Who Should Travel to the Cairo Book Fair, and Why?

This was the first year that Pieter Steinz, director of the Dutch Foundation for Literature, and Maarten Valken, head of the foundation’s translation department, visited the Cairo International Book Fair:

From the new Souq al-Azbakeya tent. Credit: Elisabeth Jaquette. (Click for larger image.)
From the new Souq al-Azbakeya tent. Credit: Elisabeth Jaquette. (Click for larger image.)

Many Arab publishers bewail the state of the massive Cairo book fair. Although the fair, now in it’s 44th year, doesn’t always look so shiny in comparison to well-funded fairs in Abu Dhabi and Sharjah, Steinz and Valken found much to appreciate.

“We were very enthusiastic about the fair,” Steinz said in an email interview, “which was much more relaxed and reader-friendly than the one we normally visit in the Arab world, in Abu Dhabi. It was a good meeting point of professional booksellers and a book-buying audience.”

Steinz said that they held more than two dozen informal meetings, mostly at the publishers’ stands, and also did a round-table discussion for an audience of about 25 people, “who asked us about copyright regulations and the benefits Dutch literature has to offer the Arab world.”

The round-table discussion was lively, particularly as regards copyright law, which Steinz called “one of the sacred cows of Western publishing.” And “it was also made clear to us that with printings of a thousand copies max, one could not ask an Arab publisher more than a small sum for the rights.”

He also noted that the audience, and some publishers, were interested in the works of potential Dutch Nobel Prize winners.

Why go to Cairo when you can just go to Abu Dhabi?

Steinz: The Cairo fair is “part meeting point for publishers, part book market, part literary festival (or rather, fairground), which makes it unique and gives it an advantage over  [other fairs].”

Valken: “The benefits are that there are more publishers, and especially more small and independent and new ones.” Also “the many families and children visiting, and the curiosity of the Arab publishers.”

Steinz noted that he felt regional publishers, plus organizations like the Dutch Foundation, would get the most out of the Cairo fair. “I don’t have the feeling that many business deals are being concluded in Cairo, so the fair isn’t necessary to go to for foreign publishers — though with any book deal (or discussion about translations) it is of course good to see the publishers in person.”

Valken said that representatives from organizations like the Dutch Foundation wouldn’t necessarily be able to surf the fair on their own: “you really need somebody like [publisher] Sherif [Bakr] to be able to find out who is who and how to reach them.”

Valken added that, for improvements, he would like to see numbers on the publishers’ stands, the interpreters for hire through the book fair. Also, he said: “The official program of round tables should be nearer to the fair halls.”