An ADIBF Interview: Digital in Dubai, Sail Publishing Masters the Transition

In Feature Articles by Porter Anderson

Iman Ben Chaibah launched Sail Publishing 12 years ago as an ebook-first company. She’s since added print books and an online store.

Sail Publishing at Abu Dhabi International Book Fair 2021. Image: Sail Publishing

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

See: Our coverage of the 2022 Abu Dhabi International Book Fair and Our special Abu Dhabi International Book Fair Show Magazine / Here’s a video from the ADIBF team with highlights of our 2022 Abu Dhabi International Book Fair show magazine

A Book Publisher and a Magazine
Working across a wide range of output including children’s books, poetry, fiction, and nonfiction both in Arabic and English, Dubai’s Sail Publishing started as the English-language Sail magazine and is now 12 years old.

Sail CEO Iman Ben Chaibah offers a perfect example of a publisher embracing the “digital acceleration” that arose during the COVID-19 pandemic and in response to changing market conditions.

Ben Chaibah says, “Our journey with digital publishing has been humbling.” And yet, in our exchange with her, it’s clear that she and Sail Publishing have prevailed over the challenges and made an important transition to the growing digital-platform awareness of the region.

We start by asking her what she anticipates in being at Abu Dhabi International Book Fair this year.

Iman Ben Chaibah: Sail has been running as a book publishing house since 2014, based here in the United Arab Emirates. We’ve been running before that, since 2010, as Sail magazine, which publishes articles about the community and about cultural topics written by regular writers from across the Emirates. In the publishing house, we specialize in books, both in print and digital. We aim to be a one-stop shop for individuals and the families to find whatever they might want to read with us.

Book fairs are definitely a great spot for authors who are looking for new publishers to publish their works, as it gives them first hand experience to talk with the publishers, sense if there is a chemistry in communicating with them, and if they get the essence of what they wrote about and can be the best home for their new book.

Participating in Abu Dhabi International Book Fair gives us-first hand access to our audience and the mainstream reader. We get to gauge what books they respond to, what genres attract them, and the overall consumer behavior around book-buying that we often don’t get through online sales or bookstores.

‘When Book Fairs Stopped Operating’

Iman Ben Chaibah. Image: Sail Publishing

Publishing Perspectives: How has your company fared during the pandemic years?

Iman Ben Chaibah: COVID-19 has been very interesting from different perspectives for us. From one side, it pushed us to launch our online store in order to sell our physical books much sooner than what our business plans dictated at the time.

When book fairs stopped operating, we had to find new ways to sell our books and continue to release new titles, and the store was our solution for that. Before then, we only sold in fairs and via marketplaces such as Amazon. Having our digital store gave us access to our audience. We could get the full margin of our sales. And it also helped us release new titles across the year as opposed to just around book fairs.

From another side, in the main COVID year, 2020, we actually doubled our new releases compared to years before and after. Thanks to quarantine periods, it seems that finally had the chance to focus on the books ideas they’d had for so long and get them written.

While we did have a book fair later that year, it didn’t have a third of the sales we’d had the year before, but we did notice that most of the sales shifted to online retail instead, which still was a plus for us.

Publishing Perspectives: Being as advanced in digital publishing and sales as you are now, do you think of Sail as a kind of platform of services? Who are your usual clients? And do you offer distribution and marketing as well as publication?

Iman Ben Chaibah: Our journey with digital publishing has been humbling. When I started Sail, I was an avid Amazon Kindle reader and thought that’s exactly what’s missing in our region.

‘What Does It Mean To Belong?’ by Maryam Al Shehhi

So when I launched Sail, it was exclusively about digitally publishing books on Kindle, iBooks [later Apple Books], Kobo, and the likes. But then I was faced by a number of obstacles.

When I found the sales number too low to be sustainable, I realized that—at the time—the main digital platforms didn’t exactly allow users who reside in the Middle Eastern and North African region to buy the books. So while I, as a publisher, had the digital rights for a book sold worldwide on those platforms, there still were geographical limitations placed on sales by the platforms themselves.

While some avid digital readers knew their work-arounds, I realized that I wouldn’t be able to reach the mainstream with this approach. Some of the platforms since then have expanded their reach into the MENA region, but the catalog is still not as rich as it is for the Western readers.

So after two years of that, we launched our print line and were surprised by long queues for book signings. Some of these consumers, I knew for a fact, had already read digital versions of those books, but they expressed their love for autographs on print books, nevertheless.

And since then, we’ve been expanding our catalog, and getting our books published in digital and print simultaneously.

As we became expert in digital publishing in the region, those who didn’t have the means for it partnered with us to digitally publish their own books, whether from large cultural entities, small publishers, or niche publishers and a few self-published authors.

We’re proud to have grown our digital publishing expertise not only in English books but also in Arabic books, as they come with their own intricacies. Through those services we’ve allowed our partners to expand their reach, and some of them have seen their ebooks on Amazon’s bestseller lists for a few weeks, which we’re really proud of.

Publishing Perspectives: Can you point up a couple of the specific pieces you’ll be presenting at your stand at Abu Dhabi International Book Fair?

Iman Ben Chaibah: We’ll be releasing a few new books, one of which is a beautiful Arabic children book called ما معنى أن ننتمي؟)) which translates to What Does It Mean to Belong? by Maryam AlShehhi.

We’re also releasing the third book in our English collective poetry series, in which we’ve been bringing together various groups of up-and-coming authors and debuting their works in published books—which finally gives them the pride of knowing their works are on the market.

We’re proud to have shed light on about 30 young poets so far, bringing out their beautiful writings for the world to see. And hopefully this encourages them to go on and write their next full poetry books to be published, and signals to other young potential poets that they can share their precious writings with the world.

We also have one of our new releases, called How I Survive Motherhood by Nada Binghalib. It’s a funny yet very helpful take on parenting in today’s world. No matter what generation you were born into, you’ll soon realize that this world is broken when it comes to raising a child. So the book really taps into the emotional rollercoaster of what it means to be a parent in today’s increasingly complicated world, as the author navigates the tides of raising children amid the latest parenting trends and existing outrageous stereotypes.

You’ll find Sail Publishing on the exhibition floor of Abu Dhabi International Book Fair at stand 9F01.

And here’s a video created by the team at Abu Dhabi International Book Fair, highlighting some of the features you’ll find in our 2022 Show Magazine. Our thanks to the video editing experts at ADIBF.

Our special Abu Dhabi International Book Fair 2022 Show Magazine is here for your free download (PDF).

More from Publishing Perspectives on the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair is here, and more on the United Arab Emirates’ market is here. More from us on book fairs and trade shows in world publishing is here. More on translation is here, more on Arabic in the publishing world is here, and more on digital publishing is here.

Publishing Perspectives is the world media partner of the Sheikh Zayed Book Award and the International Publishers Association. Our extended coverage of ADIBF 2022 is supported by the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair.

More from Publishing Perspectives on the ongoing coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic 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.