Try to imagine the rise of the pandemic, especially the lockdown period, without the arts. Without movies, stories, TV shows, and books to help us stay connected to our humanity and create a means of escapism. When the outside world became too much to bear, snuggling on a couch with a good book and a cup of tea was pure therapy. It turns out that books meant big business worldwide during the last two years.
Amid store closures and lockdown restrictions, data from Nielsen showed that UK book sales reached their highest peak in 2021, with over 212 million print books sold. Similarly, according to the US Census Bureau, bookstore sales in America rose 39% in 2021 year-on-year, totaling just over $9 billion.
Major milestones were reached in the Middle East, as well. The Sharjah International Book Fair celebrated its 40th edition and was recognized as the largest book fair globally in terms of deals created in 2021. The architecturally stunning House of Wisdom library in Sharjah was shortlisted as Library of the Year in the London Book Fair’s annual International Excellence Awards this year. That’s not all. Sharjah was also celebrated as the Guest of Honor at Italy’s prestigious Bologna Children’s Book Fair in 2022.
Sheikha Bodour Al Qasimi, CEO and founder of Arabic children’s book publisher Kalimat Group, established in 2007, as well as the founder and president of the Emirates Publishers Association, spoke to dignitaries about bridging the gap between East and West through literature at an honorary dinner held in a 13th century Palazzo Re Enzo in Bologna, Italy. Her passion for the world of books has helped promote literature in the region and Arab culture abroad.
EMERGING PUBLISHING MARKET
“The UAE is an emerging publishing market that has witnessed a massive transformation in the past few years. Book sales have been steadily increasing year-on-year, even during the pandemic,” she said in an exclusive interview. “We have seen more local publishing businesses opening every year, and I’m happy to say there is a growing reading culture among local communities.”
Today, she counts around 226 publishers who are members of the Emirates Publishers Association (EPA), and “there are hundreds more who will hopefully join EPA soon.”
“This number reflects healthy growth in locally produced and published stories and reflects the high demand from local and regional reading communities,” she added.
She is involved with the Sharjah Book Authority and the long-running Sharjah International Book Fair (SIBF), which she views as a unique meeting point for industry stakeholders across the entire value chain to discuss the latest industry affairs and updates, while also exploring collaboration opportunities.
“If you are in Sharjah during the SIBF, you can feel the energy of books and culture around you,” said Sheikha Al Qasimi. “It’s also a way to preserve our culture while boosting our creative economy. In every book fair, I attend, whether in the UAE or elsewhere, there is always a queue to get a book signed by a renowned author.”
She is a regular guest speaker at the Abu Dhabi Book Fair and the Emirates Festival of Literature, pointing out that although they are each book-related, each event is distinct with its themes or angles. The Emirates LitFest, as the community affectionately calls it, is in its 14th year and brings in high-profile guests, including Gary Vaynerchuk, Bridgerton’s Julia Quinn, and a slew of popular regional authors such as Annabel Kantaria. The long queues went out the door at the grand Habtoor Palace venue this year, particularly for authors such as children’s writer David Walliams.
“Although the arts are usually first to be cut during difficult times, it wasn’t the case this time around,” said Ahlam Bolooki, director of the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature in Dubai. “Everyone was consuming so much of it to feel alive, to experience the world beyond their homes. I’m not surprised to hear book sales are at an all-time peak.”
AN INCREASE IN BOOK SALES
As schools and book fairs opened up after initial lockdowns due to the pandemic, local bookshop Magrudy’s saw an increase in sales and the reopening of wholesale channels. Hubert Khan, the senior buyer at Magrudy’s, says the bookshop recorded a rise in sales of 11% to 12% in children’s books and a 28% increase in adult books this year. Authors such as David Walliams, Jeff Kinney, Liz Pichon have gained more momentum in this period for children and, Mark Manson, Deepak Chopra, Richard Osman are going strong in terms of adult fiction.
Arabic book sales also spiked, mainly due to initiatives like the Reading Cup competition, the Arab Reading Challenge, and the UAE’s ‘month of reading’ in March encouraged higher sales.
“Following the return of students to school and all these initiatives, the UAE witnessed a cultural revival that led to a remarkable increase in book sales compared to last year during the pandemic,” said Mohammed Gamal, the Arabic buyer for Magrudy’s. “Specifically, children’s books and mind, body and spirit books benefited from this increase.”
This was a welcome respite from the challenges brought on by the pandemic. The Emirates LitFest held one of their biggest ever festivals in February 2020, before COVID-19 swept the world. Lockdown happened a mere week or so later. When planning for the 2021 edition, the team was cautious yet optimistic that the show must go on. “We immediately prepared for the worst — travel had stopped, and our title sponsor was an airline,” explained Bolooki.
“We reduced our budget, downsized our team, and held virtual sessions with international authors in 2021. We were very lucky to have incredible sponsors who stood by us.”
The festival team rebounded with several new initiatives in the 14th annual 2022 edition, including a new year-long ELF Seddiqi Fellowship designed to help ten chosen talented writers get their debut novels published and promoted globally. The foundation also created ELF Publishing, the only commercial aspect of the non-profit foundation, to publish manuscripts from local authors.
“ELF Publishing is a commercial entity, which is important to complement the wider foundation to become more sustainable,” said Bolooki. “We want to be here to stay. We don’t ever want our foundation to be in a vulnerable state dependent on one factor.”
Efforts to build a real literary community are vital to promoting culture and boosting the creative economy. Supporting writers is important to achieve this — Sheikha Al Qasimi encourages budding authors to create podcasts, host writing workshops, work on their crafts, and build a strong online presence.
“Authors today have the real possibility to make a living from their writing skills,” she said. “Equally important is having a robust online presence. I always meet promising, brilliant writers with zero online visibility, which doesn’t work in today’s world.”
The same sentiment was echoed by Bolooki, who has worked on several initiatives to help kickstart the careers of regional writers.
“As a young writer, it is essential to put yourself out there. It’s very important to take courses, promote what you’re doing, meet and network because opportunities come from getting out there,” she said. “Develop skills and get in the right circles. ELF Publishing is always open for submissions and advice. We are here for the community, to identify talented writers and help — whether we are publishing or connecting with our global partners.”
This is how the world can change for the better, one story at a time.
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