishing and Literacy committee.”

‘At the Edge of Policy and Practice’

As we asked Setzer in our interview with him last month, we’ve asked Bodour to conclude by point to any areas she may feel need more attention from publishers. This is not to say, of course, that publishers don’t have enough to think about and work on, but to see if her insights point to some area of interest or need that might not be evident in day-to-day practice.

“Our industry is constantly changing and evolving, in so many different ways. It’s part of what makes publishing so special and vital.”Bodour Al Qasimi, IPA

“In the past,” she says, “we’ve used the IPA regional seminars to push the frontiers on topics at the edge of policy and practice.

“There are several areas worthy of attention which have emerged from these discussions such as competition policy in publishing as the sector increasingly undergoes digital transformation; gender stereotypes in children’s books and their effect on childhood development; freedom to publish and its intersection with emerging debates surrounding regulating online speech; best practices in upskilling emerging publishing ecosystems and national cultures of reading; the role of technology in overcoming illiteracy and reaching out to schoolchildren; how the rapid shift to online learning and digital reading because of COVID will impact learning outcomes and affect educational publishing; emerging business models to diversify the revenue sources of national publishers associations; the use of bibliotherapy in cultural integration and conflict settings; implementing accessible book standards; emerging new digital formats and business models like chat books and ebook subscription services; and how e-lending is reinforcing the adoption of ebooks and its impact on publishers and libraries.”

And if you need a moment to catch up with so many areas of inquiry and concern, Bodour understands. And knows how to contextualize the breadth of these points for the promise it offers.

“This is quite a long list,” she says. “But, as you know, our industry is constantly changing and evolving, in so many different ways.

“It’s part of what makes publishing so special and vital.”

More from Publishing Perspectives on the International Publishers Association is here and more on Bodour Al Qasimi is here. Publishing Perspectives is the media partner of the International Publishers Association.

More from us on the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on international book publishing is here

About the Author

Porter Anderson

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Porter Anderson has been named International Trade Press Journalist of the Year in London Book Fair's International Excellence Awards. He is Editor-in-Chief of Publishing Perspectives. He formerly was Associate Editor for The FutureBook at London's The Bookseller. Anderson was for more than a decade a senior producer and anchor with CNN.com, CNN International, and CNN USA. As an arts critic (Fellow, National Critics Institute), he was with The Village Voice, the Dallas Times Herald, and the Tampa Tribune, now the Tampa Bay Times. He co-founded The Hot Sheet, a newsletter for authors, which now is owned and operated by Jane Friedman.