By Edward Nawotka
From Publishers Weekly, 3/12/2007
Now in its 17th year, the Abu Dhabi Book Fair is undergoing a radical transformation, via a new, six-month old partnership with the Frankfurt Book Fair. The event, which takes place in the capital of the United Arab Emirates from March 31 through April 7, aims to help establish new relationships between Arab and Western publishers, authors and agents. For the most part, book publishing in the Arab world is a fractured and unregulated industry, with no central distribution, little copyright enforcement and limited retail outlets. "By partnering with Frankfurt," said Abu Dhabi Book Fair director Jumaa Abdulla Al Qubaisi, "we saw an opportunity to try and professionalize publishing in the region."
In previous years, the Abu Dhabi Book Fair—which is run by the Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture and Heritage—was an opportunity for local residents to purchase books from around the Arab world, primarily from publishers from Egypt and Lebanon, many of which were not available through local bookstores or online. Approximately 200,000 people visited the fair last year and 350 publishers exhibited books.
This year, the venue has moved from outdoor tents, which offered approximately 10,000 feet of space, to a wing of the new multibillion-dollar Abu Dhabi Exhibition Center, which offers some 40,000 sq. ft. of exhibition space. The additional space allows the fair to dedicate a special section to children's books, as well as provide room for new exhibits covering production and distribution. But the revamped fair is struggling to attract Western publishers in its first year. About 12 small European publishers had registered to exhibit at press time, and no American houses had committed to attend. For his part, Al Qubaisi has tempered his expectations. He told PW, "We partnered with Frankfurt because they are most organized, recognized and professional brand in the business. We have a lot to learn from them. This year we are just getting experience."
The partnership with Frankfurt has yielded a new slate of professional seminars, covering such publishing practices as marketing, public relations and rights acquisition. There are also panels on "Tolerance as a Pre-Condition for Peace" and "Fundamentalism and Terrorism." Among the Americans speaking at the fair will be Rick Vanzura, president of Borders Group International, who will discuss Borders's franchise deal with Dubai-based Al Maya Group to open stores in the UAE.
As in previous years, books will also be for sale. Al Qubaisi emphasized that the fair will be open to all types of publications, save those that "discriminate, are pornographic or foment conflict in the region."
Central to the fair's new agenda is the launch of the Sheik Zayed's Book Awards. The new book award program, named for the late president of the United Arab Emirates, offers eight awards in categories ranging from children's books to best technology in the field of culture, and all carry a $200,000 cash prize. A ninth category, for "person of the year in the field of culture," offers a $270,000 prize. Any work published in the Arabic language and/or a translation from or to Arabic that was published within the last two years is eligible.
Mohamed A. Al Shehhi, a project coordinator for the fair, said he hopes the event will be one part of a larger effort to raise the standing of reading in the Arab world. "Traditionally, leisure book reading has not had as significant a role in Arab culture as religious scholarship, poetry and even reading newspapers. Through the book fair, we hope to help that change," Al Shehhi said. He added, "Ultimately, Abu Dhabi aims to be a safe haven for arts and culture in the Middle East and become a gateway for the West to the region. The Book Fair is an important part of that larger goal."