International Booksellers Conference highlights ‘identity creation’
as a key strategy for running successful bookstores
Nadia Wassef, the pioneer of Egypt’s modern bookstores, tells 385 booksellers from 56 nations at the Sharjah Book Authority event that they need to know who they are and what they stand for
Sharjah, May 18, 2022
The second and concluding day of the debut edition of the world’s first International Booksellers Conference organised in Sharjah, opened with the inspiring story of a brave and passionate bookseller from Cairo, Egypt, Nadia Wassef.
During a keynote speech at the event organised by the Sharjah Book Authority (SBA) on the side-lines of the ongoing 13th Sharjah Children’s Reading Festival (SCRF), the owner and co-founder of Diwan, a pioneering chain of modern bookstores in Egypt, Wassef told the 385 booksellers and publishing professionals in the audience that the main reason behind the success of Diwan is because the bookstore was raised and developed like a living entity with a unique identity and personality of its own.
“We had guts, dreams, and our mother’s prayers, but what we didn’t have was a warehouse, inventory or a business plan,” Wassef said remising the unconventional beginnings of Diwan with her sister and a dear friend.
A bookstore with a café at its heart on the banks of the Nile river, Diwan with books in Arabic, English, German and French, grew fast opening 10 outlets across Cairo run by a strong workforce of 150 employees. “We were a commercial space where we didn’t practice commerce”, noted Wassef narrating how Diwan survived the global pandemic.
“While determination, experimentation and resilience helped us, what was critical to our survival was the unique identity Diwan had created in its 20 years of existence,” noted Nadia, strongly emphasising to the audience that “as booksellers, we need to know who we are and what we stand for because if no one knows who you are and what you represent, then you will not be able to capture the customer’s attention.”
How can booksellers build solid partnerships with publishers, authors, festivals and schools?
Continuing with its overarching theme of exploring ways to better streamline industry efforts to advance the book business ecosystem regionally and globally, one of day 2’s discussions witnessed a diversity of publishing ecosystem players from India, Nigeria and Georgia sharing insights in how they support booksellers.
Tina Mamulashvili, the managing director of Tblisi-based Bakur Sulakauri Publishing, who also runs close to 10 bookstores in Georgia, noted: “Booksellers are our biggest customers. We support bookstores by publishing special newsletters, marketing materials like bookmarks and shopping bags; we prepare the displays for our new launches sometimes and even design bookstore windows”.
Lola Shoneyin, who wears many hats as a publisher, a bookseller and the organiser of the popular Ake Book Festival in Nigeria, said her experience as a secondary level teacher was invaluable to her career in publishing. “The way we work with publishers is that when we organise the Ake Book Festival, we take authors on school visits. We also take books as gifts to distribute to school children after negotiating the maximum discount with publishers to be able to give as many books as possible to students.”
For Gaurav Shrinagesh, CEO, Penguin, Random House India & South-East Asia, publishers can be ready to add value to booksellers only when they truly understand who they speak to and who are their target audiences. “As booksellers, you have the greatest opportunity of truly knowing your customer,” he told the booksellers in attendance.
Co-founder of India’s first multi-city international children’s literature festival, Bookaroo, Swati Roy, said the idea for the festival was born from their independent bookstore, Eureka’s success in getting children together for storytelling sessions and other cultural activities.
“In five years, we realised that it was possible to take these activities to a festival level”, she said adding that much of Bookaroo’s success comes from the support it receives from publishers and other bookstores. “We work with publishers to create the festival programme; we work with booksellers well in advance to make sure book stocks for the festival are all ready to be brought in. Even for our bookstore, all events we curate are done in collaboration with publishers.”