Why are book fairs so alluring?

Events in the publishing world from book fairs to prizes create enthusiasm for reading.

The Abu Dhabi Book Fair drew many young readers with thousands of book selections available for their browsing and buying. Delores Johnson / The National
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The book publishing industry has been through a challenging couple of years. With the rise of digital books and e-readers, publishers have had to reconsider their business models and tap into the energy of the social media age. Throughout these changes, however, events such as book fairs and literary prizes have pushed the industry forward and created new markets for readers.

Perhaps the most famous books event in the world is the annual Frankfurt book fair held in October. The event started as a small gathering of local booksellers more than 500 years ago and has ballooned into the premier event for publishers to market their new catalogues. It is where many big literary deals get done.

Closer to home the adage that “Cairo writes, Beirut publishes and Baghdad reads” has changed in the modern era. Today, the UAE holds three major book fairs – in Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Sharjah – and is pushing the region forwards in terms of reading.

The Sharjah International Book Fair began in 1982 and has grown to be the fourth largest in the world. With more than 1,010 exhibitors from 53 countries covering 180 languages, it is a major event on the publishing calendar and continues to create a space for Arabic language work in the international publishing world. The Cairo International Book Fair, held every January since 1969, is the region’s oldest such event.

Similar to book fairs, literary prizes help publishers generate interest in new books and get people reading. This week saw the award of the International Prize for Arabic Fiction to Saudi Arabian author Mohammed Hasan Alwan for his work A Small Death. The Ipaf awards night is the traditional curtain-raiser to the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair, which started on Wednesday.

Modelled on the Man Booker, one of the most famous and prestigious literary awards in the world, the Ipaf began in 2008 with the mandate of representing the best in contemporary Arabic literature.

Given the subjective nature of judging the quality of a work of art (can there ever be a definitive book of the year?), it is no surprise there are awards of all stripes. From science fiction to travel writing, no genre is too niche.

The same goes for book fairs. From the Annual International Women’s Fiction Festival held in Italy to the Hay Festival in Wales, which former American president Bill Clinton referred to as the Woodstock of the mind, the popularity of book fairs continues to rise.

As digital publishing changes how people consume the written word, the allure of book fairs and the pomp and circumstance of literary awards will almost certainly open up new markets for publishers. The exchange of ideas, by its very nature, is a communal activity. For lovers of the printed word, the book fair is an event that will never lose its lustre.