Interview with Bodour Al Qasimi, President of the International Publishers Association – IPAInterview with Bodour Al Qasimi, President of the International Publishers Association – IPA
on Nov 03, 2021
Bodour Al Qasimi is the Founder and Chief Executive Officer of Kalimat Publishing Group, a publisher of children’s books and educational content based in the United Arab Emirates. … Al Qasimi founded the Emirates Publishers Association (EPA) in 2009 which became a full International Publishers Association member in 2012.
Ques – As IPA completes its 125 years, do you think copyright is still one of the main points of the publishing industry, the other being the freedom to publish?
Ans. Absolutely. The publishing industry cannot flourish without two essential pillars: copyright protection and freedom to publish. These two main pillars have always been important to the publishing industry, even before establishing the IPA 125 years ago. In fact, our founding fathers launched IPA to address these two issues specifically. Unfortunately, there is a surge in digital piracy today due to the readers’ massive shift to various digital channels. At the IPA, we work hard with all our partners to ensure that governments create the right legislative frameworks and enforcement mechanisms so that digital piracy doesn’t go unnoticed and unpunished. Likewise, freedom to publish has been under a lot of pressure in both the digital and physical space, so we work with our partners day in and day out to push back on some of the legislations suggested by some governments to pressure writers into self-censorship. The very idea of writing is about expressing an opinion, a voice, and the job of publishers is to help bring these voices to the public and invite everyone to debate their merits. Without this, I don’t see how we can advance societies and human civilization.
Ques. 125 years later, IPA has held 32 International Publishers Congresses, as well as many other conferences, seminars and symposia, in cities all over the world. What can the World foresee in the upcoming IPA Congress 2022?
Ans. I think next year’s congress in Jakarta will be really special. It will be the culmination of the IPA’s work following on from the covid crisis, and so will be a pivotal moment in which we can see how our industry has evolved.
By November 2022, we should start seeing the impact of the IPA Academy due to launch later this year, which has been designed to help our members and their workforces upskill so that they can adapt to the digital age through a wide range of practical online masterclasses. The congress will also be an opportunity to assess how the Inspire Plan (International Sustainable and Industry Resilience Plan) is supporting the development of the global publishing industry. As you know, the IPA developed this plan in collaboration with many publishing sector stakeholders worldwide. It was launched during the recent Frankfurt Book Fair, and we are planning a symposium in early 2022 to drive the program forward.
We will also discuss other industry updates during the congress, and of course, it is always an excellent opportunity to catch up with colleagues, old and new from around the world.
Ques. There’s only 9 years (2020 – 2030) left to achieve the ambitious SDG targets. How do you think publishers can and should be contributing to this effort?
Ans. Publishers are an integral part of achieving the SDG targets. We have a responsibility and a desire to continue taking positive steps towards achieving the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by 2030. The IPA partnered with the UN to create the SDG book club, launched to help children understand the importance of sustainability. Last year, the IPA and the UN also partnered to create the SDG Publishers Compact, which more than 100 publishers signed at its launch at the Frankfurt Book Fair. This Compact aims to inspire action around ten commitments for publishers to create a more sustainable future for our industry by 2030.
We have also continually consulted with our members on this subject, and interestingly, we are learning now that more publishers believe SDGs are increasingly relevant to the publishing industry. So, I think the bigger question is what more we can do? And what does sustainable publishing really mean? Our focus centered initially around providing books and information, but we know we can do more. In fact, at the recent Frankfurt Book Fair, key players from the publishing ecosystem united to sign a joint declaration for concrete action on climate change. But we can certainly have a more direct impact on sustainable development than simply an informational role, and that’s through the whole supply chain – publishers, printers, bookstores, libraries, authors, and educators. So, it’s a key priority for us and something we will continually look at in the months and years to come.
Ques. As the second woman to assume the role of IPA President in 124 years, what is your vision towards the publishing industry, especially in the Middle East region?
Ans. I recently read a quote on Forbes that said, “Never make an important decision without a woman at the table.” I think this quote says it all. In the publishing industry, whether in the Middle East or elsewhere, women have energized the sector and been part of the solution, particularly during this pandemic. But they have been traditionally underrepresented at the top echelons and the decision-making level of the publishing industry. We cannot simply accept this as a fact. It is more of an accepted cultural norm, but in the 21st century, this trend is changing, and the publishing industry is also changing to mirror this social evolution. Given this context, I established the PublisHer network in 2019 to improve the chances for female publishers’ to succeed in their careers all the way to the top. But my vision is now broader, so diversity and inclusion have become a critical priority for our sector – which includes giving women and people from any minority group the opportunity to lead and leave their mark on the industry.
In the Middle East region, the situation is similar to many other markets. The good news is that I can now see an improvement in the work culture and mindset of the Arab publishing sector. Sometimes I feel the change is not happening fast enough, but I think social change dynamics are different depending on the market, but globally, our focus should be on making progress towards achieving a more balanced publishing sector.
Ques. At the Arab Publishers Association Conference Sharjah, you called for action for a “serious discussion” on “redefining the principle of freedom to publish.” Can you guide us more?
Ans. Freedom to publish has always been and will continue to be at the heart of the IPA’s mission. However, now more than ever, exchanging ideas and allowing different cultures and writers to have their voices heard on the international stage is essential. Humanity is at a turning point, and we need to create a new way of relating to each other to ensure a harmonious world. The IPA will always support authors who suffer discrimination and persecution because of the words they write.
Indeed, the freedom to publish can sometimes be context-dependent. Therefore, we need to have the wisdom and patience to listen to others and engage with them to understand their points of view about publishing books they may deem too controversial in their societies. Despite this, we must reinforce the value of freedom to publish as a natural state of affairs in all cultures, and establish censorship, in all its forms, as a deviation from this universal and natural state for humans.
What drives the IPA is that the written word should continue playing its crucial role in education, knowledge, and cultural understanding. This is why our main priority is to collaborate globally to create the right environment for publishers and authors to continue doing what they do and produce works that enrich public debate and support a healthy evolution of our societies.
Ques. What are some of the most prominent steps and initiatives that IPA shall take to develop global publishing, considering it completed its 125 years?
Ans. Firstly, I want to reiterate what I have said many times during 2021 about how exciting it is to be celebrating the IPA’s 125th anniversary this year. It is an honor, and I feel the weight of responsibility to continue the work of our founding fathers and all previous IPA leaders in collaboration with all our members and colleagues from around the world.
As we celebrate this milestone anniversary, we know that we are facing some serious challenges, so our founding fathers’ tenacity and commitment to grow the IPA and the publishing industry despite the odds is a constant inspiration to all of us. At this point in our history, our biggest challenge is digitization. This has been a challenge for some time, but the pandemic highlighted that many publishing houses are struggling to adapt due to varying factors. In response to this challenge, the IPA Is launching the IPA Academy. It’s the first of its kind and is an online platform with masterclasses in multiple languages to support our members in their digital transformation journey. It will include guidance on online marketing, e-books, online sales, and almost everything a publisher could need to manage a modern-day publishing house.
We are also working to strengthen solidarity and collaboration between publishers and all links in the publishing value chain. Each link in the publishing ecosystem is a world of its own, with challenges and opportunities. This is why we recently launched the International Sustainable Publishing and Industry Resilience plan, known as the Inspire Plan, during the Frankfurt Book Fair. We believe there is so much more we can do collectively to create more value for all our members and our industry – at its core, the Inspire plan aims to encourage more dialogue and create more synergies. I believe these two initiatives, among others, will give our industry the boost it needs to create a new chapter in its history.
Ques. It is said that you are one of the best-traveled and most dedicated sitting leaders of the organization in its 125-year history of IPA. As you have flown to meetings with member-association representatives in Russia, Turkey, Egypt, Kenya, Ivory Coast, Ghana, Georgia, and now Saudi Arabia. How true is the statement?
Ans. I have prioritized visiting as many publishers’ associations as I can during my IPA presidency tenure. I want our members to know that we are here for them and will support them through thick and thin, and if my physical presence helps reassure them, I am happy to make that trip if and when possible.
The beauty of the digital age is that we can now communicate through video conferencing very easily and more frequently. However, face-to-face meetings still have a tangible impact as they give us the chance to dive deeper into our conversations, leading to more understanding of the IPA and its members. Sometimes, during in-person meetings with our members, an informal and unscheduled side chat with a publisher or group of publishers in any market may give us new insights that enhance our understanding of that market and lead to a new opportunity for collaboration, and that’s very valuable in our business
Ques. The work of publishing before the pandemic is not the same now. Consumer behaviors have changed very fast. Do you think publishers need to adapt to the new mindset and skills to operate at a global level?
Ans. That’s a good question, and the short answer is yes. The publishing industry has been adapting to its environment since its inception in the fifteenth century, and that’s why we are still here today.
The bigger picture now definitely points to a shift in consumer behavior. However, I don’t believe this is simply the picture of a post-pandemic world, but covid was a huge wake-up call. I think these changes in consumer behavior have been coming for some time. What the pandemic did was to make the need for change urgent. So, yes, publishers do need to adapt. That is why the IPA is establishing the IPA Academy, which we will launch by the end of this year – it will go a big way in helping our members adapt to the digital age and its mindset. In my many visits, you alluded to in your previous question, this was one of the main issues raised by publishers who have been struggling with their digital transformation due to skills and knowledge gaps. We plan to continue supporting them to adapt through the IPA Academy and other initiatives, but publishers should also take steps to help themselves. One concrete action they can take now is to encourage young talent to take the lead in their publishing businesses – they are naturally tuned to the needs and trends of readership now and can think like modern readers.
Ques. What shall be the line, with which you want people to remember you.
Ans. I hope to be remembered as someone who paved the way for more diversity in the publishing industry and someone who passionately believed that books can help change the world and create more harmony and peace for all of us.