The return of the Sharjah International Book Fair is not only a boon for UAE bookworms, but a win for a global publishing industry battered by the pandemic.
Running from Wednesday, November 4 to Saturday, November 14, one of the world's biggest book fairs will adopt a hybrid model with live events held both at Sharjah Expo Centre and streamed on the fair's website.
With its London, Paris and Abu Dhabi counterparts cancelling fairs and the Frankfurt Book Fair going digital earlier this month, the Sharjah event is one of the first major literary fairs to run physically since March.
Needless to say, the industry is looking to Sharjah and rooting for its success.
“This is what is also motivating us,” says Ahmed Al Ameri, chairman of the Sharjah Book Authority, which runs the fair. “We have some people from other book fairs here to see how we are organising it. What we are doing is showing the industry that we need to need live with the virus for the foreseeable future, and that you can still run well-organised events during this time.
“Is it challenging? Absolutely. But because of the country’s leadership, we have clear guidelines to follow to make it a very safe and successful event.”
The meaning of success
In consultation with government and health authorities, the fair has implemented a raft of safety measures for those participating in or attending the event.
After booking online, visitors will go through thermal scanners upon entry. Face masks will be freely available and the venue will undergo a five-hour overnight disinfection process at the end of each day.
For the 1,024 registered publishers and authors participating in book-signing sessions on the ground, stands will be spread apart and there will be plenty of floor signage and staff to ensure social distancing is practised.
Al Ameri concedes such necessary measures could mean a smaller-than-usual turn out – last year, more than two million people attended over 10 days – but these are uncertain times.
“I am excited to see what it will be like because this will be a fair like no other,” he says. “The fact that we are able do it is what's important. This week, I had publishers from the Middle East and even Mozambique contact me to thank us for making it happen. So as soon as the gates open, I consider the event a success.”
A recovering industry
Those expressions of gratitude also hint at the importance of book fairs in general.
Where literary festivals often focus on authors, book fairs put the spotlight on the laborious work that goes on behind a bestseller. It is a place where book sellers, publishing houses, literary agents and translators are the stars. Running almost monthly and following a circuit stretching from Europe and the Middle East to South-East Asia, North and South America, book fairs are where deals are made and important discussions are had.
And with the pandemic affecting practically every facet of the industry, Sharjah Book Fair is set to become the place where publishing can plot its recovery.
A lot of that work has already begun behind the closed doors of the Expo Centre. As part of the lead-up to the fair, more than 300 people are currently in attendance at the three-day Publishers Conference, which ends on Wednesday, November 4. One of the challenges being discussed by regional publishers, Al Ameri notes, is the alarming growth of digital piracy.
“That was always an issue but the pandemic made it worse,” he says.
“One of the speakers was a publisher from Lebanon who spoke about how quickly Arabic pirated books are appearing online after their publication. He spoke of the frustration of seeing one of his books sell over 1,000 copies online while the pirated version was downloaded nearly two million times. This is a global problem we need to tackle ... it is only getting bigger because of the pandemic.”
Raising the standards
One way to face that challenge is for everyone in the regional publishing industry to be aware of their legal rights and recourses.
This was one of the reasons the authority launched its own literary agency this month. Making its formal appearance as part of the book fair, the Sharjah International Literary Agency (Sila) will not only promote the work of Emirati and Arab authors globally, but inject some much-needed structure to the regional industry.
“If you look, for example, at the publishing industry in Europe, it is completely different to what we have here in the Arab world,” Al Ameri says. “The industry over there is made up of clearly defined and separate roles, such as the publisher, the agent, the bookseller and the distribution company.
"Over here, you will have one person – normally the one who runs the publishing house – doing it all by themselves and because of that lack of focus, the professionalism of their business and our industry suffers. With this new agency, we want to show others in the region how it can done.”
And that, in a nutshell, is the story of the Sharjah International Book Fair.
Since its modest beginning in 1982, the fair has not only become a template for other literary events across the Middle East, but an important annual gathering where knowledge and experienced are shared.
This year’s iteration marks another chapter in an important story that needs to be told.
Sharjah Book Fair is running from November 4 to 14 with events held at Sharjah Expo Centre and streamed online. For more information, visit sibf.com