“Sharjah has become a must-go-place for publishers, scouts and agents”

By Ed Nawotka, for Publishers Weekly Special Supplement for SIBF 2018. [November 2018]

“Sharjah has become a must-go place for many publishers, scouts and agents, like Frankfurt, London, Guadalajara or Beijing. We come nearly every year.”

Pierre Astier, French literary agent

[Image: The Mehlis Report, one of the 1,152 books which have received a Sharjah Translation Grant]

One of the most impactful programs of the Sharjah Book Authority has fostered is its ongoing grant support for publishers and agents looking to buy and sell rights while attending the Sharjah International Book Fair. Established in 2011, the grant program exists to facilitate cross-cultural exchange and offers  funding to assist Arab and foreign publishers in the translation of literary works. The support is generous, with as much as $4,000 available for general titles and $1,500 for children’s books. Overall, the fund supports up to $300,000 of grants each year.

Since its launch, more than 260 books have been translated with the support of the Authority, covering a wide range of subjects and genres.  The largest percentage of books have been works for children (44%), followed by fiction (34%) and nonfiction (17%). Other works translated have included young adult books, cookbooks and political works. Among the scores of publishers who have received grants include some of the most prestigious in the world, such as Al Arabi Publishing, Arab Scientific Publishers, Grupo Planeta, American University of Cairo Press, Interlink Publishing, Carl Hanser Verlag, Dar Al Adab, and Dar Al-Saqi, among others.

This past year, 1,611 Translation Grant applications were submitted, representing a 21% increase over 2016, when 767 applications were made. Publishers who participated in last year’s fair as sellers included France’s Actes Sud, Macedonia’s Bata Press, Brazil’s Companhia das Letras, Indonesia’s Gramedia Publishers, People’s Literature Publishing House of China, the U.K.’s Bloomsbury Publishing and many more.

Oyunchimeg Bayarsaikhan, the copyright manager of Nepko Publishing in Mongolia has attended three years in row, having first been introduced to fair by Nermin Mollaoğlu of Istanbul’s Kalem Agency. “I had never been to the big fairs, like Frankfurt or London, before, so I really embraced the matchmaking opportunities,” she says. In that first year, Nepko was awarded nine grants to support their publication of books from Hungary, Denmark, Russia, Spain, Turkey and Belgium. “I was most amazed,” says Bayarsaikhan. “The grant program helped us to diversify our list and bring in titles from countries from which we would not usually have been able to translate.”

 

Bayarsaikhan add that her experiences in Sharjah have had further impact on her career. She has just been put in charge of her company’s new children’s book imprint, Nepko Kids and she has added new, ambitious goal. “[After attending the fair] the idea of organizing an international book festival has been stuck in my head ever since,” she says.

French literary agent Pierre Astier, who runs an eponymous agency, is among those who met Bayarsaikhan during their visits to the fair. “That’s a dream for an agent and that’s the magic of Sharjah,” he says, adding he’s also met publishers from South India, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Uzbekistan as well. “Sharjah has become a must-go place for many publishers, scouts and agents, like Frankfurt, London, Guadalajara or Beijing. We come nearly every year.”

Astier’s agency represents several top Arabic-language authors, including Lebanese novelist Rabee Jaber, whose novel The Druze of Belgrade won the 2012 International Prize for Arabic Fiction; it also represents this year’s prize winner, Palestinian writer Ibrahim Nasrallah, author of The Second War of the Dog. He credits the Sharjah grant program for facilitating deals that have led to the translation of books by Rabee Jaber, Gyrdir Eliasson, Abdourahman A. Waberi, and even Simone de Beauvoir. He adds, “For us, having an office in Asia., run by Jérôme Bouchaud, Sharjah is also a perfect bridge between East and West. There we will introduce authors that we now represent from Malaysia, Thailand, India, Indonesia, China that we can introduce at the fair.”

Poland’s Sonia Draga of the Sonia Draga Publishing House has been to Sharjah for five book fairs and notes that that fair’s timing makes it convenient place to followup conversations that started at the Frankfurt Book Fair, just a few weeks earlier, or catch up on meetings that she may have missed there. Draga says that the grant program has enabled the publication of 11 books so far; there are eight titles having received grants in 2017, with two having been scheduled for publication. “I also give credit to Sharjah for introducing me to people I might never has otherwise met,” she says. “These include Steve Rosato, Business Development Executive for Overdrive and Kuo-Yu Liang, [then] from Diamond Distribution [and now of ReedPOP who encouraged me to launch a comics imprint, which I then did. It is named NonStopComics!”

Gabriella Page-Fort, Editorial Director of AmazonCrossing, the translation publishing arm of Amazon Books, participated in the fair for the first time in 2017. “I was impressed by the diversity of publishers and agents attending,” says Page-fort. “My big discovery of the fair was Bangladeshi author Humayun Azad, whose brief but unforgettable book I Remember Abbu will be published in February 2019, in translation by Arunava Sinha. Mitia Osman with Agamee Prakashani pointed to this gem when I asked which book on her list she’s most attached to personally. The book concerns one boy’s reflections on his childhood and his grandfather’s life and through their story readers come to understand how a momentous fight for independence – and for language –established Bangladesh as an independent country. Emotionally poignant, stylistically evocative, and a must-read for anyone curious to learn more about Bangladesh.”

In the fall of 2019, AmazonCrossing will also be publishing its first translation from Arabic to English: International Prize for Arabic Fiction-winning author Saud Al-Sanousi’s Mama Hissa’s Mice, translated by Sawad Hussein with Mona Kareem.  “I’m grateful to London-based agent Laura Susijn for submitting the book to me – in just a few chapters I understood why this novel would resonate with English readers,” continues Page-Fort. “Through the experiences four generations, we see first-hand the way wars in the Middle East have changed people’s thinking, behavior and relationships. The personal lens deepened my understanding of how we reach out to one another across seemingly insurmountable differences.”

Children’s publishers have also benefitted from visits to Sharjah. These include Belgium’s Clavis Press, whose foreign rights director Rose Janssens has been attending the fair regularly since 2014, having been first introduced to it by Bassam Chebaro, owner of Arab Scientific Publishers.

She explains that in order to help explore the market more easily, her firm will take its Dutch language titles and translate them into English for the Arabic market. She reports that her attendance at the fair has led to robust business, particularly with local publishers: half of the deals she has struck have been with Emirati publishing houses. The remainder of the deals have been divided among publishers in Egypt, Lebanon and Jordan.

“I am very grateful for the grant program,” Janssens says. “Working in the region can be something of a struggle. The market is by no means docile and in some countries can be quite  challenge. For many, buying high quality children’s books is not the top priority for readers. So this grant program gives publishers some breathing room.”

Janssens tells a story about her own personal growing affinity with the Arabic culture and language (which she studies) which perfectly encapsulates the spirit of kinship intended by the Sharjah International Book Fair’s grant program. “In the Arab world, there is a thin line between customer and friend, no where was this more strongly illustrated to me than one time when. I was at the fair and introducing one of my customers to another customer As is my habit as a European, I always start more formally, so I presented my friend, ‘Here is my customer.’ And he stopped me. So I said, “No, I am wrong, this is my friend.’ And then he stopped me again, and interjected, on his own, ‘No, I am your brother.’ Now, if you go to that part of the world, this is very important. Calling someone your ‘brother’ — even though, obviously I am a woman — means you are truly important to each other. This is something different than friendship, it is more familial, and the family is paramount in Arabic culture. This kind of thing is really what the fair is all about — the kind of cultural exchange that transcends business and leads to genuine camaraderie.”

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