Following a series of workshops, spoken word performances and Q&A’s with locally-based poets and authors, Andrew Hansen’s talk about his career in the publishing industry, My Life on the Coffee Table, seems like something of a non sequitir in the Literaturhaus at Nadi season that’s been running at Alserkal Avenue, Dubai, since July.
Hansen is the managing director of Prestel Publishing, one of the art world’s most illustrious art, architecture, photography and design-focused imprints, which produces more than 150 titles a year from its headquarters in Munich and offices in London and New York.
But even a short conversation with the publisher reveals that he is no ringer in the literary season and that his connections with the UAE are as broad and knowledgeable as they are deep.
Not only has Hansen known Antonia Carver, the new director of Art Jameel and former director of Art Dubai, since their time together in arts publishing in London in the early 2000s, but he’s able to name the owners of most of the UAE’s main bookstores and knows the dynamics of their businesses, even when they don’t fall under Prestel’s immediate area of expertise.
Hansen also knows Monika Krauss, the German curator of Literaturhaus at Nadi from the time, back in 2009, when he would come to the UAE to give professional workshops to small publishers, advising them on how best to promote and market their books as part of the Kitab initiative, a joint venture between the old Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture and Heritage, the Goethe Institute and the Frankfurt Book Fair.
Literaturhaus at Nadi marks a Dubai salon revival
Acclaimed author Fadi Zaghmout: 'Feminism and female equality is as important to men as for women’
Magnum photographer Olivia Arthur's 'Stranger' in Dubai
“In my experience of the emirates, with all of the literary festivals, the museum exhibitions and the book fairs, people love books and are very keen to get their hands on them,” Hansen says in the light of Unesco’s appointment of Sharjah as the World Book Capital in 2019.
“Elsewhere we might be spoilt by the likes of Shakespeare and Company [in Paris] and Hatchards [in London], but there’s still the chance to develop and expand the market in the UAE.”
When it comes to increasing book sales, Hansen knows what he is talking about. During his 16 years at Prestel, the genial Englishman has transformed the UK part of what is essentially a German publishing empire, increasing its annual turnover from GBP 300,000 to more than GBP2.5 million while adding at least 10 new titles to Prestel’s catalogue each year.
Self-deprecatingly, Hansen attributes his success at Prestel to a fortunate confluence of events.
“We were very lucky. Tate Modern opened 2 years before I joined Prestel and Nick Serota had said to the architects and his retail division that the gallery had to have a huge space for books,” he remembers.
“Then just last year Tate Modern’s new Switch House opened which also had 1000s of square metres of space that also needed to be filled very quickly.”
While Hansen’s period at Prestel’s helm has been defined by the decline of large bookstore chains and the rise of internet shopping, it has also coincided with a massive expansion in the museum and galleries sector and soaring visitor numbers for both, all of which have helped when it comes to selling big ticket art titles.
“As with the revival in live music, there’s also been a massive expansion of literary festivals and literary events that allow people to come into contact with authors and books,” Hansen explains, insisting that when it comes to sales, physical contact between people and books is one of the most important things.
“If it’s a nice book it shouldn’t be hiding its light under a bushel, you have to get it under somebody’s nose and we are in a very lucky sort of bubble where there is a demand for beautifully-made books that have a tactility about them, that are a quality object in their own right,” says Hansen, who has no fear of fetishizing the objects of his trade.
“There’s a lovely German word, handgreiflich, which literally means grabbable, and we have various materials and methods that allow us to achieve this whether it’s beautiful cloth covers, tip-ins, debossing, embossing, spot varnishing,” he adds, warming to the subject.
“All of these lovely things we love that help to make that object in your hand irresistible.”
Despite the differences between his operation and the many small imprints that operate in the region, Hansen insists that the essentials of successful publishing are the same regardless of sector or scale.
“Publishing is small scale by its very nature and it’s still essentially a cottage industry, which is why I’ve stuck with it,” he enthuses.
“In terms of the relationship between the editor and the author, there is really no difference. You’re still putting their content between 2 cardboard boards and onto paper and that relationship has to be between only a couple of individuals.”
While that may be true, in Hansen’s case those individuals tend to have names such as Norman Foster, Gilbert & George but his conversation sounds less like a sales pitch and more like reminiscences that are the product of constant international travel and treasured meetings with art world luminaries and the fact that Prestel’s London operation has only 5 full-time staff. This means that when it comes to working with artists such as Gavin Turk or Atul Dodiya, Hansen is the principal point of contact for the artist and their gallery as well as for the book’s designer and the team involved in printing, production, promotion and sales.
After even a brief conversation with Andrew Hansen, you learn several things in quick succession: a new and delightfully obscure publisher’s vocabulary, a smattering of German, and an insight into the secret of Hansen’s success.
A book lover who is part-salesman and part-art aficionado, Hansen is a good conversationalist and a witty raconteur, which should make his talk at Nadi Al Quoz an entertaining afternoon from which, book-wise, it may be difficult to leave empty-handed.
Andrew Hansen’s My Life on the Coffee Table takes place at Alserkal Avenue’s Nadi Al Quoz at 4pm on August 19. To register visit www.alserkalavenue.ae. Prestel Publishing's forthcoming book, Magnum Atlas: Around the World in 365 Photos from the Magnum Archive, is being published on October 15, In the Shadow of the Raj: Derry Moore in India with a foreword by Mark Tully was published in 2017.