The Sharjah Book Authority (SBA) held a press conference this week to mark the countdown to the 2018 Sharjah International Book Fair, which last year clocked 2.38 million visitors.
The 1.6 million books that will be on sale is itself a record, as is the 1,847 publishers from 77 countries that will be at the event – October 31 through November 10 – which this year has the theme “Tale of Letters.”
Sharjah, which next year becomes the World Book Capital, is widely regarded as the home of the third largest book fair in the world – a remarkable feat for an Arab book fair given the low-priority publishers have traditionally given to the region.
But that in itself underscores a fascinating contradiction in the global book markets – that the countries where supposedly no-one reads, that have the fewest bookstores and the least-easy access to ebooks, have the most vibrant book fairs on the planet.
At which point let’s revisit that 2.38 million visitors to the 2017 Sharjah IBF and compare it with the Frankfurt Book fair numbers for 2017 – 286,425.
In Germany, of course, bookstores and ebook store and online book buying opportunities abound, so there is no need to go to a national book fair just to get a better choice of books.
But that is exactly why the book fairs in the emerging markets are so popular – because the infrastructure we in the west accept as everyday normality simply hasn’t been developed elsewhere.
And just in case anyone is thinking a visit to an Arab book fair like Sharjah is just a day out for the kids, last year book sales at Sharjah’s International Book Fair were worth $56 million.
Nor is Sharjah an anomaly in the Arab world. From Casablanca in Morocco, where 550,000 turned out for the book fair this year, to the Muscat fair in Oman (850,000), to the biggest fair in Algeria, the Algiers International Book fair (1.8 million), people are swarming to book fairs in the MENA region.
But no, Sharjah isn’t the biggest. Impressive as Sharjah is, it is dwarfed by the 4 million turnout at the Cairo International Book Fair in Egypt, which rightfully holds the title of world’s biggest book fair.