Sheikh Zayed Book Award at Frankfurt: Building Reader Demand in the Arab World

In News by Olivia Snaije

Across the diverse Arab world, the potential to grow readership is vast and two publishers say success depends on having great books.

From left are Shereein Kreidieh of Dar Asala; Sherif Bakr of Al Arabi Publishing and Distribution; and moderator Hannah Johnson. Image: Publishing Perspectives, Olivia Snaije

By Olivia Snaije | @OliviaSnaije

Bakr: ‘We Have To Reach Other Arabs’
At Frankfurter Buchmesse, a Publishing Perspectives Forum panel focusing on the challenges and potential of the book business in the Arab world, brought together Shereen Kreidieh, who runs the children’s book publisher Dar Asala, (Lebanon) and Sherif Bakr, publisher of Al Arabi Publishing and Distributing (Egypt) in a conversation moderated by Hannah Johnson.

In this session supported by the Sheikh Zayed Book Award, the panelists began by talking about the vastness of the Arab book market and the challenges of publishing for such a diverse market, albeit with the same language.

Sherif Bakr compared the Arab market to the Spanish one with Latin American countries, each having their own particularities.

“We have Egypt, then Lebanon and the Levant, the Gulf and North Africa,” he said. “When we produce a book, we have to think of all of this. I will lose the Gulf and North Africa if I don’t publish in classical Arabic. If it’s a rom-com type of book, it’s natural to use a dialect and this is a challenge.”

“As Arabs, we have to reach other Arabs in each and every market. It’s not enough to sell just in Lebanon. We are 300 million people who speak Arabic but not everyone reads,” said Shereen Kreidieh, suggesting that perhaps the greatest challenge is encouraging people to read. Distribution is a big obstacle, but Kreidieh believes that if there were more demand for books, perhaps distribution would be less of a problem.

Both Kreidieh and Bakr in different contexts carried out research on reading habits and discovered that children didn’t like the books that were on offer, and that reading was perceived as a punishment, not a pleasure.

The problem begins in schools, Kreidieh said.

“It’s how we teach. The curriculum is too dense. We have to go back to working with parents, working on our schools, making the curriculum better.

“Children’s books use words and sophisticated material that is too difficult for them.  We should work on more awareness campaigns with parents and children.”

Building a reading culture is essential, both publishers agreed, but unfortunately curricula in schools are usually made by governments from the top down, Bakr said.

Dar Asala used to publish books in translation, but Kreidieh said she found that people wanted original material, culturally closer to them, so now she mostly publishes in Arabic. She has sold translation rights, but noted that for a publisher to have someone selling rights is an added expense, as is renting a stand at a book fair.

Moreover, she said, “People translate from languages that are easy to read.”

Kreidieh: ‘We Have To Go Back to Working With Parents’

Because Bakr’s Al Arabi mostly publishes books in translation from 60-plus countries, he doesn’t usually sell rights. However, since he’s always asked by international publishers for Arabic book recommendations, he spearheaded a project called Arab Voices in 2020. Funded by the European Union, the project proposed 32 Arabic-languages books that would travel well in translation.

But rights sales have to be carried out professionally, Bakr said. “There are very few agents [in the Arab world]. We need a system of translation grants, and there need to be more scouts. This will happen when it’s profitable enough.”

He added that translation support like the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair‘s “Spotlight on Rights” program and the Sharjah International Book Fair‘s translation grants are helpful for some publishers to get started selling rights.

As far as marketing is concerned, panelists agreed that social-media influencers are important in the Arab world, and the vitality of the Cairo International Book Fair is a testament to the fact that there is a continuing interest in books. A variety of alternative models of publishing, including streaming—which helps with the enormous problem of piracy—and print-on-demand are developing, Bakr said.

In the end, the potential remains enormous, both publishers said. After all, as Bakr put it, “We have the content, and content is king.”

Our Frankfurter Buchmesse Show Magazine now is out—in print on the Messe Frankfurt for trade visitors and exhibitors, and here in a free digital download for our world readership online.

The magazine has extensive coverage of issues and trends that are leading discussions and debates at the trade show this year, along with interviews, profiles, and commentary in this strongly attended Frankfurt year. Click here for your download (PDF).

More from Publishing Perspectives on the Sheikh Zayed Book Award is here, more on Arabic literature is here, and more on translation is here. More from us on publishing and book awards in the international industry is here

More on Frankfurter Buchmesse is here, more on this year’s Guest of Honor Spain is here, more on guest of honor programs and markets is here, and more on international book fairs is here, more on industry statistics is here.

Publishing Perspectives is the world media partner of the Abu Dhabi Arabic Language Center and the Sheikh Zayed Book Award

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

About the Author

Olivia Snaije

Olivia Snaije is a journalist and editor based in Paris who writes about translation, literature, graphic novels, the Middle East, and multiculturalism. She is the author of three books and has contributed to newspapers and magazines including The Guardian, The Global Post, and The New York Times.