Sharjah International Book Fair 29th Edition

My photo
Sharjah, United Arab Emirates
ExpoCenter 7th - 17th November, 2012. Hours | Saturday - Thursday: 10a.m. - 10p.m.; Friday: 4p.m - 10p.m.

Wednesday, 23 November 2011

Fake Plastic Souks: Rejection. An Author's Guide

The very nice piece about me in The National last Sunday did contain one or two teensy-weensy mistakettes, one of which was that Olives - A Violent Romance had been passed up by 250 agents and 12 publishers. That's not actually the case, that's my total rejection count, not just those notched up by Olives.

It's mostly my fault - for the first few years I pursued my writing goal in secret and flung myself repeatedly against the same wall, the Dunning Kruger Syndrome coursing through my veins. I'd send off batches of manuscripts, four or five at a time, convincing myself that all sorts of things were possible. That it was a numbers game. That agents further up the alphabet would be easier. That this edit was the one that'd make it through.

My first rejection was from an agent at big agency Peters, Fraser and Dunlop (PFD to you), who had made a big noise online about how he loved to help new authors. I remember cursing and shaking my fist at him (from 4,000 miles away) as his form rejection showed me how little he, in fact, cared for us unsung geniuses.

I've already said several times that I now consider my first book, Space, was badly written. It was funny, but really lacked the technique to cut the mustard. I realised that in 2007 when I finally 'came out' and made contact with other writers. I was still 'shopping' Space then, hopeful that whatever quality had got it to the 'Editor's Desk' on Harper Collins' peer-review site Authonomy would be seen by someone who would take it on and get it a nice editor. It was not to be. I had finished Olives and started submitting it to agents before then, but Olivestoo had been notching up rejections from agents, some of whom had said odd things like 'The British public isn't interested in the Middle East' and 'We see enough bombs in the world without wanting to read about them.' I took these statements seriously at the time, but have since learned not to - literary agents and editors alike will cast around for the nearest glib phrase to decorate a rejection, these aren't thought-through guidance, but a brush-off. They do an awful lot of rejecting, they reserve their time and effort for the stuff that gets through.

So Olives must have racked up another 100-odd rejections (in batches, in between major editing runs and re-writes) before one request for a 'full read' came back with 'it isn't dramatic enough'. I stomped off with gritted teeth and the determination to give them dramatic if they wanted dramatic. Beirut, an insane, pumped up international spy thriller on crack, the result of that particular temper tantrum, was certainly dramatic.And it was also rejected time and again before a cheeky correspondence with the very kind agent Andrew Lownie resulted in my getting a professional reader to look at the manuscript - his advice taken, I resubmitted to Robin Wade and it was Robin who signed me up and tookBeirut to 12 of London's Finest.

Who all rejected it.

It's certainly a remarkable tale - 250 rejections is quite a tally. Many of these are completely my own fault - for going it alone, for thinking this was a numbers game, for sticking with it and for beating my head repeatedly at the same wall. But a good number of them are the fault of an industry in its death throes. Agents are gatekeepers for publishers, filtering out anything they don't believe is a dead cert winner. Agents get paid 15% of authors' revenues and like nothing more than a nice, fat advance. If you can land a £100,000 advance once a month alongside some strong residuals, you're in the moolah, no? So there's a strong trend to support the well-trodden path, to be mainstream and not take risks. Added to that, the sheer number of hopefuls submitting to agents means manuscripts will be rejected for the most arbitrary reasons - bad formatting, an unconventional beginning, a difficult topic. And then there is the faddishness of safe publishing - if African Memoirs are this year's Big New Thing, then they're not going to be too open to a Sweeping Russian Drama. Sorry, Leo.

In the UK today, books are going straight to paperback and straight to discount - 3 for 2s and half price deals stacked up in supermarket bins as publishers try to find new ways to hit the popular pocket for money as they struggle with a public becoming ever more indifferent to full length linear narrative. People today are consuming so many streams of content and entertainment in such easily digestible media - and of course, e-readers are now part of that world, which rather confuses those used to thinking of the dynamics of publishing in terms of percentages of the hugely inefficient wodge of dead tree that is a booky book. E-book sales are going through the roof as the prices asked for by authors are going through the floor - publishing is finding it ever harder to map out its relevance in this scenario. And so only the very safest, most obvious decisions get made.

I'm sure someone in publishing will drop by and say, no, that's not the case - we just back quality. But I don't think the protest will carry much conviction these days.

So how can an author today handle rejection? First, remember it's not personal. Second, take any feedback as a hugely positive thing (remember, they're focusing on the stuff that gets through, so if they spare you a comment or two, they've done you a big favour). Third, don't let 'em pile up to 250. If you notch up just ten of those nasty little photocopied slips, assume the next ten won't be any different and get your ass off to and sign up to Kindle Direct Publishing.

Because that, my dears, is where the party is.

Sharjah International Book Fair Day Two

Sharjah International Book Fair Day Two
The bookfair is overrun today. The noise hits you the moment you walk into the glass atrium of the airy exhibition halls. As my new friend, the poet Yahia Lababidi, says later, “It was like a hive humming with bees. Only instead of bees it was little girls.”

Today is girls’ schools day at the Sharjah International Book Fair and they are here in force. Against this vibrant backdrop, I meet Michael Rothenberg, founder of the 100 Thousand Poets for Changemovement.

He explains to me that his project is uniting people from all over the world by giving them a platform to share their voices with others. While others may talk about their wishes to unite the world, Michael has found a way to do it. Okay, the numbers of people taking part are small compared to the global population but it’s a strong stitch in the wished-for global fabric.

The participants come from different backgrounds and cultures, political standpoints and religions, yet all can unite in a common goal of using the written word.

It’s a cliche to say that writing is about finding truth, yet it’s a cliche because there’s some – well – truth in it. A human response or a feeling that resonates widely with others can be that essential grain. Or perhaps, it is a new empathic way of looking at something.

Particularly for a poet, the challenge can be to distill a feeling, or an event, or a reaction, into its more potent, compact form.

I explain that I feel science is similar...

Science is about looking for irreducible truths in nature that can be expressed in compact mathematical form. But that unfortunately, the never ending professionalisation of science in universities, and the squeeze of funding, has obscured the joy of it and in some cases, taken the heart out of it.

Science is not about pretending that you have all the answers. It’s about being a seeker and most importantly, it’s about embracing the mysteries – after all that’s where a scientist is supposed to be working, where things don’t make sense and the wonder of nature is abundantly apparent.

Yahia joins us as I’m telling Michael of the 1000 pages of calculations that survive of Johannes Kepler’s epic struggle to understand the orbit of Mars. At the end of this Herculean task, Kepler distilled the motion of Mars to just three lines of maths. These were a truth and not just for Mars.

Kepler’s three laws of planetary motion, as they are now known, applied not just to Mars, but to all the other planets in the solar system, to all the moons around those planets, and subsequently to all 700 planets that have been discovered around other stars during the last 20 years. Kepler found a beautiful truth that he distilled for us all, just as a portraitist leaves a masterwork for later generations.

“You know, a poet may have to write a thousand poems in order to write just one that has real meaning,” says Yahia.

And a thousand school girls may be needed at a book fair to trigger the determination to become a writer in just one of them. But judging by the enthusiasm washing around me today, those other 999 stand a very good chance of becoming at least readers.

Later that night, as Indian Ghazal music echoes in the plaza outside, I spot a number of people leaving the book fair with supermarket trolleys full of reading material.

As Yahia says, “We’re all hostages to beauty.” The only thing that differs is where we find beauty.

SHJIBF: Emerging writers in Sharjah | Emerging Writers' Festival


While here at Sharjah International Book Fair I have been pondering the question of writers. Of course I love to talk about literature, culture, politics and publishing, but my central concern is with writers – how they work, how they connect in with the industry, and how their careers supported, developed and promoted by the publishing and cultural institutions around them.

While bestselling authors have often learnt from experience how to be comfortable and confident in the industry, writers who are just starting out or haven’t yet hit the big time often struggle to understand how and why things in the industry work, what their rights and responsibilities are, where to find support, how to find readers, and even how to value their work and keep on creating.

One of the things I am enjoying doing in Sharjah is connecting with writers, both local and from around the world.

I still haven’t gotten a firm handle on how emerging writers in the UAE learn how to write and navigate the business of writing. Of course there are some degrees, and some writing-focussed programs available, and reading and writing groups as well. Bookish events like Sharjah Book Fair and Emirates Literary Festival are obviously interesting to writers, but from what I’ve seen there is little in-depth, writer-specific programming available. There is not much indie publishing (as in micro-publishers) and the blogging community is small. I also don’t think there is a writers’ centre (correct me if I’m wrong!).

Earlier this year I wrote about Emerging writers globally. In Australia we are really lucky to have lots of entry points for writers to the publishing world: a thriving literary scene, lots of festivals, a robust publishing industry (including the oh-so-vital indie publishing sector), a solid reading and bookselling culture, and plenty of writing degrees available.

In short, Australia is unnaturally friendly to writers. While we sometimes come up against challenges (the parallel importation furore, the problem of selling books online, the death of newspapers etc), in general we are lucky to have such solid infrastructure for our writers to work within.

Of course, the Emerging Writers’ Festival is a part of that infrastructure. What we offer – our accessible and innovative ‘industry insider information’ programming – and what we produce – confident writers – is incredibly unique. I’m biased, of course, but I’m proud of the role EWF plays in developing and connecting writers in Australia.

This blog post is really a question (a long one!). I’d love to hear from writers in the UAE about where and how they navigate their writing careers and learn the art, the craft and the business of being a writer.

Please post comments or tweet me or come and see me at Sharjah Book Fair (I’m the one on the left)! If you are a blogger please send me a link to your blog.

Day 8 « 10 Days in Sharjah

No time for major entry today…off to (more) museums, souq, and hopefully to Dubai to stare at the tallest building in the world.

Great day with Ahmed who gave us a personal tour of the Islamic Civilization Museum.(I am a museum junkie, I can spend all day in a museum).

Then he took us to a great local Lebanese restaurant for dinner where we had a ridiculous amount of food for a ridiculous $30.

(I highly recommend the falafel arabic, moist and perfectly grilled).

Please check my Facebook album for many photos…still trying to upload, share, etc. to various locations…:)

Also, last night I sat in on an Arabic women poetry reading…I had my own personal translator whispering in my ear. It was bizarre. Very passionate readers…lots of words, lots of “country” and more men in the room than women.

Quite interesting.

I am compiling a collage poem from the poetry fragments whispered in my ear by the lovely
Joyce Mouaead, Official Book Fair Interpreter (Wish I had taken her picture).

Here is a unedited sample so far…

The Poets

Maryam AP Nakbi
Mahra Mohamad Bani Yas
Bardis Fuson Khalifa

Arabs be proud
Protect your country
from those who will do harm

Sing of country

You are like flowers
and live in a unique world

One voice
One voice

An emergency

You don’t take into consideration
I am living in this country
Feeling sorrow

I have an emergency
Urging me
To leave

Paris is like magic

They forget
They forget

They think that the snow
Will give me feelings
I don’t have here

I was in my office and I heard a noise

My father died
My father died

Sadness and determination
Like a crying baby

But also like sunshine

My country
My country

No one will be like him

I ask for the pen to write
Express my feelings
This pen started writing

Times are getting more difficult

I am sick
I am sick

Only God can help me

A mermaid that can fly
Spreads her wings

Poetry is a gift

Everyday Adventure, Lisa Dempster › Nerd of Scrabble


I love Scrabble so much I once wrote a zine about it. So you can imagine how superstoked I was to find a workshop on Arabic Scrabble in the Sharjah Book Fair program. The workshop was teaching children how to play the board and digital versions!


SHJIBF: Bubble Hero book launch | Emerging Writers' Festival


Yesterday I went to the launch of BUBBLE HERO, an Arabic children’s book published by Kalimat. The author (pictured) is Emirati children’s writer Abir Ballan.

It was so cute to see all the tiny kid’s chairs and then watch all the boys squeeze into the Kalimat stand to hear the reading. It helped that they were being given bubble blowers to play with!


The book is about a little boy who farts a lot. Bubble = fart = LOL.

Although in Australia we are used to fun books for little ones, this kind of book is highly innovative in the UAE, where books for young readers often carry moral messages and are often low on humour. Another issue is that they are published in classical Arabic, which causes a disconnect between the words on the page and the everyday language children use.

There was a fascinating article on this topic in The National today, A language tradition revised. In it, Kalimat publisher Sheikha Bodour al Qasimi said:

“Language affects children’s thought and emotions and there’s a rigid, formal language in books. The gap between the colloquial and classical plays a big part in why children are not picking up books,” Sheikha Bodour says.

While Kalimat publishes books in Modern Standard Arabic (formal Arabic), it includes words and expressions that are familiar to children, and tries to make the gap between formal and colloquial writing as small as possible, so that children will feel connected to the texts.

Bubble Hero is a Kalimat book that is pushing other boundaries also. According to Bodour, there is a dearth of humour-only books for children. At the launch yesterday, she was confident that children, especially boys, would love Bubble Hero, but worried that teachers and parents might find it too radical to enjoy. I’m hoping that she will be wrong, in the nicest possible way!

I have such fond memories of reading ‘nonsense books’ (like Paul Jennings!) when I was growing up, and it’s inspiring that Bodour and Kalimat are working to bring this kind of book to the children of the UAE also. At the Emirati YA panel it was discussed how making making reading fun at a young age leads to increased literacy and reading enjoyment as teens and adults. So a book like Bubble Hero is win-win really – fun for kids and good for books and learning.

Kalimat are launching an incredible 20 books at Sharjah Book Fair this year, and are a publisher to keep an eye on. In a region beset with problems with publishing and distribution, writing and reading, Kalimat are proving to be a smart, engaged and innovative publishing house. (Also, Bodour recently won the British Council’s Young Publishing Entreprenuer Award. Amazing.)


It was fun to be at the noisy and chaotic launch of Bubble Hero. Talk about a good vibe, the author did a great reading and the kids loved it. And of course I’m talking about the big kids there – I had a blast!