The business of books: ‘the physical book is a thing of beauty’

African literature, Lord of the Rings and George Orwell, Director David Perry shares reading tastes as richly diverse as the range of visionary speakers lined up for the first Dubai International Publishing Conference

This is the first Dubai International Publishing Conference – how will it be distinct from the Literature Festival and what are you excited about most?

The Conference will run alongside the Festival, and is being presented by the Emirates Literature Foundation in partnership with The Executive Council of Dubai but it has the same vision of enriching our reading culture. Rather than hearing from authors talking about their books and their writing, it’s much more about how publishers can engage with their audience – the customers who buy the books, in whatever format – and the different approaches and techniques that are available. What’s exciting is the range of visionary speakers, who all have unique insights to offer into the world of publishing for consumers in the 21st century.

What are the most intriguing developments and trends taking place in publishing in Arabic?

There is an increasingly wide and deep range of publishing happening across the Arab world, with lots of new writers emerging, particularly from Syria, to find a market not only in the ‘home market’ of the Arab-speaking countries, but also in the wider diaspora, and into translation in English. There is also a distinct body of work by Arab writers publishing in French, which we’ll be hearing about directly from Charif Majdalani.

What are your thoughts on publishing in a place where over 200 nationalities live? What kind of challenges and opportunities does that present to publishers?

The challenge is, that potentially you have a fragmented market and don’t really know what to publish. Do you aim at the English-speaking expats? Or the Emiratis? On the plus side it’s a highly educated population, often with more disposable income so it should be the ideal consumer environment – you really have to make sure you have a product that people will want, and make it easy for them to find it, either in print or electronically; Download is the place to be for the busy consumer, whose demands boil down to now, now, now.

What is the publishing industry’s responsibility to promote a reading culture and how is this being achieved in Dubai and the UAE?

It’s clearly in the industry’s best interests to encourage reading – publishing is a business, and needs to make money to survive. It’s about more than that, though, as anyone who works in publishing will tell you – it’s also about making access to quality work available to all, which involves engaging with schools, university departments, and big public events like the excellent book fairs here in the Emirates. By sending along their staff, authors, offering special prices, and engaging with the Literature Festival, publishers encourage people to get into the reading habit. Some international publishers based in the UAE now publish schoolbooks in Arabic, responding to concerns expressed at the highest levels about the overall standard of Arabic teaching in schools. Sponsoring prizes for the various writing and poetry competitions, entries for which grow in quantity and quality every year, gets young people directly involved, as well.

Have more entrepreneurs started up publishing companies with the advent of the UAE’s new national reading law? How can they stand out in this growing market, and attract new talent?

It’s difficult to identify specific examples of start-ups prompted by the new National Reading Law, but what is certain is that this excellent initiative creates an environment in which publishers should flourish. There is certainly an encouraging number of newer set-ups, for example Booklava, Flagship and Kuttab, who are looking to engage with their public in more innovative ways.  I think innovation is the key to standing out from the crowd – be active on social media, and find your voice.

Are there authors and books that have changed the way that you see the world? 

That really is a tough question. As a young man in my early twenties I read all of George Orwell’s works, which made me think deeply about war, injustice, and the individual’s place in the world. (Homage to Catalonia especially) On the lighter side, the work of Irish writer Flann O’Brien (The Third Policeman, The Dalkey Archive) helped me see the funny side.

As the theme of Lit Fest is ‘journeys’ – which book do you believe takes its reader on a fantastic journey without leaving the house?

Look no further than The Lord of the Rings.

What is on your reading list at present? How much do you read and do you prefer physical or digital books?

I'm somewhat bitten by African literature at the moment. I’ve just finished Chigozie Obioma’s The Fisherman, a fascinating and disturbing tale of four brothers growing up in a Nigerian village, and will try Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, who everyone says is terrific. I’ll stick with print – the physical book is a thing of beauty, it doesn’t run out of battery, and you can lend it to a friend.