Tuesday, May 27, 2008

A Chain Grows in Dubai

by Edward Nawotka -- Publishers Weekly, 5/26/2008

“Americans are just waking up to the opportunity to sell books here,” said Isobel Abulhoul, founder and owner of Magrudy's, a chain of eight mostly English-language bookstores headquartered in Dubai. “We order stock from both the U.K. and America, and fly in books five days a week.”

Magrudy's was founded in 1975 as a toy store, but quickly changed focus to selling books and has since expanded to include seven stores in Dubai and one in Abu Dhabi, as well as several book kiosks. Three more stores are slated to open this year, two in Al Ain and another in Dubai. (Al Ain, Dubai and Abu Dhabi are all part of the United Arab Emirates.)

Shopping in a Magrudy's is virtually indistinguishable from shopping at a chain or large indie bookstore in the U.S. or the U.K., with English-language titles accounting for 90% of its inventory. It has a similar look and feel to U.S. stores, as well as many of the common trappings, including loyalty programs and information booths. The most obvious difference is a prominent section of titles in Arabic.

The most popular English-language categories, reports Abulhoul, are fiction, mind/body/spirit, business and management, and books that teach Arabic. Perhaps the biggest attraction for the English-speaking community is the significant selection of children's books. “Kids were always treated as second-class citizens at stores here in the U.A.E., so catering to them and to parents is a big part of our business,” Abulhoul said.

Magrudy's frequently purchases both U.K. and U.S. editions of the same books. While customers from the U.K. “inevitably prefer books from the U.K.,” Abulhoul said that many of her international customers were educated in the U.S. and tend to buy U.S. editions. The lack of customs duty in the U.A.E. means her biggest expense is shipping, which she maintained is not passed along to the customer. “I sell books at the U.K. or U.S. price and right now, the U.S. prices are much more competitive,” she explained.

Magrudy's sees only two or three American sales reps per year, if any. “Americans are losing out by not trying to take advantage of this,” says Abulhoul. “Every time I want to shift a big order of books from the U.K. to U.S. edition, I get a call from the U.K. publisher or distributor undercutting the U.S. price. They are much more aggressive.”

Abulhoul believes some reticence on the part of Americans in doing business with the U.A.E. stems from a concern about censorship, since all books imported into the U.A.E. must be approved by the government. “Yes, it is something we have to put up with,” she said. “But approval is often had in a day or two, and embargoed books can be looked at early.” Books about Islam or Middle East politics are likely to be delayed longer, and religion books not about Islam and books with overt sexual content are likely to be blocked entirely. She's also had trouble getting entire series of Japanese manga past the censor.

Though a growing number of educated expats are moving to the country—Dubai's population is expected to reach 1.8 million by 2010, with 50,000 to 75,000 of them white-collar expats—Magrudy's has only recently begun to see competition from international booksellers. Borders opened a 16,000-sq.-ft. franchise store in 2006, adding a second, 1,200-sq.-ft. satellite store last year.

Increasingly, the U.A.E. is attracting attention for its many new cultural and literary programs. The newest addition is the Emirates Airlines International Festival of Literature. Scheduled to run annually, the first will be held February 26–March 1, 2009, and Abulhoul is one of the organizers. She said about two dozen authors have committed to attend, including Frank McCourt and Karin Slaughter. “We want 60 authors in all,” she said. The airline has committed title sponsorship for three years.

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