23 March 09 | Chad W. Post

This post originally appeared at the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair blog.

Earlier today Ursula Holpp took our group of journalists on a quick tour of the fair, introducing us to some of the most influential and interesting Arab book market representatives. After spending even just a couple hours walking around, trying to figure out what particular publishers are up to. It’s easy to identify the cookbooks and books for kids, but others? Could be history, memoir, novels, poetry, philosophy . . . without knowing Arabic it’s more than a bit tricky and a bit daunting.

Anyway, Ursula did a fantastic job exposing us to a range of publishers and distributors–from the publisher of Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight to very literary presses to the Al Mutanabbi Bookshop, which is a fascinating outfit.

First off, for European/U.S. readers reading this, the idea of a “bookshop” in the Arab world is a bit different than how we use the term. From talking to Dawood Salabbai of Al Mutanabbi, it became clear that a “bookshop” was also a distributor, a book fair exhibitor, a wholesaler of sorts, and an actual book shop.

Al Mutanabbi is one of the largest bookshops in the Arab world, with sales in three continents and sixty countries. In addition to traveling to book festivals all over the world, Al Mutanabbi also has nineteen physical stores throughout the Gulf. (The home office is in Dubai.)

Educational books (for all ages, from the very young to the university folks) represent Al Mutanabbi’s primary business, along with medical books, and computer titles. One thing that’s interesting is that almost all of the titles are English imports, something that Dawood had a lot of strong opinions about. Rather than seeing English as an “invasive species” (a somewhat common view as English seems to be spoken virtually everywhere and hundreds of other languages are dying out), he sees it as a real unifier, or even as the mission behind his business. By helping people to learn English–through educational books, and other useful titles–he’s opening up the world, and providing people with a way in which to interact across boundaries and cultures.

Mona Henning of Dar Al-Muna had a somewhat different viewpoint. As a native Arabic speaker, she claimed that “knowing your mother tongue is always a treasure.” Her goal in launching Dar Al-Muna was to translate Scandinavian books (especially Swedish titles, since that’s where she lives and the publishing house is based, and children’s books) into Arabic, and make sure that the culture of this “small country” was represented and available to Arabic readers instead of the standard English/German/French titles.

Some of her publications include Astrid Lindgren’s Pippi Longstocking and Where the Wild Things Are. (To digress for a moment: in publishing Pippi Longstocking, Mona didn’t edit or change anything, and hasn’t run into any censorship or sales problems. However, when the book was first published in Germany, Pippi no longer carried a ”pistol” but rather a ”water gun.”) These titles are sold in a number of Arabic countries, through book fairs (she echoed the common complaint that there is no distribution system to make the books available throughout the Arab world), but most of the sales are to the 300,000+ Arab speakers living in Scandinavia along with a variety of libraries, schools, etc. And to provide an idea of the sales levels, for most books she prints around 3,000 copies, but with Pippi she’s sold over 35,000 copies to date.

One of her new experiments is the Arabic publication of the international Swedish superstar Henning Mankell (who will be at the ADIBF later in the week). Unlike the U.S., UK, and I suspect the rest of Europe, where Scandinavian crime fiction is the hot thing in translation, the Arabic world has yet to be exposed to crime fiction in general. This may sound like a slam dunk of a publishing idea (as does Twilight, but that’s a different post), but one thing that both Dawood Salabbai and Mona Henning both commented on was the lack of reading for pleasure in the Arab world. (Actually, a number of people mentioned this, and it seems intricately related to the presence of a ton of educational publishers, distributors, etc. displaying at the fair.)

Asked how sales for Mankell’s first two titles were going, she said that these had only been out for a couple weeks, and to “ask her next year.”

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