They came from Tanzania. They from Poland. They came from Nigeria, from Nepal, from Georgia, from Italy, from Malaysia, from Pakistan, from the Philippines, from Argentina, from Mexico. In fact, they came from 44 other countries too.
For two days in May, 2022, the Sharjah Book Authority’s (SBA) “facility” as its website calls it, turned into a caravanserai for 385 booksellers (some of them publishers too) from around the world as they gathered for the Sharjah Booksellers Conference. It was for the first time that a booksellers’ conference was truly international in its composition.
Don’t be fooled by the word facility in SBA’s publicity brochures. The SBA houses the first-of-its-kind publishing zone – called the Sharjah Publishing City (SPC) – a 65,000 square meter centre that allows companies in the publishing industry to enjoy a tax-free, 100 per cent-owned company. It is equipped with everything that is needed to run a business and one can even get a licence in two hours flat.
The SPC offers offices, IT infrastructure, and a number of business and support services. The purpose is to “contribute to the global publishing industry by making it easy for publishing companies to do business and operate profitably”. What better place than this for a global booksellers’ conference?
The road to the conference
But first, what has Sharjah got to do with publishing or books?
Legend has it that when the ruler of Sharjah, Sheikh Sultan Bin Mohammed Al-Qasimi (he has ruled since 1972) was 12, his father gave him a golden dagger as a gift. So keen on books was the young boy that he mortgaged the priceless family heirloom to buy books. That interest did not wane even after he took over official royal duties. He set in motion a slew of book-related initiatives that have stood the test of time. The Booksellers Conference is the latest in line.
In 1982 the Sharjah International Book Fair was launched – today, it’s a 11-day cultural and literary extravaganza. The goal? To promote reading as a habit among the younger generations. SIBF gradually grew to become the third-largest book fair in the world (after Frankfurt and London) and, in 2021, became the largest in terms of participation with more than 1,600 publishers from 83 countries attending. The fair is preceded by the Sharjah Publishers’ Conference and is paralleled by the annual Librarians’ Conference.
Then came the Sharjah Children’s Reading Festival, which celebrated its 13th edition this year. It twins with the Exhibition for Children’s Book Illustrations every year. It is not always about facilitating the business of buying and selling books. Sharjah has six public libraries, the first one going back to 1925, that attract readers of all ages. Each public library is never too far away from a citizen. Sharjah Libraries host a yearly award for original research with a winning prize of AED 15,000.
The SBA, set up eight years ago under a Royal Decree, is the jewel in the crown. It activates and manages every literary event hosted and is the home of every literary-related idea that comes out of Sharjah nowadays.
Ahmed al Ameri, the dapper, soft-spoken, chairman of the SBA, has a simple philosophy with respect to literature and literary occasions. “Bookselling is an important industry and the bookseller must continue,” he said. A simple but powerful way of looking at an industry that, about 10 years ago, was said to be doomed in its brick-and-mortar avatar. “The conference is a platform where even a small bookstore can rub shoulders with chains,” al Ameri said. “It is an opportunity that can open gateways to big markets.”
The SBA invited 384 booksellers in an all-expenses-taken-care-of trip to the two-day meeting. “I can’t believe that more of this hasn’t happened so far; there are bookseller associations all over the world, but what we don’t have is the cross-cultural element,” said Nadia Wassef, co-founder of the iconic Diwan Bookstores in Egypt and the best-selling author of Chronicles of a Cairo Bookseller, which is now being translated into 11 languages.
Diwan was launched on International Women’s Day in 2002 by Nadia Wassef and her sister, Hind, as a corner bookstore. Today, it has 10 branches and a publishing house. Wassef marvels at the chance to be in the company of so many booksellers from so many countries. “Ethiopia and Egypt are neighbours, we are in the same continent but our booksellers don’t know each other, we have never talked, never met,” she said. “But here we are, together.”
Mansour al Hassani, who heads sales in SBA, is one of the architects of the mega event. “The idea was to connect booksellers to exchange ideas and expertise, rethink business structures and strategies, and explore new business opportunities,” he said. With 385 participants from around the world at a debut edition, conference has done what it set out to do. As international publishing consultant Simon Littlewood points out, this conference has the bookseller and not the publisher at the centre. “Booksellers are the route that we reach our readers. It is about browsing and stimulation and suggestions.”
Meeting, greeting, learning
Seen through the eyes of a bookseller, the curation of the first-ever Booksellers Conference had just the right mix. International publishing consultant Emma House, a veteran of the London Book Fair and The Publishers’ Association, UK, said the conference was a wonderful starting point for many useful conversations to come. “It exceeded expectations,” House said, “in terms of how generous the speakers were in sharing their knowledge and how attentive the audience were. The spirit in the room was energising, entrepreneurial and one of generosity.”
The four panel discussions addressed the themes of Digital, E-commerce and Social Media; Working with Publishers, Authors, Festivals and Schools; Stock Curation, Presentation plus Customer Service; and New Business Models.
The keynote speakers were Bodour Al-Qasimi, president of the International Publishers Association, who spoke about creating a reading culture and the role of booksellers; author and bookseller Nadia Wassef of Diwan Bookstores, who spoke about the opportunities and challenges she faced; Jasmina Kanuric of the EIBF (European & International Booksellers Federation) who spoke about trends in international bookselling and connecting the world’s booksellers; and Nana Lohrengel, secretary-general of Italy’s Umberto and Elisabetta Mauri Foundation, who talked about learning and teaching bookselling.
In her address, Al Qasimi acknowledged that booksellers have been doing a stellar job trying to find creative ways to engage readers and to put books in their hands. “Your efforts have become even more urgent now in the face of ever-changing readers’ needs and behaviours, together with the increasing digital distractions in everyday life,” she said. Post pandemic, she feels there is a fresh eagerness among the industry’s stakeholders to collaborate with their global counterparts.
Booksellers who are publishers too said they found the interactions particularly useful. Sonia Draga is the CEO and editor in chief of Sonia Draga Publishing House, based in Katowice, Poland, which was founded 22 years ago. In 2016, it acquired the children’s publishing house Debit and established its first imprint, Mlody, which specialises in YA fiction, followed by Non Stop Comics, which publishes a selection of both Polish and foreign language comic books, and Post Factum, an imprint that publishes “unique” non-fiction. Today, the publishing house also owns the Sonia Draga chain of bookstores and has four outlets in Warsaw, Katowice, Chorzów and Gliwice.
Interestingly, Draga has been to Sharjah both as a publisher during the Publishers’ Conference and now as a bookseller. “It is good to see the market from two perspectives,” she told me in the bus en route to a dinner. “Sometimes, the publishers don’t see the need to help keep the bookseller alive. Booksellers suffer because publishers can always go online and sell online. But they don’t realise that they cannot sell all of their books that they carry online. They have to have differentiated channels of distribution.”
Draga’s bookstores are 30 km apart from one another. But the customer profiles and tastes differ wildly and the stores have to adjust to those needs. One store may have wine tasting events and author meets, while the second one does a lot of sessions around theatre, and the third works with kindergarten children. The Chorzow store, for instance, is a smaller one and it has small poetry events, comic book sessions as well as a Czech beer festival. The one in Warsaw has literary festivals on offer too.
Bookselling is by no means a dying industry. “The fantastic thing about bookselling and booksellers in the last 10-15 years,” said Wassef, “is that we have had to reinvent ourselves and face the challenges of the digitisation of the book and e-books and so on. But compared to the music industry, for instance, we have done incredibly well. When was the last time you bought a record or a video?” She firmly believes it is booksellers who made sure that books survived.
The conversations spilled over to after-hour discussions over dinner, on the waterfront, beach and even during a grand tour of the magnificent 42,000-square-foot Kinokuniya store in Dubai led by the affable store manager, Steve Jones. The 12,000-square-foot House of Wisdom (modelled on the original in Baghdad), the iconic cultural hub and library, was another not-to-be-missed halt in Sharjah. The delegation of booksellers also visited the Children’s Reading Festival and Illustrators’ Exhibition, which had three Indians – Priya Kuriyan, Vibha Batra, and Anita Vachharajani – participating
The thread that ran through booksellers’s discussions was hope. Hope, combined with the confidence of riding out difficulties and meeting challenges head on. There are many ways of bringing readers and books together. Each participant had something to learn or observe from the others. Wassef picks two from India.
“Surprisingly, we all share the same challenges and we are all coming with very similar solutions,” she said. “From the Indian side, I thought the Walking Book Fairs initiative was fantastic. In Swati Roy’s intervention about festivals, she said something that was wonderful. When you go and do a festival somewhere you are planting the seed and, later, someone else can take it on and continue. You are disseminating best practice and you are moving on. We need more of what everyone is doing.”
A few years before the pandemic, the Bhubaneswar-based Walking Book Fairs team – comprising Akshaya Rautaray and Satabdi – had, travelled 35,000 km across India driving a van-full of books for readers after tying up with various publishers. The Bookaroo Children’s Literature Festival – India’s first in the category – has travelled to 17 cities and towns in the past 14 years – including one in Malaysia.
The pandemic, despite the lockdowns and struggles, led to a reconsideration, reappraisal, and recalibration of the bookseller’s role. According to the global overview of bookselling trends released by the EIBF, book sales showed an upward trend in only nine of the 21 countries surveyed in 2020. Eighty eight per cent of the countries surveyed witnessed a lockdown of bookshops at least once.
However, that downward trend seems to have been arrested in 2021. Early findings of the EIBF survey for last year show that in 70 per cent of the countries surveyed, sales increased by 5 per cent, and by 10 per cent in the rest. End-of-year holiday sales proved to be the best in several years in many countries. Demand for books remained high throughout 2021. The report also predicts that booksellers will continue to benefit from what they learnt during the pandemic in terms of social media skills, delivery options and hybrid events.
Among the innovations booksellers benefited from, as discovered at the conference, was the one of joining forces. Nana Awere Damoah is the co-founder of Booknook Store – a fully online bookstore that focuses on distribution of printed African books across the world. Damoah’s organisation is a repository for other African publishers or distributors to use, especially since he has special tie-ups with logistics companies and gets attractive rates for shipping books out. Everyone benefits.
Catching the reader young is a bookselling strategy that Keith Thong, chairman, Malaysian Book Chamber presented. Reading Seeds is a programme designed to reach out to newborns all over Malaysia. The Reading Seeds starter kits help parents to read to their newborns, and later on, help develop the interest to read from a young age.
Customers are coming back to brick-and-mortar stores. So, cementing relationships with them afresh is essential now. Tiktok and Booktok are popular and effective channels of communication now. Instagram and Twitter are important too. But online channels and face to face interactions will need to work together, feels Kanuric. “Physical stores will catch up with online sales in the coming years,” she said. “Online does not mean just online retailers. It also means brick-and-mortars that have online versions.”
It was learnings like these that participants took away from this conference, besides, of course, the networks, friendships, and promises of mutual support.