Monday, April 30, 2007

Abu Dhabi Book Fair Bridges East and West

By Edward Nawotka

Simultaneous translation facilities helped the non-Arabic speakers get a handle on the professional programming featured at this year’s Abu Dhabi Book Fair, held March 31-April 7 in the United Arab Emirates. It was the first conducted in partnership with the Frankfurt International Book Fair, who introduced a wide variety of sessions addressing publishing issues in the Arab world, including translation, censorship, and, especially, rights.

The Fair, now in its 17th year, took on a radical new look, moving from outdoor tents in the city center to Abu Dhabi’s shiny new multi-billion dollar exhibition center on the fringe of town. Some Arabic-language publishers grumbled about the imposition of German “efficiency” on the Fair, finding the higher fees (raised from $45 to $150-$300 per booth) and new antiseptic environs less accommodating than the traditional souk-like atmosphere of previous years.

In total, 406 publishers from 46 countries participated, putting approximately 600,000 titles on display. Though the Fair had no official tracking facility, organizers estimate some 400,000 people visited the Fair, most of whom were locals who attended to buy books. In particular, school children, both boys and girls, flooded the floor, many armed with one of the 3 million dirhams ($1 million) worth of book vouchers donated by local government.

Brandishing a fistful of such vouchers exchanged for books at his booth, Chris Terry, international sales and marketing manager for the American University in Cairo Press, told PW he was having a difficult time converting them to cash. “As is typical throughout the Arab world, there’s a little bit of chaos involved,” he said. “The line to cash in the vouchers is out the door, and, of course, the Fair is closed between one and four in the afternoon [for the traditional Gulf States siesta], so I will have to wait and see how it goes.” Watching as readers, librarians and teachers descended on his booth to buy up titles on display, Terry admitted that he wasn’t fully prepared to sell so much of his stock. “It’s more of a book bazaar atmosphere than I initially imagined,” he said.

Among the vendors, Scholastic was the only American publisher to have a booth, though translated editions of books by a wide variety of American and European authors were on display -- many of them in pirated editions.

Cecile Barendsma, a literary agent at Janklow & Nesbit Associates, roamed the show floor purchasing pirated editions of her agency’s authors. She explained to PW that piracy was as much the result of competition as an outright disregard for the law. “I think the Arabic language market is professionalizing, but it's not fully realized yet: For example not all countries have signed up to the Berne Convention [for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works],” she said. “Though there are publishing houses elsewhere that would live by the law, they are up against their own competitors who don't live by the law. If a publishing company wants to secure rights, there's the possibility that if the author or topic is hot and getting international attention, another publisher will put out a different, unauthorized edition without bothering to secure rights.”

One issue confronting US publishers who wish to sell rights to the Arab world is, though distribution in the region is piecemeal, it’s still often possible for an edition from one country to seep into another country, making it counterproductive for publishers to try and break up the territory, thus limiting the potential profitability.

Mohamed Hashem, publisher of Egypt’s influential Dar Merit Publishing House and winner of the Association of American Publishers’ 2006 Jeri Laber International Freedom to Publish Award, agreed. “I suppose my typical print run of 2,000 copies is not appealing to them,” he said. “Perhaps they think it isn’t worth their time,” adding that while he was still eager to acquire legal rights to American books “publishers rarely ever return my calls or emails.”

At the Al Markez Al Thaqafi Al Arabi booth, a publisher from Morocco told PW he found it much easier acquiring rights from French and Japanese publishers and showed off translated books by Foucault, Amelie Nothomb and Haruki Murakami as proof.

Barendsma from Janklow & Nesbit, who described her trip to the Fair as “a reconnaissance mission” said she believes there’s still a strong potential market for American publishers in the Arab world. “Having done a number of Arabic language agreements, I know the market is difficult, but it’s also expanding,” she said. “We’re certainly getting more requests.”

Barendsma also found an unexpected upside: “For people like myself, I think it was wonderful opportunity to meet colleagues and editors from Southeast Asia, China, Pakistan and India, which is something that is more difficult at fairs like Frankfurt or London. Abu Dhabi is a great gateway from East to West and the Emirates is used to having international guests and expatriates. The Fair may be in its infancy, but I was impressed.”

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