Business profile: Matt Cowdery, Sales Manager Middle East, Hachette

Business profile: Matt Cowdery, Sales Manager Middle East, Hachette

As territories go, the one that Hachette’s pointman in the Arab world looks after is pretty exotic. Matt Cowdery established Hachette’s office in Dubai in September 2011, and as sales manager for the region his patch stretches “from Morocco to Oman, up to Syria and Iraq and down as far as Yemen”. He makes 20 to 30 sales trips a year and says that, thanks to Dubai’s central location and excellent infrastructure, it is possible to visit places like Bahrain, Kuwait, Saudi and Qatar in a single day.

Talking to him at the most recent Sharjah International Book Fair, one impression came across strongly: how much he loves the region. “It’s easy to assimilate yourself from a lifestyle point of view. Abu Dhabi and Dubai are the largest places in terms of shops, but Sharjah has a commitment to culture that outweighs its size, thanks to the commitment of the ruling sheikh. The SIBF is the most important book fair in the UAE.”

Cowdery is well-placed to comment on English-language bookselling in the region, and it is fascinating to hear how bookshop ranges reflect changes in the wider world. “It’s a challenging market, but bookshops are doing OK in Dubai. People are well-served there, with the Japanese chain Kinokuniya probably having the most impressive range of books in the region. The Borders franchise remains and Virgin have just opened in the Dubai Mall—they also have stores right across the region.

“The global financial crisis hit the Gulf hard, but it’s bounced back more quickly and more strongly than people thought it would, helped by a bail-out from Abu Dhabi and the natural entrepreneurship of the people.”

The demographic is changing, however, with fewer British expats. “It’s more about money from Russia, China and India, he says. “So English-language bookshops have to respond to that shift as much as to the economic situation. Up until the downturn you still had older families here from the UK and Europe on quite expensive packages. But with the downturn, companies looked to shed those roles, or replace them with someone single or someone cheaper from another country.”

Cowdery says the population is not so UK-focused as it was before, which means British publishers have to work harder to build authors. “Take Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl (Phoenix). The fact that this was a New York Times bestseller has more resonance now than it would have done three years ago. The focus is much more international now.”

He says there is a strong “aspirational element” to people’s lives in the region. “They come to the Gulf for a better life, so we do well with soft business and MBS, books on those skills which are transferable to the newly emerging global middle-class”.

It was perhaps inevitable that Cowdery, who is 39, might enter the book trade: his grandfather was a W H Smith manager and his mother a librarian. After college he joined Waterstones in Canterbury and then made that familiar journey from branch to branch, chain to chain, that so many have done. After a spell at Ottakar’s he returned to Waterstones’ Piccadilly flagship, where there was talk of international expansion.

“That expansion never happened, but my wife and I were considering a move abroad anyway. We’d both been travelling in the Middle East and liked it. I’ve always been interested in the region. I don’t know whether it was reading A Thousand and One Nights when I was growing up, or watching those old plasticene Sinbad films. I love it here.”

Now settled with nine-month-old Milo, Cowdery and wife Stacy live in one of Dubai’s oldest—50 years—suburbs “which is low rise and has trees”, and are happy to stay. The emirate is also within striking distance of one of his favourite world sites—Siwa, an oasis on the Egypt/Libya border. “That’s also the location for one of my favourite books: Sunset Oasis (Sceptre) by Bahaa Tahir. It’s a special place.”