Bodour Al Qasimi, Founder and Chief Executive Officer of Kalimat Group, is a leading publisher of Arabic children’s books and educational content in the United Arab Emirates. As President of the Emirates Publishers Association, she supports national and regional efforts to transform the publishing and digital content industries to contribute to innovation, national prosperity, and cultural exchange. Al Qasimi chaired the Sharjah World Book Capital 2019 Committee. She also leads a number of international initiatives to promote human rights, youth and gender empowerment, literacy, book accessibility, and cross-cultural understanding. These include the work of the Kalimat Foundation for Children’s Empowerment and UAEBBY, the Emirati chapter of International Board on Books for Young People. In 2018, she founded PublisHer, an international network working to build a global, supportive community of women in publishing. In January 2021, she became President of the International Publishers Association, the world’s largest trade association which represents the interest of the publishing industry globally.
The interview for Fairtale is curated by Marcella Terrusi, professor of Children's History and Cultures at the University of Bologna and consultant of BCBF.
1. Congratulations on being made President of the International Publishers Association, starting this January 2021 and following on from your role as Vice President since 2018. Yours is a particularly important task, especially during these times of the pandemic. How do you see IPA’s role? What can the IPA do for the health and development of publishing?
Indeed, I assumed the presidency of IPA during these historic times, and I am humbled by the challenges that lie ahead. Thankfully, I am strengthened by the IPA's legacy and impeccable record in supporting its members throughout its 125 years of existence. As you know, when COVID19 hit economies around the world the publishing industry came to an almost complete halt and publishers were scrambling to save their businesses. The IPA stepped in immediately to support its members and stabilize the sector. The IPA's objective in the first phase of the crisis was to understand the real impact on each market and identify ways it could help its members. We organized listening sessions with over 70 markets, which led to a series of initiatives. For example, the IPA launched an online COVID 19 resource for the global publishing industry to enhance member information sharing and provide an easy access resource on the latest industry developments. We also organized a series of webinars and virtual panel discussions to help members connect together, and to keep our finger on the industry's pulse as the pandemic evolved. We also supported our members in effective advocacy approaches to secure their government’s support for the publishing industry through financial stimulus plans or different government assistance programs.
During our annual congress in November 2020, we launched the report "From Response to Recovery". This is an important report as it documents each IPA member country's experience in relation to the pandemic and the different initiatives launched to cope with the crisis. It's a valuable idea-sharing tool, and I am sure that members will find it useful as they continue dealing with this difficult situation. Building on the report's findings, the IPA aims to lead an international, multi-stakeholder publishing taskforce comprising representatives of every link in the publishing value chain, to create an International Sustainable Publishing and Industry Resilience plan. This is an ambitious project that will make a difference to the sector and provide IPA members with a clear roadmap for the future growth of our industry.
The IPA has not only supported its members internally, but it has also brought together partners from the publishing ecosystem to highlight the value of publishing and reading. The IPA also partnered with UNICEF and WHO to launch the initiative #ReadTheWorld, which was a big success – the aim is to encourage millions of children to read and so use books as companions during lockdown.
As we move forward, the IPA will sustain its efforts to champion freedom of publishing and copyright protection. We will also continue supporting our members in their digital transformation acceleration journey through capacity building and information sharing. Most importantly, we will continue to support collaborative efforts between publishers and all members of the ecosystem, including authors, illustrators, printers, wholesalers, distributors, libraries, booksellers, and governments.
2. What do you think is the social, ethical and political responsibility of the publishing industry today?
Publishing has historically played a vital role in shaping a nation’s cultural and political identity. Publishers are responsible for encouraging public debates, open discussions, and free-thinking by disseminating ideas and opinions. Today, in a digitized society, readers have access to content from a plethora of sources, not just books and magazines, which widens our responsibility. We have a duty to ensure that mainstream narratives are balanced and represent all voices. If we look at the social upheavals of even the past five years, they were almost always started by minorities who felt that their voices were not being heard, particularly those who believe they are economically and socially disadvantaged as a result of their color, gender, religious, or political beliefs. Publishers have a role to play in this context and must rise above the noise of popular opinion to offer readers diverse content that encourages diversity and inclusivity, which are two main pillars of healthy societies. In addition, fake news and disinformation are increasingly becoming a pandemic of their own, and publishers, among others, also have a vital role to play to preserve the credibility of “truth” to avoid the inevitable negative social and political consequences. Socially, publishers have been, and are still, playing a vital role worldwide through reading and literacy initiatives, which contribute to economic growth, poverty reduction, and an increase in civic engagement.
3. Children’s publishing seems to be in great shape despite the pandemic. From your wide international perspective, what are the most effective and innovative strategies being adopted by publishers to cope with the changes of our time?
Children’s book publishing has been a high-growth sector for quite some time now. The current pandemic accelerated its development even further as parents searched for constructive activities, including reading to help their children during the lockdowns. The primary mission for children’s books publishers around the world now is to make their books engaging enough to attract young readers who have so many digital distractions. It’s not an easy task, but many publishers have already been innovating their offering in terms of content and format, which has worked very well in many markets. This is why we see a trend today in many children’s books as they reflect current social issues such as diversity and inclusion. Major publishers worldwide now release books that feature strong female characters, or books that encourage cultural tolerance and acceptance, and books that promote kindness. There is also a trend for books that offer tools for children’s emotional development, and interestingly, books that explain world politics through children’s stories. Apart from paperback and hardcover books, many publishers now offer their content in audiobook format, applications, video content, and other digital formats. Although digital infrastructure and parents’ purchasing powers are different from market to market, these formats seem to be becoming more popular as young children seem to respond really well to interactive content.
4. The right to read for all children is one of the themes you are most committed to, not only as a children’s publisher, but also as a philanthropist and activist entrepreneur: you founded the Emirate chapter of International Board on Books for Young People, UAEBBY in 2010, chaired by Marwa Al Aqrubi. You chair the philanthropic Kalimat Foundation, promoting the culture of reading, access to books by visually impaired children, and multicultural exchange. Since 2017 the KF, through the Pledge a Library Initiative, has provided more than 12 thousand Arabic and bilingual children’s books to Arab immigrant and refugee children in several countries all over the world. The IBBY Italia delegation was hosted by UAEBBY at the Sharjah Reading Festival in 2018, we have the most beautiful memory of this, thank you, and had the privilege of working with the Pledge a Library Initiative - KF designing a network of 11 small Arabic language libraries all over Italy, provided with more than 2000 thousand books in Arabic and bilingual Italian-Arabic. We were really honoured to have you and the manager, Amna Al Aqrubi, visit the Kahoula home library in Bologna.
Can you share your vision of the political power of children’s books?
I think children's books should reflect society's overall evolution and not merely moral lessons such as the importance of cleanliness and school, for example. Moral lessons are crucial for children's proper emotional and mental development, but 21st-century children are growing up in a fast-changing world. Their books need to prepare them to engage with their environments fully and constructively as adults. Let's take the example of environmental change. The global debate about this issue is still taking place and is conflicting in many ways, but the reality is the climate is changing, and we humans all have a role to play to safeguard our planet. Today's children will be adults in a decade or so, and they will inherit not only this planet, but also the political and cultural narratives that shape its evolution. They will need to engage in global political debates and form collaborative solutions, so books play a crucial role in preparing them during their formative years. The same goes for all other social issues such as diversity and inclusion, poverty, economic equality, immigration, personal privacy, the role of technology in our lives, and a host of other topics.
5. IPA has a fascinating history. Founded in 1896 in Paris and now based in Geneva, it is the world's largest federation of national, regional and specialist publishers' associations. It comprises 86 member organizations from 71 countries in Africa, Asia, Australasia, Europe and the Americas, representing thousands of individual publishers around the world servicing markets of over 5.6 billion people. Yet this is only the second time IPA’s President has been a woman – the first was Ana Maria Cabanellas (2004-8) - and it’s also the very first time that a woman from an Arab country has achieved such a position role on the international industry scene.
In 2019, you launched PublisHER, an industry-led movement to bring gender equality to world publishing, an empowered community of female publishing leaders ready to drive an international agenda for change that has been promoting international events, dinners and discussions in London, Frankfurt, Amman and Nairobi, with outstanding results.
Are the times ripe for change?
A major event with prominent women was planned for last year’s Bologna Children’s Book Fair. Will it take place in Bologna in 2021? How can we get ready for the next PublisHER event?
Yes, absolutely, there is a growing consensus among publishers worldwide for the urgent need for diverse opinions at the decision-making table. The fact that we now have two female publishers at the helm of IPA is indicative of the change that is already happening in the sector. Despite the slow progress in some markets, there is a momentum for women to access key positions in the publishing sector, which is why I founded PublisHer. We need a supportive community that can drive this change and create the necessary environment for female publishers to grow and advance in their careers, just as their male colleagues can. I am thrilled with the success of PublisHer. Its popularity in major international publishing events shows the gap in our sector and the need for a more meritocratic environment. We would really like to organize another PublisHer event during 2021 if the COVID19 situation permits it. Having said that, we continue to offer support to our community virtually, and we are still creating initiatives to support more female publishers to succeed and advance in this sector.
6. Your appointment as IPA President also acknowledges your extraordinary work to empower the publishing industry in the Emirates and establish the EPA, the Emirate Publishers Association, in 2009. One of the areas you have also been actively committed to is Africa.
What are the prospects for African publishing?
The publishing sector in Africa has a promising future. Africa is a fascinating continent with so much diversity, wisdom, and intriguing stories. Global readers demand more original and native voices, which is a positive development for African publishing and other emerging markets. There are challenges facing African publishing, however, which COVID19 has magnified. African publishing, in general, has traditionally relied on textbooks sales to governments, but with the sudden mass transition to online learning, many of the publishers were caught off guard, and they are now scrambling to find solutions. It’s a difficult situation to be in. Still, in a way, this may be an opportunity for African publishing to revise their business models and adapt them to the future. There is a lot of room for innovation in the African publishing sector, and that’s good news for publishers trying to find creative solutions to reach both their local and global readers. The IPA has supported the development of African publishing through two major regional IPA seminars in Lagos and Nairobi. These events offered African publishers opportunities to understand the global dimension and possibilities of publishing and create new international partnerships. They were also an opportunity to hone in on the real challenges and identify actionable and scalable solutions. I believe these events and subsequent meetings and consultations with IPA will lead to incremental progress towards a transformational change of the African publishing sector. Despite the challenges, African publishers are passionate about their industry and understand the possibilities ahead of them. I am confident that, with IPA’s continuous support, the African publishing sector will emerge as a global contender in our industry.
Bodour Al Qasimi visiting Casa di Khaoula's Library in Bologna during BCBF 2019 at the opening of the Little libraries in Arabic Language / Pledge a Library - Kalimat foundation and IBBY Italia project.