Independent publishers share successful strategies of weathering pandemic disruptions at 11th SIBF Publishers Conference
Second day of conference also hears from a trio of African writers about empowering the content industry with their powerful, unique voices
Sharjah, November 1, 2021
The undulating spirit of independent publishers and the current renaissance in indigenous storytelling were celebrated on the second day of the 11th Publishers Conference held in Expo Centre Sharjah today (Monday), ahead of the 40th Sharjah International Book Fair (SIBF).
The second day of the conference was attended by Bodour Al Qasimi, President, International Publishers Association (IPA); HE Ahmed bin Rakkad Al Ameri, Chairman of the Sharjah Book Authority (SBA); Tanzanian novelist Abdulrazak Gurnah who was recently awarded the 2021 Nobel Prize for Literature; and publishing professionals representing the global industry.
Moderated by Porter Anderson, Editor-in-Chief, Publishing Perspectives, the session titled ‘The Independent Publishing Boom: Generating Book Sales’, turned the spotlight on the innovative ways independent publishers reached out to their readers during the pandemic.
Emmanuelle Collas, Publisher, Galaade Emmanuelle Collas, France, described how the Cameroon-born writer Djaïli Amadou Amal’s multi-award-winning novel, The Impatient Ones, took its shape and form during the Covid-19 lockdown last year. “It was a waiting period for most people but for us – a small publishing house – it was also a period marked by strong determination, energy and humour. We decided not to leave anything to chance and to keep fighting.”
Michel Moushabeck, Founder of US-based Interlink Publishing, revealed how a quick adaptation to new business models saw the company wind up with an8% increase in sales in 2020, and is currently on track to double that in 2021.
He explained: “We shifted focus early on during the pandemic towards expanding our direct-to-consumer sales which helped us stay afloat. Our newsletters with book recommendations resonated with our readers, and we engaged with people and non-profits in our community to support worthy causes. In addition, author talk sessions on Zoom democratised the book tour experience, allowing us a wider audience outreach.”
The most successful strategy, he added, was the support extended to the independent bookstores to help them thrive during the pandemic.
Khalid Al Nassri, publisher of Milan-based Al-Mutawassit, which focuses on contemporary Arabic literature and poetry described the pandemic and subsequent lockdown as a “wake-up call”.
Describing how a poetry night he organised on the Zoom platform attracted a 10,000 plus audience, he said: “The lockdown was a time for introspection but also a time to seize opportunities to amend our publishing processes and adapt it to the new situation. We continued to publish books even if it couldn’t reach the reader – as a symbolic gesture to show that we must all carry on.”
The pandemic dealt a blow to the African publishing industry that is largely driven by an overcrowded textbook market, said Samuel Kolawole, Managing Director, University Press Plc, Nigeria. “As markets elsewhere leveraged on their digital strengths, we were paralysed due to our limited tech reach. We could not adapt to working from home and thus missed digital opportunities other publishers leveraged.”
He added: “Our focus now is to diversify and build our capacities and skills to be able to respond positively in such unprecedented circumstances.”
In celebration of the unique African identity
Moderated by Angela Wachuka, Co-Founder and Partner, Book Bunk, Kenya, the session titled, ‘Decolonising Our Stories: The Growing Influence of African Authors’, explored the concept of ‘decolonising’ African literature as it enters new markets. A growing community of African authors are telling their stories through their own lenses. The session featured three Africa writers whose works are being translated into Arabic by UAE-based Kalimat Group.
Petina Gappah, Zimbabwean author of Out of Darkness, Shining Light, hailed the move by Kalimat saying, “This is exactly the kind of decolonisation we need – we need to decolonise the languages we think are important; and decolonise publishing centres we assume are more strategic.”
Stating that decolonising should not be a box-ticking exercise for diversity, Gappah added: “What is exciting about the growing influence of African authors is that we have now begun to look inward and are initiating conversations with fellow writers on the continent.”
Calling on African writers to not give up on their publishing rights, Lola Shoneyin, author and director of Nigeria’s Ake Arts and Book Festival, said: “For decolonising to work and for Africa to become empowered as a market, we need to retain our rights as writers. It is with this in mind that we launched One Read, a virtual book club that enables our people access to books authored by African writers.”
Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor, Kenyan author of The Dragonfly Sea, said: “African writing is a 1,500-year-old feat – it is not ‘emerging’ now.”
Describing how global media networks are looking to Africa to satiate the need for diverse content, she said: “The new generation is not limited by old cartographies; through them we find new places of shared imagination, shared values and shared curiosities. The shift in interest towards the Swahili seas lends itself to a vibrant energy that makes new ideas and stories possible.”