The practical side of LitFest

The Publishing Programme is one of the elements of the ongoing Emirates Airline Festival of Literature that doesn’t get enough attention: it’s also one of the features of LitFest that looks ripe for development.

That’s because it provides the principal practical component of a festival that otherwise focuses primarily on readers as the audience; the Publishing Programme is aimed more at writers, retailers and publishers.

This year it comprised a full day of sessions spilling over into a further day with one more session. The subjects include the value of good editing, what works in bookselling, contracts, transaltion, digital publishing in Arabic, and literary agentiung in the UAE. That’s a meaty mix with something for everyone; it’s would be good to see the Publishing Programme developed with separate streams for writers, booksellers and publishers.

In the meantime we caught up with Flora Rees, Head of Education, Training & Publishing for LitFest’s parent, the Emirates Foundation for Literature. She has 20 years’ experience in commercial publishing, latterly as Senior Editor, Fiction, at Hachette UK’s Headline Publishing Group. There her job included publishing bestselling authors in print and digital; she was also involved in reinvigorating the audiobook list.

Flora Rees moved to Dubai in 2015 to join the Foundation. In 2017 she was involved in setting up and running the inaugural Dubai International Publishing Conference, held by the Emirates Literature Foundation in partnership with the Executive Council of Dubai.

We asked Flora how she saw LitFest fitting into the publishing ecosystem locally and internationally. And what does she see as the principal roles of LitFest?

“The LitFest celebrates a love of books and of reading in all its forms,” she responded, pointing out that over the years it has become recognised as a part of the book calendar here in the UAE.

“We believe the key pillars of a reading culture are writers, readers, publishers and librarians, all of whose work and choices impact each of the others. We work directly with local and international publishers, both in finding the authors that make our Festival so diverse, and to support the growth of the book industry in our region.”

How does the Publishing Programme fit into this?

“The Festival’s Publishing Programme is a series of sessions focused specifically on current publishing issues from bookselling, rights and translation to digital and the value of editors. This is where we connect publishers with each other, with readers and with current and future writers.”

It’s not the Literary Foundation’s only way of approaching the subject – “throughout the year we’re also involved in regional publishing events, while holding further events in our series of Love of Words pop-up majlis”.

Flora Rees sees this as a really interesting time to be looking at the publishing industry here. “There are a large number of small publishers and start-ups, along with many self-published authors, and serious efforts to grow the range and quality of children’s books in Arabic.

“The international rise in consumption of audiobooks has been reflected here too, with global companies such as Storytel entering the local market this year, and the RTA’s recent announcement of a partnership with to make Arabic audiobooks available to the visually impaired.”

Digital and audio publishing are obviously key areas of interest. “We will be discussing the impact of digital publishing in our Publishing Programme with representatives from Storytel, Sail Publishing and audiobook publisher Booklava.

The panel will also be discussing the impact of Amazon’s launch of 12,000 Arabic-language e-books on Kindle last year, and what this has meant for readers and publishers – so there’s lots to learn!”

As for the future, Flora didn’t give away too much detail. But clearly we can expect signficant developments: “One of the joys of the Festival is the range of topics that are covered, and this will always continue, with new ideas being tried and tested each year.

“When it comes to publishing, we’ve seen the value in running sessions and workshops on both creative writing and how to get published, whether that’s self-publishing or following the traditional publishing route, from writers, editors and literary agents.”

She also homed in on the value of developing local writers. “ “Some of our authors today are past Festival-goers, and supporting local talent in this way is very important to us. The Montegrappa Writing Prize has been hugely successful for UAE-based writers achieving international publishing deals …”

This year’s first place in the Montegrappa Writing Prize went to Polly Phillips, a former journalist who is now a corporate communications consultant in Dubai. Her novel, Keep Your Friends Close, is a domestic noir which looks at the nature of competition between women, focusing on a friendship that is inherently destructive, with a secret burning away at its core.

Montegrappa Prize winners, holding their goody bags

She won a $6,000 bespoke Montegrappa writing instrument, a two-night stay at a five-star hotel in Dubai, a copy of the current Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook, and a chance to discuss her manuscript with literary agent Luigi Bonomi. There’s no guarantee that he’ll take her on, let alone arrange a publishing deal, but the track record for past Montegrappa winners is pretty good …

The runners up were Aine O’Connor, Lynsey Eames, Mark Fiddes and Robert Pateman. They received a $1,000 Montegrappa fountain pen and a Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook.

The Emirates Airline Festival of Literature continues to 9 March. Details here.

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