The report, commissioned by the Emirates Publishers Association (and co-sponsored by the Sharjah International Book Fair), mostly concerns itself with the number of books being moved around — rather than publishers’ individual anecdotes of success or frustration. The publisher who sent me the report felt that some of the numbers should be taken with a pinch of salt; nonetheless, it makes an interesting read.
First, the report — and its existence — underlines how highly books and reading culture are rated in many quarters in the Emirates. A lot of money, sweat, and effort has been put into the development of the two big book fairs (Sharjah and Abu Dhabi) as well as other ambitious reading initiatves. You can see this as either beautiful or sinister, but there it is: Emiratis have put a lot of effort into books and publishing, particularly in the last five years.
However, as the report noted, this book fever is not necessarily generalized throughout the nation:
As a recent yet still unpublished survey on reading habits at the Sharjah International Book Fair in 2011…highlighted, reading, education and the acquisition of knowledge are embraced by the local younger generation much less enthusiastically than, for example, their peers in India, China or Korea.
Nonetheless, the report said that “all indicators…point to an increase in reading books, with a particularly large increase in reading books in English, as well as the strong impact of pirated books, both print and digital.”
Pirated books were not seen as an opportunity in this report — although they might be good evidence of reading culture, or a culture that is trying to access more books — as the report’s focus was on developing a book business. There is no specific detail about piracy in the UAE, but the report notes that “the impact of piracy has been so strong that it has reached the point of destroying the economy of books in the leading Arab book publishing countries, such as Lebanon. Several publishers and retailers interviewed for this report, including Bashar Chebaro of Arab Scientific Publishers Inc.…described a situation where any title that is successfully released triggers a flood of illegal copies, both digital (in the form of a digital scan of the printed edition turned into a PDF document) and in bootlegged printed versions, within a matter of days.”
But despite this, the report as a whole was optimistic about traditional book production, asserting that, “Foreign language imports, mostly English books, outnumber the Arab production… [yet] both markets are growing continuously and at a significant annual rate—well in the double digits in both title numbers and value.”
The question of which books are available in the Emirates and how these are selected was not addressed. The report estimates that the number of titles currently in print in Arabic is around 500,000. They say that, “The largest Arab online book store, Neel WaFurat…currently has a database of about 400,000 titles. According to Saleh Chebaro, Neel WaFurat’s owner and founder, this represents roughly 80 percent of all available titles, as it excludes most books from publishers in the Maghreb countries, Mauritania, Sudan and Iraq.”
So 500,000. How many of these 500,000 make it to the UAE? Surely, no one wants all 500,000, but an opaqueness surrounding current censorship rules means that sometimes books aren’t stocked just because no one knows if it’s banned.
The report spends little time on these very big distribution problems and doesn’t mention censorship or other restrictions, which make distribution between different Arab countries so nettlesome, as well as restricting internal development and creativity.
However, the report does suggest that greater transparency would be a boon:
As each title exhibited at the SIBF must be registered in advance, the fair is in a position to publish a directory of all these titles annually as a catalogue in English and in Arabic on its website.
Furthermore, all the information collected by the regulatory bodies could be used, by making it publicly available, to create a database of available titles, plus detailed references on all aspects of the sector, resulting in a highly valuable source of business information. The availability of reliable information on the industry in all its aspects, at its local basis, and in its international connections, is recognized as one key driver in the development of the industry overall, in the UAE and as the future hub that can emerge in the UAE.