Sharjah Conference Opens: ‘The Power of the Written Word’

In Feature Articles by Porter Anderson

The 13th Sharjah Publishers Conference has opened with broad-based considerations of issues facing the world book industry today.

Bodour Al Qasimi gives her keynote commentary at the opening of the 2023 Sharjah Publishers Conference. Image: SBA, Nabs Ahmedi

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

See also:
Sharjah Publishers Conference Introduces New Format
Sharjah International Book Fair: Hosting 108 Markets

‘The Publishing Industry Has to Adapt’
The 13th edition of the ‘ leading publishers’ conference, seated at Sharjah, has opened with a call to publishers from the Sheikha Bodour Al Qasimi to perform their “sacred mission” and fight the rising culture of disinformation and fake news that can so quickly engulf even minor issues and events.

“In our pursuit of progress, it is essential,” Al Qasimi said, “that we remain committed to our core belief in the power of the written word, and the role it plays in bringing us together, or dividing us.

“To continue delivering on our promise, the publishing industry has to adapt to the rapid changes of our time. We are at a unique intersection of tradition and innovation, and must navigate this exciting landscape of constant disruption.”

The emphasis of the is decidedly on the world book industry and the complex architecture of its own challenges today—the still-developing presence of artificial intelligence; sometimes furious efforts in censorship; and the place of long-form reading and literature in the contemporary entertainment combine.

Nevertheless, it wasn’t lost on many professional publishing delegates to the conference that Al Qasimi’s position on publishing’s responsibility amid “constant disruption” is being echoed at the United Nations where an emergency meeting of the Security Council has been scheduled today at the UAE’s request (October 30).

The UAE is currently the lone Arab member-state on the Security Council. The focus of the emergency session is its call for a humanitarian pause to the fighting in Gaza, as Patrick Wintour reports for The Guardian, something approved on Friday (October 27) by the General Assembly but requiring the 15-state Security Council for a binding resolution.

Below is a video produced during the day of opening events at the Sharjah Publishers Conference.

Al Qasimi: ‘A Solid Foundation of Truth’

At a time when misinformation, disinformation, fake news, cancel culture, and algorithms dominate public discourse and create fake bubbles,” Al Qasimi said from the lectern, “publishers have a unique opportunity and responsibility to restore faith in humanity and present verified, well-researched content to shape a future in which truth triumphs over falsehood.

“Publishers have a unique opportunity and responsibility to restore faith in humanity and present verified, well-researched content to shape a future in which truth triumphs over falsehood.Bodour Al Qasimi, Sharjah Book Authority

“In an age in which opinions are formed and shared at lightning speed, it’s critical that publishers continue to provide a solid foundation of truth on which individuals can build their understanding of complex issues.

“This is a sacred mission of publishers, on which we built our credibility with our readers and communities, and we must protect it at all costs, no matter what the trends or circumstances are. To continue delivering on our promise, the publishing industry has to adapt to the remarkable and rapid changes of our time. We are at a unique intersection of tradition and innovation and must navigate this exciting landscape of constant disruption.”

Al Qasimi, chair of the Sharjah Book Authority, concluded her comments by opening nominations for the inaugural PublisHer Excellence Awards from the international network for women in publishing, an organization she founded in 2019.

Those awards are to be categorized as a lifetime achievement honor, an emerging leader award, and an innovation award. The winners are to be announced in April at the Bologna Children’s Book Fair.

Al Qasimi also welcomed representatives of Benin, Ivory Coast, Czech Republic, Mauritius, Paraguay, Burkina Faso, and the Democratic Republic of Congo to their first experience at Sharjah’s Publishers Conference, and quoted the late Mother Teresa saying, “Words have the power to heal, and they have the power to hurt. The choice is yours.”

Round-Table Presentations, Discussions

One of 30 round-table workshop discussions operating simultaneously at the 2023 Sharjah Publishers Conference. At center is International Publishers Association vice-president Gvantsa Jobava of the Republic of Georgia. Image: SBA, Nabs Ahmedi

When the second day of the three-day Publishers Conference opens today, Sharjah Book Authority CEO tells Publishing Perspectives that 1,140 publishing-industry trade visitors from 106 nations will begin their one-on-one meetings, in many cases focusing on international translation and publication rights trading.

The zeal for such internationalist exchanges was immediately evident on Sunday when the opening stage program was followed by up to 120 hours of targeted round-table workshops and debates. Set up as four one-hour sessions at 30 tables, each seating 10 or more participants, the topic-driven format for these presentations and discussions first introduced by program consultant Emma House during the Sharjah Booksellers Conference held earlier this year clearly was a hit with the Publishers Conference attendees.

Weam Ibrahim‘s reconfiguration of the conference’s physical format—in a cavernous and much-improved tent structure just outside the book fair’s site at Expo Sharjah—has cleverly done away with the baffle that separated the presentation and meeting spaces in the past. The effect is an even more impressive sense of the size of the setting and a ready accommodation of the round tables for such a large rollout of simultaneous discussion groups.

Kept on track by the Frankfurt-Torino -winning publisher in her role as the day’s host and conference facilitator Tony Mulliken of TMPR in London, the topics of these sessions ranged from focal discussions on markets including China, the United Stages, Japan, Africa, India, the fair’s Guest of Honor Korea, and Arab nations and on issues in AI, sustainability, audiobooks, words-to-screen development, publishing contracts, coverage in the news media, and a suite of sessions from PublisHer, the network founded by Al Qasimi for women in international publishing.

Núria Cabutí: The Importance of Local Markets’ Literature

Penguin Random House Grupo Editorial CEO Núria Cabutí speaks at the 2023 Sharjah Publishers Conference, in conversation onstage with Publishing Perspectives. Image: SBA, Nabs Ahmedi

In her keynote conversation with Publishing Perspectives onstage, Núria Cabutí, the CEO of Penguin Random House Grupo Editorial from Barcelona, spoke of some of the most daunting elements of book censorship encountered in the world today, particularly in some of the Latin American markets.

These she said include authors threatened and some of them murdered for writing about the narcotics trade in Mexico; the conviction of Jerónimo Pimentel, director general of Penguin Random House Perú, on charges of “aggravated defamation”; and one of the highest-profile instances on “cancel culture,” in which Grupo Editorial decided to maintain the late Roald Dahl’s original works in Spanish without revisions for contemporary concepts of “acceptable” perspectives.

Cabutí also stressed the importance to her Spanish-language PRH division of local content. Selling 50 million copies of books annually, Grupo Editorial obviously has the capacity to effectively blanket the nine or more markets in which it operates with a kind of top-down catalogue of its enormous output.

While “we expect the use of AI can generate an even bigger number of books published, we believe that in creativity, there will be no replacement for humans” by artificial intelligence.Núria Cabutí, PRH Grupo Editorial

Cabutí is very clear, however, she said, on the importance of each market’s locally generated literature, “very, very important,” she said, as part of a goal to drive up the overall international level of reading, even though, “Our main goal is to address the Hispanic community, the 600 million Spanish speakers around the world.”

Both in cultural considerations and in economic factors, she said, “Argentina is very different from Mexico, Colombia, or Spain.” And this requires this very big, far-reaching corporation to be very flexible in how it’s weighting elements of is deeply diverse network of markets.

Overall, Cabutí reported to the assembly at Sharjah the importance she sees of shoring up the habit and skills of reading among younger citizens. And among several points she has reported:

  • The Spanish-language market has grown 22 percent between 2019 and 2023
  • Grupo Editorial publishes around 20,000 authors, some of them in the Arab world
  • Trends have included a growing demand for children’s books and Spanish-generated content
  • PRH Grupo Editorial’s markets show an abiding consumer commitment to paper, reflected in print accounting for some 90 percent of the company’s sales
  • And demand is increasing in the States, where the Hispanic market represents some 20 percent of the population but less than 1 percent of the book market

And in the fast evolving context of AI and publishing, Cabutí confirmed that her view and that of the corporate parent Bertelsmann that no AI should use intellectual property to improve its development without consent. And any such episode in training AI should also include payment for the use, by permission, of copyrighted content.

While “we expect the use of AI can generate even a bigger number of books published,” she said, “we believe that in creativity, there will be no replacement for humans” by artificial intelligence.

Grupo Editorial has operations in Spain, Portugal, Mexico, Colombia, Peru, Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, and the States.

Guest of Honor Korea: ‘Resilient’

Yoon Chul Ho, the Korean Publishers Association president, speaks at the opening of the 2023 Sharjah Publishers Conference. Image: SBA, Nabs Ahmedi

Representing Guest of Honor Korea at Sharjah International Book Fair, which has its formal opening on Wednesday (November 1) to run through the 10th of the month, Yoon Chul Ho, president of the Korean Publishers Association, reported to the conference, “The Korean market remains resilient to recent global challenges through sustainability and our advanced technologies, creating a significant positive impact in our industry.

“We’ve seen this through the extensive increase of digital books, as well as the application of artificial intelligence.

“We remain dedicated to bridging the gaps between publishers and the publishing sector, preserving information, and innovating new systems to advance the industry further.”

At the opening plenary session of the 2023 Sharjah Publishers Conference. Image: SBA, Nabs Ahmedi

More from Publishing Perspectives on the Sharjah Book Authority is here, more on Sharjah overall is here, more on the work of Bodour Al Qasimi is here, and more on the book publishing industry in the United Arab Emirates is here.

Publishing Perspectives is the International Publishers Association’s world media partner.

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.