Despite assertions such as “Arabs read six minutes a year on average” — a widely quoted figure not backed by any statistical evidence — there is no shortage of readers in the Arab world. A wealth of Arabs in the region, along with a growing diaspora abroad, are consuming content across a multitude of topics and platforms, with a discerning eye towards high quality, customised, Arabic content.
During the ninth edition of the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature earlier in March 2017, an event that turns Dubai annually into a haven for both authors and readers from all around the world to come together in celebration of the written word, we witnessed the launch of the first ‘Dubai International Publishing Conference’.
The two-day publishing conference saw more than 30 international and regional experts from the publishing industry participate in talks, panel sessions and masterclasses. The festival saw 40,000 visitors, with more than 25,000 students participating within the education programme, and more than 180 international and regional authors, poets and speakers participating in the eight-day event.
The high footfall and engagement with this event is a testament to the demand for literature in the region, and an indicator of the growing regional interest in the publishing industry, particularly when we see the launch of more and more industry-specific conferences and initiatives.
The way in which people create and consume books is continuously evolving, aided by advances in technology, but one thing is constant and that is content. As Arab readers become more aware of the abundance, diversity, and quality of available knowledge in an increasingly connected world, it is inevitable that their gaze will turn inward, towards home-grown content that they will hold to the same high standards they have set for the rest of the content they consume.
In the region (speaking generally as the rules and regulations of the publishing industry differ from one country to another), literary content creation is more commonly a result of direct collaboration between writer and publisher, as witnessed by the burgeoning trend of self-publishing we see today, whereas within the publishing industry in the West, literary agents act as intermediaries, between publishers and authors.
One might argue that the former mode of publishing allows for greater creativity to some extent and speed of production, but finding the balance between nurturing freedom of artistic creation and ensuring quality content through a structured publishing process is key to paving the way for a more substantial future in Arabic literature.
Traditional publishing has an illustrious history in the Middle East and is viewed with a certain sanctity, given its contribution to knowledge development and its importance to the growth of a literate, well-educated, creative population. My father — His Highness Shaikh Mohammad Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice-President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai — has long been a champion of literature, poetry, reading and self-education.
In a recent public correspondence with renowned author Paolo Coelho, he said that, “There is no future without books”, and went on to extol the benefits of the publishing houses of the past.
“They were also home to more than just publishers; they were cultural hubs where scientists, researchers, intellectuals and translators from myriad religions, civilisations and walks of life gathered to share ideas and debate.”
This heritage of Arabic publishing and literacy is one that we should take pride in and build upon. Combining traditional methods of producing books and the written word with a creative and innovative approach allows us to keep up with the global publishing industry and its latest trends as well as the appetite for knowledge among our young populations.
Today, it is clear that the status of the publishing industry in the region has slipped drastically. Only a few years ago, prominent pan-Arab newspaper, Asharq Al Awsat, declared that the Arab world is facing a publishing crisis, due to limited markets and low readership.
Recent statistics show that the Arab world in its entirety produces fewer books than a small European country. Although disheartening, these figures present an opportunity and an incentive to strengthen the Arabic publishing industry. And although it faces challenges today, such as censorship, limited distribution channels and a lack of copyright protection, to name a few, there is also much to be optimistic about, and an abundance of young authors, publishers and entrepreneurs who are eager to help shape the future of publishing.
In terms of supporting and nurturing authors, several literary prizes have emerged, such as the International Prize for Arabic Fiction and the Etisalat Award for Arabic Children’s Literature.
The annual Emirates Airline Festival of Literature convenes hundreds of authors and readers under an umbrella of knowledge sharing that stimulates discussion and collaboration among literature lovers and producers from around the world. In doing so it aligns with the nation’s broader goals, supporting the UAE’s National Strategy for Reading 2016-2026 and is also in line with the directives of the Dubai Plan 2021 to make Dubai a city of happy, creative and empowered people. Today, the Arab book market is worth $1 billion (Dh3.67 billion) a year, and investment in the publishing industry in the region amounts to around $5 billion annually. Publishers abound, with over 1,000 working in a full-time capacity and another 1,000 in a part-time capacity, producing around 450,000 copies of books a year, most of these being school and university textbooks. Book fairs, such as the Sharjah International Book Fair, offers a commercial model that allows for marketing, distribution opportunities, as well as bringing together authors, publishers and readers together.
While these are encouraging figures and commendable initiatives, there is still tremendous room for improvement in terms of diversity of content, quality and the platforms used.
Most Arabic books comprise of fiction: novels and to a lesser extent, short stories — which are valuable forms of literature — but non-fiction titles are scarce in the region, creating a window of opportunity for both Arabic writers and publishers as well as academics. They would do well to collaborate on the creation of books that focus on other topics such as science and technology, current affairs, arts and culture, personal development, as well as a host of industry-specific themes, all of which are seeing success in other markets and languages.
Educational books in need of revision
Educational books in particular, though they are a mainstay of the Arabic publishing industry, are in need of revision. Outdated modes of developing and relaying content to students require a fresh approach, in collaboration with educational institutions, to create a language that can engage youth who are smarter, more connected and interactive than ever before. This is not limited solely to educational materials, but to the language of design and creativity as a whole.
Much of the advancement and invention in these fields is developed in the language of the West and imported into the Arabic vernacular. To be truly innovative in the creative industries, in any industry, we need to pioneer our own lexicon, to better drive and express our ideas, while preserving our mother tongue as the primary language.
We also need to be ahead of the technology curve. Books are not just limited to print form; globally, digital technologies have propelled the growth of e-books and audio books, resulting in an avid reader base for these mediums. Creating content with a view to its compatibility with these new digital platforms should be another consideration for writers and publishers.
It goes without saying that the appropriate regulatory framework and supportive environment need to be in place to nurture the creative community in the Arab world and drive the growth of the publishing industry. It is also up to Arab writers to be at the forefront of this creative change, to be more daring and expansive in the topics they tackle and more open to collaboration with the publishing industry.
The Arabic publishing industry has a bright future, but in order to realise its full potential, it needs to be underpinned by a holistic publishing ecosystem; a rigorous, productive and collaborative relationship between writers, editors and publishers, one that is innovative and forward-looking in its approach to creating books.
Shaikha Latifa Bint Mohammad Bin Rashid Al Maktoum is Vice-Chairman of the Dubai Culture & Arts Authority.