No wonder then that Sharjah has been able to, from the early stages of publishing’s digital transition, embrace and rationalise what digital has to offer the global industry, while the legacy publishing countries are defined by their resistance to change, intent on protecting the status quo.

With well over two million visitors expected, the Sharjah International Book Fair is underway, and the Sharjah Publishing City Free Zone has announced time-limited packages for publishing stakeholders within the UAE and beyond to grab a slice of the Sharjah action.

“This comprehensive package contains a Business License, Memorandum of Association, Lease Agreement, Certificate of Formation, Share Certificate, E-Channel Registration, Establishment Card, Medicals and Emirates ID, designed to accommodate up to seven shareholders.”

The Emirati Times has further details.

It’s just one more string to Sharjah’s bow, as it sets about positioning the emirate as a regional hub that pays more than just lip service to the idea of global publishing.

Already a firm leader within the MENA region book fair scene, Sharjah is now challenging the traditional western book fairs for preeminence, each year expanding not just its public-facing events, but also expanding its trade-facing Publishers Conferences. Edward Nawotka and Jo Henry have a report over at Publishers Weekly .

And each year, both the public and trade-facing events attract larger and larger crowds, with the 2023 Publishers Conference especially notable for its impressive array of global publishing talent on a scale unmatched by any other fair.

Which should come as no surprise to those who have been following the evolution of the Sharjah International Book Fair.

Per a TNPS post earlier this year, “Sharjah is unlike anything publishing has ever witnessed before. A city-state that emerged from the emptiness of the Arabian desert to become one of the most powerful forces in modern publishing. A city-state that reveres books and publishing, that has our industry almost literally in its DNA.”

Many in the west have been slow to realise what Sharjah represents and how it is transforming the global publishing scene and challenging the status quo, not just in relation to book fairs, but in relation to the balance of publishing power around the globe, for so long centred on the Atlantic axis of New York-London-Frankfurt.

With London a fading star –

– and New York still (stylishly) reinventing itself under the PW banner after the disaster that was Book Expo America, Bologna owns the spring book fair season while Frankfurt, once unquestioned king of the autumn season, has reason to feel nervous about the inexorable rise of Sharjah.

From the above-referenced Buchmesse post: “Major autumn events like Sharjah and Guadalajara are, at this juncture, not in direct competition with Frankfurt, but Guadalajara is the gateway to Ibero-America and Sharjah the gateway to the Middle East-Africa-Asia, and increasingly beyond. These are future clashes waiting to happen as Sharjah, especially, flexes its muscles as this decade unfolds.”

We saw those muscles flexed this October, when a statement from the Buchmesse’s Juergen Boos about the situation in Palestine resulted in a massive last-minute boycott of the Frankfurt Book Fair. More on that below.

The fact that the Buchmesse and Sharjah are so closely scheduled in the autumn calendar has historically been of little consequence. The Buchmesse would attract the big western names, and Sharjah acted as a magnet for the MENA markets and, increasingly beyond. But Sharjah was not, until very recently, somewhere most western publishing players considered an essential place to be.

But as Sharjah has evolved and grown in confidence and stature, so the perception of Sharjah has changed, helped muchly by the one-woman powerhouse that is Bodour Al Qasimi, who defied stereotypes of gender, race and religion to become one of the most influential people on the publishing planet, backed by a family-run nation-state that has publishing almost literally in its DNA.

The rise of Sharjah is in itself a metaphor for the 21st century publishing industry. As recently as 1970 there was no such country as the UAE. The barren desert lands formed a British protectorate, the Trucial Sheikdoms of Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Sharjah, Ajman, Umm al-Qaiwain, Fujairah, and Ras al-Khaimah.

Of course the region has a long, long history under other names, but the UAE emerged in 1971 as a “new” country imbued with oil wealth and thereby untroubled by colonial and pre-colonial legacy, focussed on the future, not the past.

No wonder then that Sharjah has been able to, from the early stages of publishing’s digital transition, embrace and rationalise what digital has to offer the global industry, while the legacy publishing countries are defined by their resistance to change, intent on protecting the status quo.

The 2023 Sharjah Publishers Conference is over, and the main event, the Sharjah International Book Fair, is underway. There’s much to be learned from the reportage emerging, as there is from the reportage still surfacing from the Buchmesse.

With bitter irony, the 2023 Buchmesse was overshadowed by the aforementioned boycott by Sharjah, among other Arab and Muslim nations (notably Malaysia and Indonesia), the reasons for which need no further elaboration here.

But the consequences hit both parties. Empty pavilions where Sharjah and other Arab and Muslim countries should have been. Business was not done. Engagement did not happen. And Frankfurt footfall inevitably took a hit. All attending the Buchmesse this year were the poorer for it.

The long-term fall-out, if any, remains to be seen, but for this year at least, it seems, despite all early signs that Frankfurt was going to be a fair like no other, that that accolade once again goes to Sharjah.

Let me end this post about Sharjah with a quote from Nathan Hull, Chief Strategy officer at Beat Technology AS, that perfectly sums up what Sharjah has become, and why the Buchmesse has no room for complacency if it is to maintain its reputation as the world’s most important publishing trade fair.

Hull: “Its actually unfathomably ridiculous how international this event is. And you get time. Somehow its not the speed-dating, rapid-fire feel of other events. Sharjah somehow conjures and creates time. And this means those meetings may actually just get a little more productive than the standard 30 minute meeting would allow.”

Frankfurt’s position as the world’s most important trade fair can no longer be taken for granted.

And the balance of global publishing power just took another inexorable shift east.