18 March 09 | Chad W. Post

What’s interesting to me about the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair is how it manages to address a number of different constituencies in a variety of ways. Whenever I attend a book fair, I always end up placing it into some imaginary book fair constellation: BEA is for booksellers and publishers, London is all about rights, Frankfurt is rights too, but also cosplay kids and too much time in hotel bars, Guadalajara is all about the crowds of readers, and Buenos Aires is about being open to the public till 4 a.m.

But Abu Dhabi—which has been around for a couple decades, but only in 2007 created a partnership with the Frankfurt book fair—is in a situation where it has to provide a service to publishers looking to buy and sell rights, it has to cater to the public, and it has to work to professionalize the Arab publishing community. To accomplish this, the mornings are packed with trade activities, seminars, etc., and the evenings are devoted to the cultural programming, including appearances by authors, piano recitals, etc.

Which is cool, and seems to be working pretty well. Granted, the first day was very quiet, but today was crowded—with kids, with general readers—and buzzing like your typical book fair.

Obviously I’m here to write about the goings on at the fair, the special programs, the announcements, etc., but as a publisher I also appreciate the chance to learn a bit more about the Arab book market. Which publishers do what, how the distribution market works (or doesn’t), etc. (Here’s a post about a tour the journalists took around the book fair.)

Related to the post about the Salzburg Seminar and various publishing markets, one thing that’s clear is that the Arabic book scene is totally different than both Europe and the U.S.

Even to speak of the “Arab publishing scene” is a bit of a paradox. Sure, Arabic publishers buy rights to sell the books throughout the Arabic-speaking world, but there’s no systematic distribution system to make these books available in all of the 20+ Arabic-speaking countries. Instead, publishers distribute locally, and travel internationally to book festivals to hawk their wares.

And then there’s the whole problem of pleasure reading. According to basically everyone, although there are some great Arabic literary works, the general populous doesn’t really read for fun. So there are a ton of educational presses (and distributors/booksellers) that are displaying books here (more on that on the ADIBF blog tomorrow), and the publishers of Henning Mankell and Twilight are cautious about projecting how many copies they’ll be able to sell.

But more than that, there’s a sort of “free-for-all” mentality—or at least there has been. Copyright infringement is pretty ingrained into the system, and apparently there are a great number of publishers who completely ignore the idea of copyright, reprinting best-selling books that aren’t available in their country (part of the distribution problem), or simply figuring that they can just publish whatever they’d like. Which led, last year, to a number of publishers being denied the right to exhibit at the fair. It’s also led to the creation of the “Spotlight on Rights.” In order to encourage a greater understanding of rights related issues, there was a special seminar about copyright this afternoon, and a special granting program whereby publishers negotiating a rights purchase can receive a $1,000 grant. (There was one publisher who signed on 10 books thanks to this program.)

So in contrast to my over-simplified representation that in the American/U.K. market for translations the biggest problem is the lack of production, and that in the European market the biggest point of discussion is the working conditions of the translator, one could add the Arab market and their problem with acquiring rights in the first place . . .

There are a lot of translation figures thrown around at the book fair (including one statement that Spain translated more books in one year than the Arab world had in the past 1,000), but based on the conversations I’ve had and what I’ve seen, there is a healthy number of titles making their way into Arabic every year. A couple foundations are really making a difference with this, helping subsidize (and in one case, select) the titles that are published in translation.

So although I’d love to find the next great Arabic novel while I’m here, I think this really is just a first step, a chance to start building a network, figure out which presses to pay attention to, etc.

In the meantime, I’m just enjoying the general program . . . So far, every night has featured some great evening events, beginning with the International Prize for Arabic Fiction award ceremony on Monday, which I referred to in passing earlier as the first dry publishing party I ever attended. It was an interesting event—and fantastic award that really does help bring more international attention to Arabic literature—although my personal favorite moment was Yousef Ziedan’s hours long answer to Ed Nawotka’s question about how his writing was influenced by the time he worked for the Alexandria Library.

Last night, we had the opportunity to attend a special “Taste of Literature” event at the uber-swanky garden (complete with pond and mini-waterfall) at the Hilton. Featuring three international chefs—Chef Wan, KC Walberg, and Yvan Cadiou—the food was excellent (as was the wine—wine!), although the 80s Ameri-pop muzak (and the dancing that accompanied it) was maybe a bit off the mark. (Seriously, hearing “Everything I Do, I Do it For You” and Dirty Dancing‘s “(I’ve Had) The Time of My Life” brought back a lot of 8th grade dance memories. And wtf? How do these songs end up—in muzak version no less—in the United Arab Emirates? Of course, at dinner, when the Filipino trio performing in the restaurant dropped a little George Michael at our table, I came to truly understand the implications of globalization.)

Tonight though . . . Visiting the Emirates Palace is something else. It’s a pretty showy place that initially reminded me of Vegas, but like, a bit more real, but that nevertheless is a gigantic, impressive structure. And the ceremony for the Sheikh Zayed Book Awards (or Sheikh Zayed’s Book Awards), which is one of the richest literary awards in the world, were very cool. Slickly produced montage videos, an orchestra, a gorgeous auditorium, all added up to a memorable event. Seven awards were handed out, including Dr. Sa’ad Abdulaziz Maslouh for Translation, Jamal Al Ghitani for Literature, and Dar Al Masriah Al Lubnaniah for Best Publishing and Distribution House. Unfortunately both Children’s Literature and Best Technology in the Field of Culture were withheld this year because “the advisory council decided the nominations received this year have not fulfilled the necessary criteria.” Maybe next year . . .

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