The Deal: The Official Magazine of the London Book Fair 2008
‘The average British publisher probably doesn’t think of the Arab World as a region in which they can make a lot of money, but that is not true,’ Suzanne Joinson, literature advisor (Middle East, Near East, North Africa and South East Europe) at the British Council, states emphatically. ‘It is an enormous market. It is something like 220 million people.’ The myth about the money to be made from publishing in the Arab world is just one of many Joinson and The London Book Fair hope to demolish at the LBF 2008 during which the Arab world is the market focus.
‘We are focusing on the 20 countries and two states that constitute the Arab League and have Arabic as their official language,’ Joinson explains. ‘It is incredibly varied, and the population of many of the countries in the region is very young – 50% of Yemenis are under 15 and in some countries 70% of the population is under 35. It makes it incredibly vibrant.’
The seeds for the extensive market focus programme, which will cover everything from how to do business in the region to literary highlights, were sown three years ago at a translation seminar in Damascus. The event focused on why so few Arab writers find their way onto the British market and why British publishers were not developing trading partnerships with their counterparts in the Middle East.
Joinson recalls: ‘A lot of the Arab publishers, writers and translators that came felt the UK isn’t just not interested in translating Arab work, but is actively suppressing information coming out of the Arab world. There was a feeling that we didn’t want to know what they were thinking about and what their culture was about.’ The British Council explained the UK’s poor track record on translated fiction, which at the time accounted for less than 4% of all fiction published. Of that most were from European languages – according to a United Nations report in 2003 fewer than 50 Arabic books make it into another language every year.
Clearly something had to be done to deal about these misconceptions to ensure British and Arab readers do not miss out on the best writing both cultures have to offer. ‘We thought than the British Council would be in a good position to bring together key partners and begin some sort of process,’ the literary advisor adds.
The London Book Fair was an obvious first port of call for the council. The two have a long history of collaboration and as one is a cultural organisation and the other commercial it is a perfect marriage. ‘The book fair and British Council make a great partnership for showcasing the cultural and business opportunities on offer,’ LBF exhibition manager Emma House says of the relationship.
After initial discussion, the two agreed that in the run up to LBF 2008 the main focuses should be training and networking. Arab book fairs are consumer rather than trade focused. Training is central to the British Council’s strategy, so it was appropriate that Arab publishers exhibiting at the LBF for the first time should be enabled to make the most of the business opportunities on offer.
‘We had feedback from some seminars we did in the run up to the LBF that it is all very well to bring publishers from the Arab World to the book fair, but if they are not clued up about how things happen, there is no point in them being here,’ Joinson explains. As a result 50 publishers have taken part in seminars in Syria and the UAE on how a trade fair like the LBF works.
Misconceptions among British publishers about Arab publishing and publications have also been addressed. Ten British publishers were taken to the Cairo Book Fair and introduced to Arab publishers who explained their way of working. British publishers were also involved in training their Arab counterparts in Damascus and Sharjah, among them was Diane Spivey, Little Brown Book Group rights and contract director. She says the exchange has been invaluable. ‘I learnt a huge amount about publishing in an entirely different culture, with different priorities from our own corporate environment,’ she says.
As someone who sells rather than acquires rights, Spivey says the seminar widened her expectations of which Little Brown books could work in Arab markets. ‘I found it gave me a greater knowledge of the sort of books that could travel to the various countries – and how important it is not to lump together all Arabic publishers. The North African countries differ a lot from the Levant, and the Gulf States are different again.’
Spivey’s observations are music to the ears of Joinson and the LBF. ‘American and to a degree British understanding of the region is so limited,’ Joinson says. ‘We took the publishers out of London and said, get rid of your London brain because that is not how things happen here. It is a whole different approach to identifying talent and negotiating to get them published. The processes publishers take for granted here happen in a completely different way there.’
Differences can lead to misunderstanding, and the LBF/BC partnership has already gone a long way to clearing up misconceptions. The events planned during the book fair in April will take that process a step further. the three-day cultural programme was still being finalised as The Deal went to press, but will be based around seminars with authors, publishers and distributors sharing their knowledge and revealing the untapped opportunities available in the Arab-speaking world.
‘We are going to look at international prizes in the Arab world and the effect that they have had; at Iraqi and Palestinian literature and writers from the Gulf; and what is going on with women writers,’ Joinson explains. The programme will not ignore controversial areas, she adds: ‘We are grappling with not perpetuating stereotypes though we certainly don’t want to shy away from issues.’
The programme will be integrated with strands run by respected international Arab publisher Saqi Books and Words Without Borders, and involves a number of partners, including the Arab literature magazine Banipal and the Cairo International Book Fair. The fair is also working with the City of Beirut, which will be the United Nations World Book Capital in 2009.
Two projects that will showcase their work at the LBF will have a significant impact on the exchange of talent between the West and Arabic countries. Kalima is an ambitious programme funded by the Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture and Heritage to fund the translation, publication and distribution of high quality Arab contemporary and classical writing. The Dubai-based Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum Foundation is also funding the translation of 1,000 acclaimed books into Arabic each year with the aim of expanding the exchange of knowledge between both cultures.
The two mammoth translation programmes bring home the British Council’s and the LBF’s aim with the Arab World Market Focus in 2008 that it is the start of something not just the culmination of three years work. ‘People are about business and being taken seriously in a business environment,’ Joinson explains. ‘It is great having a region of the world as a market focus, but what we are all doing is so much more than that.’
* Details of Market Focus seminars and events can be found on The London Book Fair website.
The Arab League
Arab publishing is youthful and entrepreneurial. Here are a few of its stars.
Base: Cairo, Egypt
Egyptian-Canadian founder of Kotobarabia.com, which claims to be the first online bookshop to specialise exclusively in Arab literature. Aims to create a single web-based source for Arabic literature, knowledge and wisdom available to Arabic speakers and enthusiasts throughout the world. Has over 1,100 authors on its books and has digitised 4,000 titles.
Base: Cairo, Egypt
Owner and co-founder of Merit Publishers, which received the Association of American Publishers’ Jeri Laber International Freedom to Publish Award. Established in 1998 Merit is renowned for publishing young writers and experimental literature. Its successes include Alaa El-Aswani’s Imarat The Yacoubian Building and Ahmed El-Aidi’s To Be Abbas El-Abd
Joanna El Mir
Base: Beirut, Lebanon
Creative Director of Samir Editeur (www.samirediteur.com). El Mir worked in advertising before moving into publishing. Samir Editeur specialises in school and children’s books, which it distributes across the Arab world. Having worked as an editor, senior art director and print production manager, she is now creative director. She is also one of the founders of Hamzet Wasl, a children’s literary magazine and a International Young Publisher of the Year..
Base: Beirut, Lebanon
In 1998 launched the publisher and distributor Asala (www.asala-publishers.com). It has three aims: to encourage children’s love of reading and learning in the Arabic language; to keep up with their educational needs throughout different stages; and to enable the largest number of children to receive its books through a careful pricing strategy.
Base: Cairo, Egypt and Berlin, Germany
Author and owner the Sphinx Literary Agency, which he founded in a bid to bridge the knowledge gap between European and Arab publishers. Represents Arab authors in Germany and elsewhere in Europe. The Sphinx website (www.sphinxagency.com/english/index.html) features an annual list of 40 books by Arab writers that Abbas believes will appeal to international audiences.