Bodour Al Qasimi
7 min readNov 22, 2022

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Photo credit: Ivana Maglione

Reflecting on my Experiences in Global Publishing Over the Past Four Years: Lessons Learned and My Takeaways on Industry Imperatives for the Future

After encouragement from several members, I began exploring a run for the vice presidency of the International Publishers Association (IPA) in mid-2018. As I began to explore my candidacy, I realized just how important diverse, new voices are to publishing industry progress and the future of IPA.

Despite the recent attention on diversity and inclusion in global publishing, only one woman — Ana María Cabanellas — had presided over the IPA since it was founded in 1896. The IPA had also only had four non-European presidents (Andrew Neilly, Ana Maria Cabanellas, Storer Lunt and YS Chi) in its long history before Hugo Setzer from Mexico was elected to the presidency in 2019. These legacy realities had me on the fence about my candidacy.

Setzer’s election was pivotal in pushing me to go ahead, and it was also a watershed moment in other unexpected ways. With the election of Karine Pansa to the IPA presidency in September 2022 and Gvantsa Jobava likely to follow suit, there will be three female IPA presidents in a row.

My tenure in the leadership of IPA over the past four years has imparted several lessons. In this blog, I reflect on the lessons I have learned and takeaways from one of the hardest, but perhaps, also one of the most rewarding times to be in publishing ever.

Global Publishing Needs to Reset Industry Relationships

There were unexpected, positive consequences of the pandemic on publishing. With the near shutdown of the entire publishing value chain globally in 2020 and well into 2021, national publishing ecosystem stakeholders had to put aside legacy differences to weather the pandemic and recover. In this time of adversity, we saw publishers, authors, educators, librarians, bookshops, book fairs, technology companies, industry associations, and other stakeholders come together to keep books in the hands of readers.

This détente led to unprecedented industry solidarity. Catalyzed by the pandemic, long-overdue industry dialogues on the future of publishing emerged: authors began engaging more with publishers, teachers began working more closely with educational publishers, the industry collectively considered the future of book fairs, and publishers and bookstores found new ways to respond to digitization and disintermediation.

In this environment of increased cooperation, I saw an opportunity to hit the reset button on historical publishing industry stakeholder relationships. For this reason, a significant focus of my presidency was the International Sustainable Publishing and Industry Resilience (Inspire) initiative to support publishing’s recovery through multi-stakeholder programs that reinforced industry solidarity, promoted dialogue, and focused the industry on common priorities.

In the course of implementing the Inspire initiative, I learned that there is far more to be gained by resetting global publishing industry relationships to collectively focus on systemic industry change rather than clinging to the status quo. While some global publishing stakeholders stick to dated talking points and inflexible positions, only through cooperation can global publishing make progress on complex industry challenges like ensuring freedom to publish, contributing to global climate change, progressing diversity and inclusion, and up-skilling the publishing workforce for the future.

While inspire was the beginning of this reset, there is a need to broaden the dialogue between publishers and stakeholders like bookstores, libraries, authors, educators, and even more diverse stakeholders like printers and paper manufacturers. It is my hope that the critical publishing value-chain-wide dialogue sparked by Inspire continues.

Global Publishing Can Contribute More to Sustainable Development

In 2018, an IPA survey found that 84% of members believed the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals are important, but only 73% of members saw them as relevant to the publishing industry. The gap between the recognition of the importance of sustainable development progress and how global publishing can tangibly contribute is alarming.

An important lesson for me over the past few years was the realization that it is easy to talk in vague terms about the socio-economic impact of publishing on nations and societies. However, it is much harder to identify specific, tangible ways the publishing industry can contribute to the global sustainable development debate. I believe there are a few near-term priorities for global publishing to start taking action on sustainable development.

As I wrote in my blog post last month, global publishing’s lack of data on sustainable development issues, such as reading and literacy, civic engagement, and the industry’s broader socio-economic impact, is a key challenge. More multi-sectoral partnerships that include statistics authorities, publishers, retailers, publishing associations, and other publishing stakeholders can improve industry data quality and depth. Additionally, capacity development in emerging and developing publishing markets is critical to increase data coverage.

One of the most critical development challenges that can benefit from the industry’s renewed solidarity and better data is tackling climate change. Inspire was a catalyst for initial discussions on a value chain-wide commitment to greening publishing’s supply chain. In particular, the Inspire consultation recommendation to develop a common publishing industry sustainability measurement and reporting framework linked to normative standards and a certification process is a much-needed next step. It is time publishing takes more accountability for its climate impact through multi-stakeholder environmental, social, and governance commitments. Increased dialogue across the supply chain can also contribute to preventing future supply chain crises like the one our industry faces now.

Publishing also needs to start doing a better job on sourcing and scaling grassroots innovations that can contribute to sustainable development while cultivating future high growth markets. The United Nation’s recently released World Population Prospects 2022 report suggests where some of these high potential markets will be. More than half of global population growth to 2050 will come from 8 countries: the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Egypt, Ethiopia, India, Nigeria, Pakistan, the Philippines, and Tanzania. Sub-Saharan African countries will also contribute more than half of the global population increase through 2050.

These emerging, fast-growing economies are the publishing growth markets of tomorrow, and it is important to realize that innovation doesn’t always need to flow from developed to developing. This is why initiatives like the African Publishing Innovation Fund (APIF), a first-of-its-kind project funded by Dubai Cares that provides catalytic grants to scalable, cutting-edge publishing innovations, are so important. Not only do such initiatives challenge the industry to expand horizons, they also enable global publishing to contribute directly to solving developmental challenges, like literacy, indigenous publishing, library development, and conflict reconciliation, in the growth markets of the future.

With emerging markets providing the bulk of the readers of tomorrow, I think assistance addressing developmental challenges through capacity building is a sensible investment in the industry’s collective future. I see significant scope for a global publishing innovation fund which would scale APIF’s learnings and impact.

Global Publishing Must Better Support the Overlooked and Unheard

I have come to realize that global publishing’s market structure and concentration in established publishing markets can mean that critical perspectives can go unheard. The prevailing market structure and the industry’s slow pace in challenging the status quo has perpetuated a few problematic dichotomies.

The industry principles-based concerns of developed publishing markets often take precedent over the market development-focused priorities of emerging publishing markets. There is also a tendency to view what is good for large publishers is good for all publishers — a practice which neglects the nuanced needs of the many small and medium-sized businesses operating in the publishing ecosystem. Unfortunately, these dichotomies have perpetuated an uneven post-pandemic industry recovery and raised questions about how global publishing should support the overlooked and unheard to fully recover and adapt to new market realities.

The World Intellectual Property Organization’s Global Publishing Industry in 2021 report confirmed earlier qualitative findings from IPA’s research on the impact of the pandemic on global publishing. Developed publishing markets have rebounded quickly, while less developed publishing markets are still recovering. These dichotomies between developed vs. developing markets and big vs. small publishing ecosystem players have significant implications for the future of global publishing.

With world-class digital infrastructure, diversified revenue streams, large domestic markets, multiple routes to market, and more stable economies, developed publishing markets have the market fundamentals for strong recoveries. These fundamentals do not exist in developing publishing markets in which decreased consumer purchasing power, lower institutional purchasing budgets, and less developed digital economies have led to protracted recoveries.

At the same time, small and medium-sized publishing ecosystem players often don’t have diversified revenue streams, rely on limited distribution channels, and lack resources for digital transformation. Small and medium-sized publishing ecosystem players need significant support in adapting to an increasingly digital future — a need that can only partially be filled by the IPA Academy.

While the longer-term implications of these dichotomies are unclear, I am particularly worried about what they could mean for biblio-diversity, indigenous publishing, and long-term growth prospects of developing publishing markets. An important learning for me is that there is an inherent tradeoff in trying to reconcile these industry dichotomies to benefit the future of global publishing. Too often, the influence of better resourced, more developed, and larger stakeholders dominates industry dialogues leaving emerging publishing markets and small and medium-sized publishing ecosystem players overlooked and unheard.

An Unprecedented Opportunity to Shape the Future of Publishing

As this is my last blog post as IPA President, I would like to take this opportunity to thank you for your support. Together, we have made it through one of the most challenging times that global publishing has ever faced, and we have begun the process of post-pandemic recovery with a renewed sense of industry solidarity focused on partnership over partisanship.

In my IPA October 2018 candidacy statement, I asked for the vote of IPA members as a recognition of the changing face of publishing and the more globalized orientation required to shape the future of our industry. I told you that I saw an unprecedented opportunity to help shape the future of IPA and global publishing.

As I reflect on the past four years, I think we have made some much-needed progress as an industry, and we have made significant gains on including diverse voices in defining the future of global publishing. I have been honored to represent the interests of IPA members, and I am very proud of what we have achieved as an institution and industry.

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Bodour Al Qasimi

President of International Publishers Association; Founder and CEO of Kalimat Group, Kalimat Foundation and PublisHer network to empower women in publishing.