Report from Abu Dhabi Book Fair 2011

The book fair in Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates, has been a vibrant regional book market for more than 20 years, providing annual access to a wide range of books and booksellers to students, teachers, and libraries across the UAE and the larger Middle East/North Africa (MENA) region. In recent years, in partnership with the Frankfurt Book Fair, it has become truly the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair (ADIBF) and has sought to increase the book industry trade business that is conducted in its halls.

In 2011, the organizers offered a free stand to AAUP members in order to increase the presence of Western academic publishers at the Fair. They also provided airfare in order to have an AAUP staff member represent the participating presses and speak on the Fair's Professional Programme. AAUP and the 14 members* who listed titles joined more than 850 publishing houses from 58 countries, displaying more than half a million books combined. The professional and cultural programs offered attendees more than 200 events and panels.

This was certainly best described as an exploratory trip, a chance for AAUP to get a first-hand (if only partial) view of this increasingly important region in the global book industry. AAUP President Richard Brown attended the Fair as well, after visiting the Georgetown University campus in Doha, Qatar. We were both curious to learn more about the distribution networks in the region, trade expectations, and the subject interests of both library and rights buyers in the Arab world.

Both Richard and I noticed that it was difficult to schedule meetings in advance of the Fair. Once there, it became clear that personal introductions were often necessary for first-time visitors to make headway. Beatrice Stauffer, ADIBF Sales Manager, and Janet Fritsch and Jon Malinowski of Combined Book Exhibit (organizers of the American collective stand where we were located) were all extraordinarily helpful on this front. Beatrice was able to point out the booksellers (bookstore chains and distribution networks, often the suppliers to universities and libraries) who would be most interested in US academic titles, as well as UAE library and cultural contacts, and Jon and Janet often facilitated an introduction.

Our experience confirmed what was said in a number of helpful "doing business in the region" sessions, that personal contacts may be as important as known reputation when seeking MENA trade relationships. A European publisher dourly shared his view that some Western publishers may believe they have regional distribution, but if they have not met and cultivated the contact, their books may rarely receive attention. Without the personal knowledge and relationship, a local publisher and distributor warned, a regional agent may see a publishers' availability through international wholesalers (YBP, Dawson, and Coutts were the three most often mentioned) as being cause to deprioritize a list.

As the Fair's five days progressed, meetings grew friendlier. The panel I spoke on served as an excellent introduction, particularly to my fellow panelists, who included the libraries advisor of the Abu Dhabi National Library and the Collections Development Director of the UAE University Libraries. The roundtable was very informative: while I spoke briefly about the AAUP, our membership profile, and some of the institutional relationships presses have in the MENA region (branch campuses, regional offices, and museum affiliations among them) and Kai-Henning Gerlach of the eponymous Berlinbased Middle East studies publisher spoke on the subject of Western/MENA trade expectations; David Hirsch of the National Library and Rashed Abdulrahman Ali of UAE University outlined the subject collections areas in which the booming higher education sector and academic libraries are interested, and Mahmoud Faroud of MERIC (The Middle East Readers Information Center) gave a broad introduction to the academic publishing opportunities and realities in the region.

Faroud expressed the opinion that the region is often misunderstood by publishers, that the view of a common language can overshadow the cultural, economic, and trade differences between different sub-regions: the Levant, the Gulf, and Northern Africa. He also stressed the dominance of English as a second language and the booming education market as just the beginning of opportunities for global academic publishers. A generation that has been educated in fields that rely on English texts are reading in new areas of interest now, in both English and Arabic.

Abdulrahman Ali then shared a thorough overview of the UAE University's collection development strategy. Database subscriptions, of course, comprise a large part of the budget. Book collections depend on curriculum needs, faculty requests, and discipline allocations, and up to 10% of book acquisitions may be general interest titles. English language (and some French and other foreign language) works are most likely to be collected in medicine, technology, engineering, and other STM fields. HSS fields and literature are traditionally taught in Arabic, and their collections lean heavily to Arabic language works in those areas. However, Abdulrahman Ali mentioned that for academic works generally, he's not looking for Arabic translations and would often prefer to procure the original text. In terms of distribution, while he agreed that bookstores and book fairs were excellent sales channels within the region, he clarified that for libraries English-language books are easy to find. His primary goal in visiting the many book fairs throughout the Middle East is to purchase Arab books.

In the AAUP booth, with close to 200 titles on display, we were also able to get a partial sense of what interested individual readers at the Fair. Browsers included teachers, students, researchers, booksellers, translators, and librarians. The most attention-grabbing title by far was Hubbard and Duggan's The Aid Trap (Columbia, 2009). Also popular were books on the Palestinian conflict, reference works, and political science and business books. Surprisingly, several translated, Arabic-to-English, novels on display were also popular with passers-by. While at first I wondered at this, it dawned on me that I knew exactly why many college-age browsers were attracted—likely for the same reason I've kept a Spanish translation of Hamlet all these years. While the ADIBF organizers are working to build a greater trade business at the Fair, most attendees are individuals seeking to purchase physical books.

It was an eye-opening professional trip, on which we were able to glean more direct knowledge of the trade networks and collection interests of the region. We are not yet certain whether the Association will return in future years or be offered the opportunity to organize a cooperative booth as we did in 2011. But it seems likely that opportunities will increase for university presses in the region, as the higher education sector grows and Western universities expand their presence.

Personally, the strangest thing about the trip was how distant the current events of the surrounding region seemed from the Abu Dhabi expo center. While foot traffic was reportedly down from the previous year, and a few companies spoke of representatives who had needed to cancel—often those traveling from Egypt or through Oman—this was only a quiet undercurrent at the Fair. The political changes and unrest were most directly addressed in a panel titled "Arabs and the Freedom to Publish." Asked if he saw a path to end state censorship in the Arab world, speaker Muhammad Adnan Salem, General Manager of Dar El Fikr and head of the Syrian Publishers Association, spoke hopefully of the young generation that is bringing change to the region. Seeing the end of such censorship as a goal that youth embrace, he told us of once asking state authorities— come to look for copies of a banned book—if they would declare all of his books "wrong," so that more people would want to read them.

*AAUP member presses represented in our ADIBF 2011 stand were: Athabasca University Press, Baylor University Press, Beacon Press, Brookings Institution Press, University of Chicago Press, Columbia University Press, Fordham University Press, Georgetown University Press, Harvard University Press, The Museum of Modern Art, New York University Press, Syracuse University Press, Wesleyan University Press, Yale University Press.

Brenna McLaughlin
Electronic & Strategic Initiatives Director, AAUP