By Porter Anderson, Editor-in-Chief | @Porter_Anderson
Booksellers’ Essential Place in Publishing’s Bright FutureIn a spirited opening to the second iteration of the Sharjah International Booksellers Conference today (May 1), Markus Dohle told a gathering of several hundred people that the future is bright for the resilient book publishing industry and that book retailers can share in that upbeat assessment, thanks to their vital role in the value chain.
“Readers need guidance and orientation provided by publishers and retailers who help them to find their next best read,” Dohle said in his opening statement. “It’s exactly that guidance and orientation that’s more important than ever” as the business pulls away from the deepest pandemic years amid the rising tide of the book business’ output,
The program was opened, Kuo-Yu Liang hosting, with welcoming comments from Ahmed Al Ameri, chair of the Sharjah Book Authority, who pointed out that the development of this still-new component of Sharjah’s programming for the international book business is fully in line with the concept of Sheikh Dr. Sultan Bin Mohammed Al Qasimi for a “reading emirate,” the citizens of which can engage in both the literature and the commerce of the book business.
Also this week, the opening on Wednesday (May 3) of the 11th iteration of the Sharjah Children’s Reading Festival will coincide with the first presentation of a Sharjah Animation Conference, developed in collaboration with Lilium and in partnership with Bergamo Animation Days in Italy. And the flagship Sharjah International Book Fair in November is preceded by the Sharjah Publishers Conference.
It was at that publishers’ conference, in fact, that Dohle spoke on the morning after Judge Florence Yu Pan’s order in the United States was issued, blocking the Bertelsmann/Penguin Random House attempt to acquire Simon & Schuster for US$2.175 billion.
Since stepping down in early December as the worldwide CEO of Penguin Random House, Dohle has found himself in constant demand as one of the most comprehensively experienced, internationally oriented, and energetically articulate ambassadors available today for the world publishing industry and its tenacity in the entertainment and cultural life of markets and nations.
Today, in addressing booksellers from both the Arab world and far beyond, Dohle urged his audience to shake off inaccurate but dogged views of book publishing as a business doomed by digital developments and to seize achievable prospects for both book publishing and book retail in an ever-growing world reading market.
Bodour Al Qasimi on Sustainability: ‘Collaboration is Critical’
Dohle’s keynote comments and an onstage interview with Publishing Perspectives followed an opening address from Bodour Al Qasimi.
“One trend that needs our immediate attention is the impact of the industry on the environment. We must act fast and we must act together.”Bodour Al Qasimi
Since her auspicious start this year as president of the American University of Sharjah—following her tenure as president of the International Publishers Association (IPA)—Al Qasimi has worked to remind her colleagues in publishing that it’s essential “to stay ahead of the curve … so we continue to drive human progress by providing readers with well-researched and verified material.”
She mentioned sustainability amid the climate crisis as a major concern facing the book business.
“One trend that needs our immediate attention,” she told the assembly, “is sustainability.
“Most importantly, the impact of the book industry on the environment. This is a profound risk to our industry, just as it is a risk to the planet’s ecosystem. And while we don’t have all the answers right now, we must act fast and we must act together. We have to find alternative ways of doing business before it’s too late.
“This year,” Al Qasimi pointed out, “the United Arab Emirates is hosting COP 28,” the United Nations’ Climate Change Conference set for November and December.
“Sharjah like all the other emirates is gearing up for this event with many initiatives and projects, which is a move in the right direction. It’s also an opportunity to raise discussions in the book industry on sustainability, and propose initiatives that could radically change the way we produce and distribute books, while at the same time giving us an opportunity to lead this change and be part of the process.
“No single publisher or bookseller or stakeholder from our ecosystem can face this challenge alone,” she said, “which is why collaboration is critical.”
Markus Dohle: ‘We Are Not Only the Merchants of Culture’
In calling for collaboration, Al Qasimi had sounded a call for cooperation and unified action in the industry that would quickly become a mainstay of Dohle’s commentary.
“The audiences are there. Literacy rates are going through the roof. The markets are there. And we need to actually open up these markets and grow these markets together.”Markus Dohle
Particularly since the 2007 advent of the Amazon Kindle, he reminded delegates to the conference, there have been persistent assertions that the physical book format and retail are direly imperiled by the arrival of digital processes and formats. In truth, he pointed out, the most mature and largest markets of the world show an abiding fidelity to physical formats, which in turn accentuates the place and the importance of booksellers and their world of physical retail.
“I’m very optimistic about the future of a diverse books retail landscape going forward,” he said, “and that is really an important takeaway… The physical format has prevailed over the last 50 years. It’s getting a lot larger, and that doesn’t show any signs of weakness. It’s quite the opposite.
“Our 80-percent physical distribution is the life insurance” that the international industry needs, he said. Physical reading, and specifically the long-form reading of books, “hopefully is the encouraging factor, both in mature markets and in recently emerged markets, to further invest into distribution, into coming closer to readers and consumers, into storefronts.
“It is the only way for readers to really browse. There is an opportunity to grow. And that is the best ‘browsing’ experience, the physical retail experience, when it comes to both global and local” success in publishing.
This, too, the “global-local” question, was a key one in the discussion, Dohle examining in interview the fact that the leading commercial markets of the world have developed profitable models of distribution and bookselling that some of the recently emerged markets simply have not had. The Arab world, for example, with its hundreds of millions of consumers and readers, has struggled to achieve a coherent distribution model, a condition replicated in many markets of Africa and in other parts of the world.
“As publishers and booksellers, we are not only the merchants of culture and words. We are, first and foremost, in service to society. Putting yourself into other people’s shoes by reading, in a very profound and deep way, generates empathy and human values, democratic values.”Markus Dohle
Dohle pointed to how crucial local cultivation is, of each market’s own literary idioms and distributional capacities, to prepare for an ideal in which international rights sales become a “two-way street” in which the best material of cultures moves back and forth between readerships, rather than primarily one direction, from the larger markets to the smaller ones.
To finally develop the broader framework of distribution—supporting bookselling in the many markets of the world—Dohle said, “We both have to jump,” meaning both publishing and bookselling. “We both have to make compromises in order to grow our business further.
“The audiences are there. … Literacy rates are going through the roof. The markets are there. And we need to actually open up these markets and grow these markets together.
“When it comes to the local program,” he said, “what retailers need to do is always find that sweet spot—and it varies between communities and countries, between their local programs, their local cultures, their communities, and what they need—bestsellers that are translated into that language and territory. And of course the English language is growing around the world.
“So how do you find that sweet spot between big books and small books, between global books and local books?”
That, as Dohle said, is one of the great questions to be examined this week in the workshops developed by Emma House with Al Ameri’s team with Mansour Al Hassani and Tony Mulliken‘s facilitation, in which booksellers are meeting and talking with each other, exploring the pathway to that “sweet spot” of shared success.
At Publishing Perspectives‘ request, Markus Dohle closed by reflecting on the leadership he’s taking in the fight against authoritarian incursions into the freedom to publish—the free-speech arena inhabited by the world of arts and letters. His signal effort has been contributing US$500,000 to seed in February 2022 the Dohle Book Defense Fund at PEN America.
“I’ve always said that as publishers and booksellers,” Markus Dohle told the conference, “we are not only in the business of culture—we are not only the merchants of culture and words.
“We are, first and foremost, in service to society. Putting yourself into other people’s shoes by reading, in a very profound and deep way, generates empathy and human values, democratic values.”
More on Sharjah Book Authority and its programming is here, more on Sharjah Children’s Reading Festival is here, more on bookselling is here, and more on publishing issues and trends in the Arab world is here.
Publishing Perspectives is the International Publishers Association’s world media partner.