Middle East’s untold stories deserve a global audience
Among the most eagerly-awaited cultural events in various Arab countries each year are the various book fairs that take place. From Riyadh, Cairo and Casablanca to Abu Dhabi and Sharjah, each fair promises to delight bibliophiles of all ages. The upcoming 40th Sharjah International Book Fair is posed to welcome a stellar cast of bestselling Arab writers, intellectuals, poets and artists, who will deliver a suite of literary seminars, panel discussions and book signings. This year’s fair will also feature an astonishing 15 million books showcased by 1,576 publishing houses.
Considering the sheer imagination of Arab writers, it would be fantastic if content creators in the region were more easily able to access a global audience. To realize such a vision, the publishing industry must rethink its practices, collaborate with content creators, and lead ambitious efforts to jointly transform the sector.
Engaging publishers’ associations in various countries to spearhead improvements in the industry will be key in leading this change. Their rich network of publishers, content creators, booksellers and distributors enable them to leverage key opportunities through collaborative deals. For example, they could enforce internationally accepted publishing standards concerning printing, content, intellectual property and illustration.
Moreover, publishing useful market data, consumer preferences, trade conditions, government policies and regulations, and trends analyses on the publishing industry will give local publishers and booksellers insights into how to optimize their sales. Lobbying for impactful national laws for the publishing industry, such as protecting the intellectual property rights of authors and illustrators, will be important for the industry to evolve. The associations must also host regular events revolving around the key issues facing publishers, in addition to trade events, rights-buying events, information sessions, training programs, and informal social events for members.
Cultivating the creative talents of aspiring authors and editors in the region will ensure their voices can reach a wider audience. Writing is as much a craft as it is an art, requiring abidance with linguistic and creative rules to reach a professional standard that merits publication. Many renowned universities offer master’s programs in creative writing, playwriting, poetry, literary translation and publishing. For example, the publishing master’s program offered by University College London equips students with the practical skills and knowledge required to navigate the complex publishing industry and is taught by practitioners and experts. Modules cover topics such as publishing business plans, contracts, copyright management, production processes, digital contexts, innovation, entrepreneurship, marketing, and editorial skills.
Another route would be to engage writing institutes and cultural centers to offer short creative writing courses locally, online or in inspiring literary cities. For example, New York Times bestselling author and literary agent Wendy Goldman Rohm hosts a fascinating writers’ retreat in Paris during the summer, offering creative moments amid Parisian bistros and bakeries or contemplative strolls through gardens. This five-day retreat attracts a cosmopolitan literary group that is keen on picking up practical writing skills on structure, setting, character, style, narrative, research and originality.
In similar fashion, it is important to nurture the creative talents of book illustrators. Many potential buyers are attracted by covers that promise a great read or, in the case of many children’s picture and reference books, artistic appeal remains a unique selling point. On this note, it is also important to cultivate the skills of translators to ensure that the final versions of books are always published according to the highest literary and artistic standards, without a word lost to translation.
Capitalizing on international and national literary events could also be an entertaining way to promote books. Events such as World Book Day, book fairs, literary festivals, national celebrations, adored themes, heritage references, and celebrating the birthday of a famous author all provide a wonderful platform for promoting reading. Expanding and enhancing book distribution channels across the region will be critical in ensuring excellent works reach the masses in affordable formats. This can be achieved via targeting high-traffic literary hotspots, such as public libraries, book fairs, school libraries, cafes and workplaces.
For example, one of Singapore’s public libraries is in the bustling shopping district on Orchard Road. This particular library is designed as a community space and contemplative corner, holding a collection of more than 100,000 titles centered on lifestyle, design and the arts. For children, special mobile library buses, fitted out in a child-friendly design, tour communities and offer a selection of up to 3,000 books.
To showcase Arab writers’ imagination to the world, the region’s publishing industry must rethink its practices.
Arab publishers should also capitalize on the ever-expanding online market by designing attractive websites that are user-friendly and offer a wonderfully curated collection of books according to different genres. Many famous independent bookshops, such as Hatchards and Daunt Books in London, use social media platforms to post visually appealing photos set in their bookshops, showing window displays awash with exciting new books or author visits and book-signing events, along with short captions that are just enough to lure in avid readers.
Perhaps their most exclusive service is that of a book subscription, in which hand-picked books are delivered to subscribers based on different interests or themes. Launching online book clubs dedicated to Arabic books would also enable readers to search for titles in databases and read book reviews by fellow bibliophiles.
The Middle East holds a treasure trove of untold stories. By advancing the publishing industry’s practices, we can share many of our timeless and inspiring tales with a global audience.
- Sara Al-Mulla is an Emirati civil servant with an interest in human development policy and children’s literature. She can be contacted at www.amorelicious.com.