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Sat 31 Jan 2009 04:00 AM

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Arab book trade is game for growth

Claudia Kaiser, general manager of KITAB, Abu Dhabi's annual book fair outlines her future plans.  

With Abu Dhabi's annual book fair looming, Claudia Kaiser, general manager of KITAB, the organiser behind the event, outlines the emirate’s plans to become a publishing powerhouse.

KITAB is a joint venture between Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture and Heritage (ADACH) and the Frankfurt Book Fair. How does the region's book trade compare to that seen in the rest of the world?

There's a fairly big gap. The Arab book market is very segmented, spread across many different countries. There's not a lot of readership here - reading isn't a favourite pastime of most people in the Arab world - there is some difficulty with distribution and different countries have their own prices, paper quality and translations. In terms of book selling, it's a very old-fashioned market.

What role have book fairs traditionally played in the local publishing industry?

There are a lot of book fairs in the Arab world; every country has at least one. And these fairs are used to primarily sell books. Publishers will take a stand to sell to the public, and when the fair is over, the merchandise is moved to another book fair and the process begins again.

There is no concept of creating a platform where you can exchange licences, knowledge, and have seminars on the future of the industry. It is just about selling. Abu Dhabi wants to create a platform that offers wider opportunities, to really become a publishing hub for the region.

How is KITAB tackling these challenges?

To really bridge the Arab markets, you need good knowledge of the markets, with statistical data identifying what the problems are. We need to unify the market, and one means is by creating an online database in Abu Dhabi of all Arab books in print, and linking it to a good distribution system.

This would help to streamline the trade - the majority of developed publishing countries have their own databases. We're in the first steps- there have been initiatives in Saudi and Lebanon to create something similar, and we're building on those.

Why are so few international publishers active in the region?

One of the reasons international publishers are not active in this region is copyright infringement, an issue that is quite widespread. It's a big problem and hard to track. It ranges from a publisher copying a book and selling it, or translating and publishing it without buying the rights. Or they buy the rights, and agree to print 3,000 copies, but then print 5,000 instead.

A lot of [publishing] houses are afraid of selling their author rights to a publisher here and then seeing them exploited.

But there is certainly more interest in the Arab market. The book fair is completely booked out, so there is obviously a demand from this market, and also from foreign publishers to explore the opportunities here and to discover Arab authors.

How are you cracking down on copyright infringement?

Well, there are publishers who don't do it, and are making efforts to stamp out piracy. The Arab Publishers Association is working hard to eliminate it. We can only facilitate and help - at the Abu Dhabi book fair we offer seminars on copyright to educate local publishers, to help them understand the policies on the international scene.

We are supplementing this with a programme called ‘Spotlight on Rights'; if an Arab publisher wants to buy a right from a foreign publishing house, or vice versa, they can attend the book fair and apply for this initiative. They may be eligible for a subsidy of $1,000 for each right, which is helping to reduce piracy.

ADACH is also running the Kalima programme, which provides funding for book translations. Arab publishers can apply for the subsidy.

Are there cultural difficulties in translating foreign books for the Arab market?

Translation is always a difficult issue. But I think publishers are aware there may be some censorship [of text], in Saudi Arabia particularly. Publishers that have sold rights previously in China or India are generally aware that there are some topics they'll have to tackle if they want to be published.

What can visitors expect from the upcoming 2009 Abu Dhabi International Book Fair?

We've worked to create programmes both professionally and culturally, to attract foreign and Arab publishers.

We have some big-name authors: Swedish crime writer Henning Mankell, Indian authors Amitav Ghosh and Shashi Tharoor; Rajaa Al Sanea, author of Girls of Riyadh and Elias Khoury, the Lebanese writer.

There will be lots of readings, and we'll have a discussion forum. There will also be a cooking festival, and several antiquarian booksellers, who will be selling old Islamic and western manuscripts, all very valuable.

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