x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Book fair bound for bigger things

Interest in Abu Dhabi international event bucks trend in publishing world that has seen redundancies and falling retail sales.

Claudia Kaiser, general manager of Kitab, has seen publisher bookings grow substantially this year.
Claudia Kaiser, general manager of Kitab, has seen publisher bookings grow substantially this year.

The Abu Dhabi International Book Fair is expecting a 25 per cent rise in the number of publishers attending next week, despite a slowing retail market forcing many publishers to pull back on travel. Kitab, the joint venture between the Frankfurt Book Fair and the Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture and Heritage (ADACH), has reservations from more than 600 exhibitors, compared with last year's 482. This year it has reserved an extra 900 square metres of net exhibition space at the Abu Dhabi National Exhibition Centre.

"There were a few who had hurdles because of budgetary restraints, especially governments from European countries," said Claudia Kaiser, the general manager of Kitab. "They said 'we wanted to do a collective stand and we can't do it. Let's do it next year'. But having said that, we have big growth. In these times that's amazing." Book publishing, once thought to be less vulnerable to recessions than advertising-driven media, has proven not to be immune to the current slowdown.

US book sales in the final quarter of last year dropped 7 per cent compared with the same period the previous year, according to the sales monitoring firm Nielsen BookScan. By the end of the year, many of the world's largest publishers, including Simon and Schuster, Penguin Group, Random House and HarperCollins, have cut staff or frozen salaries. But interest in emerging markets remains strong. In 2007, Frankfurt Book Fair organisers noted that "the Arabic-speaking countries, with their populations totalling more than 300 million, have hardly been opened up at all by the international book industry and offer a great deal of potential".

Ms Kaiser said: "This is a market that has not been explored so much yet. There is still a lot to be discovered." Part of the optimism comes from the fact that broadband access and digital books have not yet made the same incursions into the Middle East market as they have in the West. In western countries, increasing digitalisation and competition from new media are posing growing challenges for publishers.

"The publishing world here is at a different stage," Ms Kaiser said. "It's a different history and they have a different tradition. "While we are talking about where is the book going to end, people here are still very much concerned with printed books and printed material altogether." Although there will be some digital publishers at the fair, most of the focus will be on creating an environment for traditional publishers to sell their wares.

This means educating publishers and the public about copyright protection, encouraging the purchase of rights through a rights-subsidy programme, and providing a better book distribution system in the Arab world. Once this system was in place, something Ms Kaiser acknowledged would not happen overnight, publishers could spend less time at the fair selling books, and more networking and plotting the course of the industry's future.

This is the vision of the fair's organisers. "At the Frankfurt Book Fair, you don't see any publishers selling books," Ms Kaiser said. "It's just [selling] rights - networking, meeting new people and seeing what's happening in other countries, what's happening in digital publishing. "It's about how to grow your business." khagey@thenational.ae