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Global publishing post-COVID: an interview with Bodour Al Qasimi

June 2021

By Catherine Jewell, Information and Digital Outreach Division, WIPO

In January 2021, Sheika Bodour bint Sultan Al Qasimi began her two-year term as President of the International Publishers’ Association (IPA). Ms. Al Qasimi, the mother of four, founder of the Kalimat Group, a pioneering United Arab Emirates (UAE)-based publishing company, and ardent champion of diversity and inclusion, discusses the work of the IPA and the challenges confronting publishers in the post-COVID era.

What does it mean to you to be the first woman from the Middle East and only the second woman ever to lead the IPA?

“The IPA is at its most relevant today. When COVID-19 hit, the IPA led
a collective response and recovery plan that captured and shared
publishers’ experiences and innovative countermeasures,”
says IPA President, Bodour Al Qasimi. (Photo: Ivana Maglione)

I feel very honored, yet I’m mindful of the big responsibility that comes with this role. It is important for me to bring greater diversity and inclusion to publishing, so my aim is to lead by example. Imbuing the IPA with different voices, experiences, and cultures is crucial for its relevance and success. This means listening, collaborating, and responding to our members and partners worldwide. When we are united in our objectives, our voice is stronger and we are more likely to reach our goals. This has never been truer than in the post-COVID world.

What role does IPA play in the world of publishing?

I think the IPA is at its most relevant today. When COVID-19 hit, the IPA led a collective response and recovery plan that captured and shared publishers’ experiences and innovative countermeasures. Now, we’re unifying the voice and vision of the publishing ecosystem through our International Sustainable Publishing and Industry Resilience (InSPIRe) plan and the IPA Academy, an online learning portal, which is under development. These initiatives will enable publishers to upskill and take better control of their digital transformations. IPA’s unifying umbrella has made this positive, collective approach possible.

The new normal presents a challenge for many publishers. While many have responded to the shift to online learning and reading, a full understanding of new publishing trends requires good data. We are working closely with WIPO to gather quality global publishing statistics, but more cooperation on research and data gathering from all markets will allow a firmer grasp of new currents.

The move towards digital formats requires publishers to make big investments and entails risks because online piracy is a major problem worldwide. That’s why we support our members in petitioning governments to strengthen copyright protection and enforcement. We also represent all publishers at WIPO and other relevant international forums.

What has been the impact of the pandemic on the publishing industry?

The IPA’s 2020 report, From Response to Recovery, clearly shows that markets with existing ecommerce infrastructure and a developed reading culture weathered the storm far better than those without them. The pandemic has exposed a large gap that we must bridge if we are to secure the future growth of the industry. There is clear agreement across the global publishing ecosystem that we are stronger when we work as a cohesive whole. Markets where authors, publishers, booksellers and governments came together during the pandemic to stabilize and strengthen the publishing ecosystem are showing signs of a faster recovery. Supporting the coalitions built during adversity is central to the industry’s ongoing recovery and future resilience.

How is IPA supporting the development of a more innovative and sustainable publishing sector?

During the pandemic, many governments saw publishing as a “non-essential” sector and denied publishers vital state aid. This was a wake-up call for the industry and underlined the urgent need to redouble efforts to educate policymakers about the deep contribution that publishers make to education, research and cultural development. Our sustainability depends on it.

We also need to manage the industry’s recovery with an even hand. The pandemic exposed weaknesses in some markets and strengths in others. By offering targeted support to the worst hit countries through our InSPIRe plan, we will all benefit.

Identifying longer-term consumer trends will be key to the sector’s enduring viability. That is why we are developing reliable data-gathering systems to better understand market trends. This will enable publishers to build more effective strategies and future-proof their businesses. This challenge is tied to the urgent need to support publishers, especially small and medium-sized publishers, which make up the majority of our sector, in digitizing their operations.

IPA is also proud to have developed the Sustainable Development Goals Publishers Compact, which allows publishers to signal their commitment to sustainability.

“I started PublisHer in 2019, because I saw a clear need for an organized effort to address the inequalities facing women in publishing,” explains Ms. Al Qasimi. (Photo: Ivana Maglione)

How do you see the publishing industry evolving over the next few years?

Digital is clearly the way of the future. Our report, From Response to Recovery, shows that digital workflow and distribution made all the difference in enabling publishers to weather the pandemic storm. Digital transformation is also key to enabling publishers to produce books in accessible formats. Yet many regions lack the know how to make the leap to digital. Through the IPA Academy and initiatives like WIPO’s Publishers’ Circle, we are sharing best practices and helping publishers around the world make the transition to digital.

Digital is clearly the way of the future.

However, the rise of digital doesn’t necessarily spell the death of print. In response to compelling evidence that people learn differently from digital and paper resources, educational publishers have been producing hybrid resources to support every kind of learner for some time now. Our 2020 report, Paper and Digital: Current research into the effectiveness of learning materials, takes a detailed look at this.

Defending copyright is one of the pillars of IPA’s work. What for you are the most important copyright issues that need to be tackled?

Copyright and its effective enforcement are vital to a sustainable publishing industry. One brake on publishers going digital in Africa, for example, is their fear that the devastating print piracy they face will be even worse if they transition to digital publishing. Our industry is constantly shifting and adapting, and publishers need a clear legal framework to do this with confidence. The appropriate exclusive rights set out in WIPO treaties are essential to enable publishers to produce and distribute books in all formats, and effective enforcement proves that those rights are inalienable.

Copyright and its effective enforcement are vital to a sustainable publishing industry.

Tell us about IPA’s work in the area of literacy.

Literacy has always been important to the IPA. We have a literacy taskforce, overseen by Gvantsa Jobava from Georgia. Our Reading Matters report features many of the literacy initiatives being run by individual IPA members around the world. Literacy applies to so many things. It goes well beyond learning to read and write. It is vital to understanding the world and making informed decisions. Literacy gives people agency.

What prompted you to set up PublisHer?

I started PublisHer in 2019 because I saw a clear need for an organized effort to address the inequalities facing women in publishing. Publishing employs far more women than men − women make up around two thirds of employees in publishing businesses in the West − yet men occupy a disproportionate share of the most senior, higher-paying roles.

A 2018 survey in the UK revealed that the gender pay gap was as much as 30 percent in some companies. These disparities are all the more galling given the deep pool of talented women from which to choose and promote.

PublisHer is an attempt to marshal the will and innovative spirit of the many smart and competent women in the book business for the collective good. I want PublisHer to stand at the center of a global network where women find and give support, and where good ideas can be aired, peer reviewed and refined.

The WIPO event in 2019, Empowering Women in the Publishing Industry, was a very positive step. The IPA and I hope we can build on that.

How did you get into publishing?

I’ve always been very interested in literature, in part because of my upbringing in Sharjah, which is recognized as the cultural capital of the UAE. Sharjah is steeped in books and learning, so I think it had a big impact on my life choices.

I first got into publishing and started the Kalimat Group publishing house after a conversation with my young daughter, who had complained that Arabic children’s books were old-fashioned. She was right in many ways. That conversation prompted me to start creating beautifully illustrated children’s books in Arabic. Since then, we have moved into literature for young adults and older readers.

I’m delighted to say that the Group continues to grow and has published over 400 books in 15 countries. Many of them have also been translated, which is very rewarding as it shows we are sharing our creativity and culture – something that’s very important to me. We are now also publishing early learning books for children, comics, and cookery books. Going forward, Kalimat will be focusing more on its digital content, ecommerce and online marketing. At the same time, we will continue to build on our success, expand into new markets and continue to support and promote talent from the region.

What is your greatest achievement to date?

I am inspired by my work as a mother and as a publisher, and most recently by my role as IPA President. These are separate achievements of course, but I see them as a journey, with literacy and learning at its heart. Books and reading are the cornerstone of knowledge, understanding, education and imagination. Having these roles has allowed me to highlight the importance of books, reading and publishing, not simply for my own children, but I hope for a wider global audience. This work is significant to me because it means I am in a position to help others, and to ensure that literacy, reading and education remain at the core of the publishing industry.

In 2018, the Kalimat Foundation signed an agreement with the Accessible Books Consortium (ABC) to produce born-accessible books. What prompted you to do this?

This initiative ties in with the Kalimat Foundation’s defining role to make books a fundamental right, anywhere in the world, irrespective of circumstances. All children should have access to books to acquire knowledge and gain an education. The scarcity of Arabic books in braille, large print and audio formats further prompted us to sign this agreement. Kalimat’s partnership with the ABC enabled us to identify Arabic-speaking children who needed our help across the Middle East and North Africa in particular, but also those who have been displaced to other parts of the world. So far, the Kalimat Foundation has produced 30,000 accessible books and distributed 5,000 of them locally, regionally and internationally. More importantly perhaps, in collaboration with the ABC, we were the first organization in the region to facilitate training and technical workshops for Arab publishers. Sharing know how and expertise is invaluable, and has made publishers in the region reflect on how to make their books accessible to everyone. Our activities assert this universal right and help people shape their own future and become productive members of their communities.

In 2020, on behalf of the Kalimat Foundation, Ms. Al Qasimi signed an agreement with WIPO’s Accessible Books Consortium. The partnership is helping to address the scarcity of Arabic books in accessible formats. So far, the Kalimat Foundation has produced 30,000 accessible books. (Photo: Maica / E+ / Getty Images Plus)

What do you most like about being a publisher?

Books are my passion, so I feel very fortunate to work in this industry. Their importance and the industry’s role in education, in giving voice to the voiceless, and empowering millions of people to dream, cannot be overstated. Books have the power to create understanding and harmony between cultures, which are only achieved through dialogue and mutual respect. In this sense, publishing has a role to play in peace and stability. I am also passionate about how publishing is leading the way in diversity and inclusion. Although there is still room for improvement, compared to other sectors, our industry offers a positive example of diversity and inclusion and is helping to create a better and more just world.

Who is your favorite author and what are you reading at the moment?

I am currently reading Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth. As an international publisher, I am exposed to a variety of authors and subjects, and my reading tastes are eclectic. I enjoy all genres, and I try to keep up with the latest releases. I recently published Arabic translations of a number of African authors whose books I had enjoyed in English. I also read a lot of literature about mysticism and spirituality. I love reading fiction by female authors in particular, as it often gives me an insight into other cultures and lives, which I find fascinating.

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