Saturday, March 21, 2009

A Book Fair in a Land of Oil

Yesterday the 19th Abu Dhabi International Book Fair wrapped up after six days of cultural events and professional programs, children's activities, book signings, and panel discussions, all staged inside the National Exhibition Centre at the outskirts of the capital. Aisle after aisle of colorful stands crammed with books and other publishing-related merchandise ran the length of the main hall, a space whose exposed pipework, unrelenting lighting, and lofty ceilings contrive to remind one of an airport hanger.

Embedded within this principal area were smaller venues dedicated to the fair's many sideshow offerings: a brightly clad children's corner where youngsters could make bookmarks and watch puppet shows; several forums for seminars on everything from translation to digital publishing; a high-tech soundproof box designed to give performing poets an illusion of solitude as they recited their work for an audience listening through headphones outside; a miniature fair-inside-a-fair for antique books, maps, and prints, many selling for thousands of dollars (the sale of the world's third-largest Quran here was one of the fair's most publicized transactions); and a stylish show kitchen where twice a day a rotating lineup of chefs demonstrated their culinary techniques to the public.

My own part in this collage of activity was to staff the press center, after having spent the last month helping out at the office of the fair's organizers. The ADIBF is run by a company called Kitab ('book' in Arabic), a joint venture project between the Abu Dhabi government's Authority for Culture and Heritage and the Frankfurt Book, which was established a year and a half ago to help bring the existing AD book fair up to speed with industry trends and, more importantly, to put Abu Dhabi on the cultural map as a publishing hub in the Arab Gulf.

The first of these goals has certainly been accomplished, and with aplomb--the fair was a model of professionalism and class, with neatly labeled stands, a bulky catalog of over 600 exhibitors, multilingual cordless translation earpieces available at every lecture, and an endless supply of free wireless internet and coffee (the bread and butter of any journalist) for the media.

The second goal is more problematic. No matter how much money the Abu Dhabi government is willing to divert to publishing enterprises here, whether they are startup operations just getting off the ground or local branches of major international publishing conglomerates, the publishing industry in the Arab world suffers from several significant ills that money alone won't fix.

The distribution network here is woefully underdeveloped for both the local and regional markets. In Cairo, for example, each major Arabic publishing house in the city sells its books only at its own bookstores, while differing censorship laws, customs regulations, the lack of a formal ISBN system, and general disorganization have typically impeded the migration of books across national borders.

Another problem is the rampant disrespect for copyright law that plagues the Middle East, whether manifested in the cheaply bound copies of AUC Press manuscripts fished from the trash bin that used to appear at sidewalk bookstalls in Cairo or the branded logos freely slapped onto everything from shoes to soda to lend them an air of first-world authenticity. It is difficult for Abu Dhabi to attract top authors and publishers to settle here when there’s no guarantee that their books won’t turn up in a back alley selling for half the market price.

Finally, it’s incredibly difficult for authors to make money off their books in the Arab world. The fact that many publishing houses here lack a standardized system of advances and royalties for ensuring that authors profit off their work, coupled with the effects of the two factors mentioned above--the absence of distribution networks and widespread piracy--means that even the most successful authors rarely earn a living from the sale of their books. Of course this doesn’t dissuade many creative minds in the Arab world from continuing to write anyway, plugging away late at night after a day spent practicing dentistry (like Alaa Al Aswany, author of The Yacoubian Building) or some other mundane profession. But without the possibility of financial returns to encourage them, no doubt many would-be authors turn away from writing and opt instead for more lucrative careers, and who can blame them?

The Abu Dhabi government is not unaware of the obstacles it faces in turning the emirate into the global publishing hub it envisages. Many of the informational sessions and panel discussions at the book fair focused on just these issues, and next year, in a bid to show its commitment to cracking down on intellectual property theft, the capital will play host to the annual International Publishers Association copyright symposium. But even for this country, which has built its reputation on defying predictions and accomplishing the unthinkable, there is a long way still to go.