Now read on: trends in literature consumption in the UAE

It seems the UAE likes to read. The LiFest organiser Emirates Literature Foundation and its PR agency Four Communications have published an analysis of online and social media data referencing books and reading – and in the UAE there was a 7 percent year-on-year increase in relevant ‘mentions’ between 1 November 2020 and 31 October 2021, part of a worldwide total of nearly 73 million ‘mentions’.

Four has a proprietary data analysis tool, Mapper360, which does the heavy lifting. It look at social media, online public conversations, online news and other data sources identify themes, sentiment and conversation drivers based on volume within key markets. As Four puts it, “Mapper360 insights are faster, deeper, more robust and more actionable than traditional forms of insight as they are based on 10,000s of relevant, real-time data points that deliver in-depth analysis on what matters most and what matters now”.

The results come as a downloadable report titled Reading between the lines: The new trends spurring literature creation and the audiences driving cultural consumption. It lists four aims for the data crunching:

  • What are the trends within reading and literature?
  • Who are the consumers driving these trends?
  • Who is reading, what are they reading and how are they consuming literature and stories?
  • Who, where, and how are the cultural changemakers shaping books and stories?

A lot of the commentary and the stats in the report relate to global movements, rather than MENA or the Gulf, which is perhaps a shame – we aren’t told how many of the 73 million worldwide mentions relate to our region, for instance. And while the report certainly has a good shot at answering the first two of those questions, there isn’t too much statistical support for its conclusions about the last two; there are conclusions, to be sure, but it’s not clear how they were arrived at.

Still, it’s not a simple numbers-based market report, more a collection of trend points. Some key takeaways:

  • There’s a global passion for reading – and it’s growing: Literature and reading clocked up more than 73 million online mentions across the world in English and Arabic. That probably represents the value of reading as a respite from the challenging events that have shaped the last two years, but there was an upward trend in engagement with literature before the pandemic and it has continued throughout 2022.
  • The UAE is no outlier here: There was a 7 percent rise in conversations around reading in 2020, considerably higher than the global year-on-year increase of 3 percent.
  • There’s impressive growth in Arabic mentions: Social conversations in Arabic about books and literature have increased by 20 percent year-on-year. This is of course testament to a booming Arabic literature scene, exemplified by the enormous impact of the International Prize for Arabic Fiction (the 2022 winner has just been announced).
  • Kateb Maktub seems to be working: Emirates Literature Foundation’s Kateb Maktub initiative aims to increase the number of Arab author pages on Wikipedia in both Arabic and English. They have increased more than fivefold in less than two years, currently topping 4,600 (and those articles about Arabic authors have been viewed 224 million times).
  • New relationships between authors and readers are developing: Social media seems to have been a game-changer in creating dynamic reader-writer communities. Authors use them to thank readers and engage with fans, but they are also turning directly to readers for inspiration for storylines, construction of plots and research.

Marketing communications analysts love coming up with describable (and adjectivable) individuals who help to characterise separate markets, and the writing team for this research is no exception. They’ve identified six such examples, “powerful new audiences driving literature consumption and reshaping the literary scene in the MENA region… actively shaping what and how they and their peers read across the world”. From the top:

  • Summer Reader Sara: Books have become even more important to Sara (who represents 28 percent of the segmented audience) as a respite from the challenges of the world and her demanding family life. Sara is driving book sales across devices (although these purchases often go unread); community book clubs, book swap evenings with friends and online reading groups are of great importance to her. 
  • Knowledgeable Nadim: Representing 24 percent of the audience, Nadim and his peers enjoy reading books to unwind from their fast-paced life. He reads about science and technology, and the occasional thriller – typically in short bursts on a device, whilst using multiple screens.
  • Self-improver Shaimaa: Having rediscovered her love for reading during the pandemic, Shaimaa and her counterparts (18 percent of the total segmented audience) are driving an increased interest in audio and physical books on self-improvement books, business, career development, and physical and mental wellbeing.
  • Gen Z Zeina: Representing 7 percent of the audience, Zeina is leading the charge in driving backsales from established authors (often inspired by #BookTok) while also consuming YA output from new emerging writers. Zeina wants to make the world a better place and favours books from diverse voices as well as those which focus on the environment and sustainability.
  • Cultural Khaled: He’s represents 5 percent of the audiences shaping literature consumption works within the MENA region. An avid reader who attends cultural events and festivals, goes to book fairs and hangs out in bookshops, Khaled is also an aspiring author.
  • Next Gen Nemer: Nemer and his counterparts represent just 2 percent of the total segmented audience, but they are a powerful influence on the consumption of purposeful books, philosophical novels and debuts by game-changing authors. Highly philosophical and open to new ideas, Nemer follows Bookstagrammers and BookTubers for recommendations as well as threads on Reddit or Buzzfeed.

The immediate use for this research will be to help shape LitFest. As Ahlam Bolooki, Director of Emirates Airline Festival of Literature, put it: “This research reflects our view from the front line, but gives us a deeper understanding of where we are and who our audiences are. Whether you relate more to Next Gen Nemer or Summer reader Sara, we always make sure there is something that speaks to you at the Festival …

“Data like this helps us identify the gaps in the region’s literary ecosystem, and present programmes that ensure our industry has a solid foundation and continues to grow.”

Natalie Amos, MD for lifestyle at Four MENA, put the marcomms angle: “The industry is evolving at an exponential pace with new technologies and social platforms coming to the fore … Identifying new trends and emerging audiences within the cultural landscape is vital for success in understanding and engaging with new audiences and building marketing communications campaigns which resonate”.

Andrea Gissdal, who as Head of Marketing and Communications for Emirates Literature Foundation is probably going to be charged with realising the conclusions, said “Having these actionable insights is essential for developing an effective strategy. When you are as close to the subject as we are, you have a very good feeling for which way the wind is blowing, but that can never be a substitute for genuine data-led insights”. Ah ha, so there is some data in there somewhere.

You can fill in the request to download a copy of the report here.

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