Once upon a time the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair was a smallish affair where publishers would ply their wares and parents could drop in to chose some suitable reading matter for their children, a minor footnote for the multibillion-dollar international publishing industry. Not any more.
In its 20th year, the event is coming of age, emerging as a powerful platform from which publishers can reach out to the 300 million potential readers of the Arab world. Last week it played host to some 800 publishers, 226 schools and thousands of public visitors. In one corner of the huge Abu Dhabi National Exhibition Centre there was a library on a bus, in another live falcons, and in between poetry recitations and book signings were taking place, as well as discussions and talks from some of the region's most prominent authors.
Jumaa al Qubaisi, the event's director, said the fair was now a "true gateway for the emerging markets of publishing in the Arab World to showcase their talent to an international audience". The big difference has been increasing collaboration with the Franfurt Book Fair, which began in 2006. Even three years ago the Abu Dhabi fair was more like a "book bazaar under tents", according to Monika Krauss, the general manager of Kitab, a joint venture between Adach, the capital's culture and heritage authority, and Frankfurt, which is responsible for organising the fair and raising its profile.
It is not so much the increasing size of the event, as the opportunities it makes available, according to several exhibitors. Sunish Thoniyan Nanu said he had noticed a marked improvement in the quality of exhibitors. "Last year we met a few other publishers but nobody of great significance. This year instead of merely representatives, we are meeting decision-makers," said Mr Nanu, the distribution manager of Hamdan bin Mohammed e-University Press, an online publishing agency under the patronage of the Crown Prince of Dubai.
"We are close to finalising around five distribution deals and we sold 150 books in the first two days. Last year it took us five days to sell as many and we didn't clinch any deals." Others pointed to greater expectations from those taking part. "Everyone is more prepared this year," said Rania Jarrous, of the Lebanese Jarrous Publishing House. "Last year, for example, was the first year the professional programme for publishers was implemented and nobody knew what to expect. [Previously] we made contact with other international publishers and that was it.
"Now, we have been in contact all year, so this time we are ready to make deals." Miss Jarrous's father, Nasser, founded the company in 1980. He now works closely with Reed Exhibitions, the company which organises the London Book Fair and Book Expo America, which he attends as a representative of publishers from the Arab World. Her company has also taken advantage of the Spotlight on Rights programme. This is a scheme that was launched last year which allows publishers to apply for a US$1,000 grant towards book fair deals for translation rights, either to or from Arabic.
Last year, Jarrous had eight book deals approved by the programme and now it is ready to sell the rights for two of its own books. "I never thought that would happen," she said. "It shows how we are expanding." Mark Linz, the director of the American University of Cairo Press, who has been attending book fairs in the region for 25 years, said publishing houses in the Middle East were expanding alongside the fairs.
"It is natural that publishers in a region should grow together and in Abu Dhabi there is a lot of support for them so just as it is bigger this year, the publishers will also feel the benefit of that. "There are usually two types of book fairs; the ones directed at the professionals and industry insiders, like London and New York, and the ones for the public, like Cairo and Delhi, which draw millions of people.
"Abu Dhabi is trying to combine the two and I think it is working. It is certainly a different experience for us and I have at times wondered if there were more exhibitors than visitors, but it is well organised and there are very professional people involved." Ms Krauss, from Kitab, said the long-term plan was for Abu Dhabi to become a purely professional fair. "At the moment it is a mix because it has to be," she said.
"The public have no option in some cases but to come to the fair to buy books, but we have set up a distribution company now, which by next year will have solved that problem and will bring more books to the shops." Ms Krauss made this announcement on the first day of the fair but publishers were still becoming acquainted with the business plan and what is envisaged. "We need highly developed distribution areas before a plan like that can work," said Mr Linz. "I'm not sure it will work in reality as the Arab World is very diversified - it will take time, no doubt."
As for the fair, Mr Linz said it was running "extremely well". His feeling was echoed by most exhibitors, who said the organisation was much improved. "Last year they didn't deliver my books until the third day," said Anwar Cara, the production and sales manager from the British company Kube Publishing. "This year it was much better." Although he did not expect to profit directly from the fair, he said it was worthwhile attending for the professional connections.
"We just about broke even last year, but I pushed to come back again," he said. "My feeling is that the English language is having a good influence on youngsters and parents here and everyone is keen to have books in English." Ali Alsaloom, who was exhibiting his self-published guide book at the fair, said: "I have been surprised at the number of people here every day taking an interest in my book. At most events people come for specific purposes but I am getting many people coming to see my stall and asking me questions; finding out about me for the first time. I have made many sales, which is fantastic. I feel blessed."