Ingram’s Lightning Source: Reintroducing Sharjah Publishing City’s Promise and Potential

In Feature Articles by Porter Anderson

The promise of Sharjah Publishing City as a hub for the international book business has taken a step forward with Lightning Source.

Sharjah’s Ahmed Al Ameri, left, and Ingram Content Group’s David Taylor onstage at London Book Fair. Image: Publishing Perspectives, Porter Anderson

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

Opening Markets on Demand in Sharjah
So much book- and publishing-related news comes from the UAE’s emirate Sharjah that at times, some of the main inflection points can be missed. And the potential of Ingram Content Group‘s new Lightning Source Sharjah print-on-demand installation is something not yet quite in focus for many in world publishing.

Sharjah Publishing City—the palatial 19,000-square-meter facility built by Sharjah Book Authority‘s Ahmed Al Ameri—was opened by Sheikh Sultan bin Mohammed Al Qasimi in October 2017 with a unique proposition. Built with everything from offices and conference rooms to loading docks and warehousing, it was developed as a free trade zone for publishing, capable of becoming a distribution gateway for world publishing.

Only last November, however, did the arrival of Ingram Content Group‘s Lightning Source installation at Publishing City put into place the anchor tenant the project needed—and the enabling print and distribution capability—to allow this gleaming, marble-floored trade zone to begin to fulfill its promise.

In the four years between Publishing City’s lavish opening and the realization of Ingram’s print-on-demand joint venture there, many publishing interests and vendors have become stakeholders in Publishing City. But it’s the Lightning Source technology’s power to print and distribute books—reaching deep into a huge swath of markets that have struggled to find such capacity—that has put the project back onto the international book business’ map.

And so when Al Ameri joined Publishing Perspectives on London Book Fair‘s Main Stage earlier this month, it was, in effect, to reintroduce Sharjah Publishing City and its concept to the international trade.

We were joined by Ingram’s senior vice-president in London, David Taylor, to discuss the project and to redraw the outlines of this trade zone, which now has a new energy growing at its center.

With Ingram now in place, the facility has essentially found its feet. It’s up and operating with, as Taylor reports to us, a gratifying trend in sign-ups from Arab and African publishers who are familiar enough with the region’s challenges to know immediately what the value of this new arrival means.

Al Ameri: ‘Designed To Be a Hub’

The Sharjah Publishing City complex. Image: Sharjah Book Authority

Publishing City was designed to be a hub,” Al Ameri explained to the Main Stage audience in London. But it’s not the hub some might expect, he said: not a center for the United Arab Emirates’ own market. “The UAE market is very small compared to the regional market,” he said without hesitation. Those who know Al Ameri know that he embraces big visions earnestly, particuarly those of Sharjah’s author-ruler Sheikh Sultan. But he understands real odds and recognizes hurdles where they exist.

He and his associates—among them Sharjah’s Bodour Al Qasimi, of course, who now is president of the  the International Publishers Association (IPA)—knew that the business they were working to attract and facilitate in the Publishing City project would understand Sharjah not as a destination but as a superbly placed silken roadway for taking international content into world markets long out of reach, particularly to Western publishing.

“I’m talking about the African market,” Al Ameri said in London. “I’m talking about the whole Middle Eastern market. I’m talking about even the Asian market. This makes Sharjah a unique location for people to meet and do business. The ecosystem that we designed in Publishing City makes it very convenient for lots of people.”

Al Ameri specifically mentioned that Lebanese publishing professionals are moving their businesses to Sharjah. With Beirut’s economy cratered and its infrastructure so badly damaged, Publishing City makes sense to many from the Lebanese book business, which long has been understood as a prominent printing and production center for the region.

“We also see a lot of Egyptian and African business coming to Publishing City,” Al Ameri said. “And the fact that he and his fellow Sharjans live, themselves, in the business environment they’re creating, he said, makes it all the more important to them to get this ambitious project right.

“The vision of Sharjah Publishing City,” he said, “is to have a publisher able to operate seven days a week, 24 hours a day, to do business, to sell rights, to print, to translate. And that’s what we’re trying to do.”

Taylor: ‘A Supply Chain Transformed’

Sheikh Sultan bin Mohammed Al Qasimi, center, with Ahmed Al Ameri, left, at the opening of Sharjah Publishing City, October 2017. Image: Sharjah Book Authority

With roughly a dozen major print-on-demand installations in various parts of the world, Ingram maintains its Lightning Source leadership in the field by offering what is probably the most logical rationale in the business: It’s better to sell a book first and then print it than to print dozens or hundreds or thousands of copies and have to warehouse them while hoping for sales. And not only has the technical capacity of print-on-demand grown rapidly over the years, but in Sharjah, a publisher can print a hardcover as well as a paperback edition of a book using Ingram’s service.

In a world in which paper supplies are hampered (at the moment, in part, by the crisis precipitated by Vladimir Putin in Ukraine) and fuel issues surround any element of shipping printed copies, reducing the printing and distribution of sold products is clearly pivotal. Lightning Source Sharjah can print a single copy, if needed. Or many, many more. And among Taylor’s additional points are these:

  • Ingram’s linking of Lightning Source’s on-demand capability to local retailers in the Gulf region puts into the hands of those retailers the printing and distribution capabilities they’ve never had.
  • Lightning Source Sharjah is already making hundreds of thousands of titles available in the region in a two-day supply time-frame, drastically reducing distribution time and freight costs as well as shrinking the carbon footprint of the process.
  • Those titles, by the way, exist in a kind of digital international warehouse, ready to be printed as needed but costing nothing to store.

“We’ve also had a lot of success in attracting local publishers in the Arabic language,” Taylor said at London Book Fair, “who are now making their books available internationally for the first time by using Ingram’s supply network.” That network makes those books available for printing—from that digital warehouse—in other Lightning Source markets such as the United States, United Kingdom, and Australia. In those markets, retailers are linked up, too, and able to access these titles for printing in situ, right where they’re sold.

In fact, Taylor told the London audience, this idea of “linking” is more central to the concept than they may think.

“It’s really not about printing,” Taylor said, causing some eyebrows in Olympia London’s Pillar Room to go up.

“My background is in bookselling. And it’s really about linking this ability to print one copy when there’s a demand for it. You link it to distributors and you link it to wholesalers. And it allows books to be made available globally. Nothing ever goes out of print, which I think is pretty cool, actually.”

These are reasons, he said, “that Ingram expanded Lightning Source outside the United States. It becomes a supply chain transformed. And if you put it into a market in a region where it’s a completely new concept, it does take a little time for people to understand what it means.”

Nevertheless, even in its first six months and without a major local wholesaler, by tying orders into local retailers, Taylor said, Lightning Source is starting to widen Publishing City’s base of operation.

What will make this explanatory/discovery phase speed up, of course, will be demonstrations of what’s now possible.

“Someone can go into a bookstore in Sydney,” Taylor said, and order a book from one of the Arab markets. “And they can have it in two days. Whereas before, if it wasn’t physically in Australia, that book would take three weeks” to reach the consumer.

Western publishers are watching, too, of course, to see how these linkages Taylor is talking about will open the Middle Eastern and African markets to them for work translated into Arabic. Such titles now can be produced in-region, not half-a-world away.

Quiet Growth in a Busy Season

Sharjah’s Ahmed Al Ameri, left, and Ingram Content Group’s David Taylor onstage at London Book Fair. Image: London Book Fair

By the end of the session in London, audience members were asking pertinent questions, all of them relevant to what print-on-demand does in collapsing a supply chain, basically, removing the freight and large-run burdens, easing the environmental and transport costs, escaping the physical warehousing woes of old supply-chain formats.

And yet, just as it was clear in the London session that it’s going to take some time for the Middle Eastern market to adapt to the new capability, the rest of the world will need time to catch up with what Sharjah Publishing City is becoming. Ironically, that’s partly because Sharjah—under Sheikh Sultan’s direction such a recognized dynamo of reading and publishing emphasis–is busy on so many levels.

Just today (April 27), Al Ameri has announced details of the upcoming Sharjah Children’s Reading Festival (May 11 to 22), for which 1,140 activities and workshops are to be led by specialists from 14 countries, an agenda including 750 workshops and 130 art and theatrical shows. At least 139 publishers from 15 nations have been signed to exhibit on a schedule stretched to 12 days this year. The Reading Festival is a huge show with tens of thousands of youngsters, teachers, and family members in attendance each year.

This follows the Book Authority’s second Emirati Book Fair just closed Sunday (April 24). And that follows Book Authority’s Market Focus Sharjah appearance at London Book Fair earlier this month (April 5 to 7). And that follows the Book Authority’s Guest of Honor Sharjah appearance at Bologna Children’s Book Fair (March 21 to 24). Later this year, Guest of Honor Sharjah will be in place at Guadalajara International Book Fair (November 26 to December 4).

The sheer volume of events, programs, and initiatives produced and supported by Sharjah is actually a reason that a session at London Book Fair this month was especially useful. Trade visitors at the Publishers Conference staged by Sharjah Book Authority at the end of October at Sharjah International Book Fair will have a chance to see Sharjah Publishing City and Lightning Source Sharjah in action.

“It’s going to have a big impact,” Ahmed Al Ameri said.

Opening dinner preparations in the atrium at Sharjah Publishing City in the United Arab Emirates, 2018. Image: Publishing Perspectives, Porter Anderson

More from Publishing Perspectives on Sharjah is here, more on Sharjah Publishing City is here, more on Ingram Content Group is here, more on Sharjah Book Authority is here, more on Sharjah International Book Fair is here, more on guest of honor appearances is here, more on London Book Fair is here, and more on publishing’s trade shows, book fairs, and festivals is here

Publishing Perspectives is the world media partner for the International Publishers Association.

More 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 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.