Al Qasimi makes history at International Publishers Association as body hits 125

Al Qasimi makes history at International Publishers Association as body hits 125

With a century and a quarter under its belt, the International Publishers Association (IPA) is as old as modern publishing itself. It will mark the milestone with an anniversary logo, a short documentary film and the digital publication of its centenary history.

The IPA is a unique body. Based in Geneva, where the United Nations has its European headquarters, it is effectively the UN for the book world. Its current membership of national publisher associations stands at 86 (from 71 countries), and it works with the UN on various initiatives, most recently the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals Book Club. Its central pillars are the protection of copyright and the freedom to publish, the first of which dates back to the formation of the IPA—then called the International Publishers Congress—in 1896. The new body took its inspiration from the recently established Berne Convention, which gave birth to the modern concept of copyright.

To mark the anniversary, The Bookseller spoke to the IPA’s new president, Bodour al Qasimi, founder and c.e.o. of Kalimat publishing group in Sharjah in the United Arab Emirates; she is also the founder of the Emirates Publishers Association.

As only the second woman president in the IPA’s history, and the first Arab woman, how do you feel?
I’m deeply honoured, yet mindful of the huge responsibility. I am determined to bring greater diversity and inclusion to publishing, and to safeguard the IPA’s relevance by steeping it in different voices, experiences and cultures. By listening to our members worldwide, and by acting as a unifying force, our voice is louder and we can better reach our goals.

What qualities do women bring to leadership?
I think women lean towards collaboration, which may stem from their understanding of what it means to be marginalised. During the pandemic, we have seen some standout global leadership from women whose modus has been to work through disagreements with the bigger picture in mind. I think leadership in general is about inspiring others, and I hope my being in this role will show women in publishing what’s possible.

What are the main challenges ahead for the global book industry?
The pandemic has foregrounded some back-burner issues whose urgency was underestimated. Now is the time to address the underappreciation of publishing, which many governments designated as “non-essential” during the pandemic, despite our immense contribution to education, research, wellbeing and culture. This sounded an alarm bell, and we have to better educate policymakers about publishing’s contribution to society.

Secondly, we need to ensure the industry recovers evenly. Publishers in developed markets rebounded in the third quarter of 2020, while others can scarcely stay afloat. What’s good for one publishing market is good for all publishing markets, and for the growth of our industry.

Adjusting to the “new normal” is another big one. The shift to online learning and reading has forced publishers to react, but to understand new trends and the pandemic-led digital acceleration requires good data, which is still unavailable. Better co-operation on research from all markets will give us a firm grasp on the new currents.

The pandemic has also exposed a wide gap in digital transformation capacity and heightened the risk of concentration. If this gap becomes a gulf, it could jeopardise the industry’s future growth and the viability of the small and medium-sized publishers that make up the majority of our sector.

You have made several trips to Africa in recent months. Why this focus on Africa, and what have you learned on the trips?
Africa has the makings of a true publishing powerhouse, and today we see high global demand for authentic, diverse voices—a huge opportunity for African publishing. Yet many African stories remain largely untold because the system doesn’t enable them to traverse borders. We defined these blockers during the IPA regional seminars and distilled them into an action plan, and we partnered with the philanthropic organisation Dubai Cares to create the Africa Publishing Innovation Fund, which sponsors local solutions to grow publishing and book culture.

Africa’s publishing markets were among the hardest hit by Covid-19; an overdependence on textbook sales to governments left publishers floundering as students switched to online education. But with the IPA’s support, African publishing can become a major contributor to the growth and development of the industry.

What will you do to address wider support for the IPA Prix Voltaire prize, beyond its familiar Scandinavian sponsors?
The Prix Voltaire is the most visible expression of the IPA’s commitment to protect and defend the freedom to publish around the world. Supporting the Prix Voltaire is a unique way to express solidarity for imperilled publishers and to call out their oppressors. We are extremely grateful to the prize’s established sponsors, but we urgently need more to step up and help increase the Prix Voltaire’s impact. Together with the Freedom to Publish Committee, and its chair Kristenn Einarsson, we are looking at ways to make this happen.

Why do you think the IPA still matters?
I think the IPA is more relevant than ever. When Covid-19 arrived, the IPA took the lead in forming a collective response and recovery plan by capturing and sharing publishers’ struggles and innovative solutions. This collective approach offers hope of a strong recovery and future growth, but it was only possible under the IPA’s unifying umbrella.

The IPA is further unifying the voice and vision of the publishing ecosystem through the International Sustainable Publishing & Industry Resilience (InSPIRe) plan. And through the IPA Academy, an online learn- ing portal we are developing, publishers can upskill and take control of their digital transformations.

Additionally, the massive adoption of digital formats for reading has triggered a parallel spike in digital piracy. We are already supporting members as they appeal to their governments for robust piracy laws and enforcement, just as we represent all publishers at the World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO) and other international platforms dealing with copyright protection.