Austria’s Blackbetty Tackles Arabic Ebooks for Phones

In Feature Articles by Chip Rossetti

by Chip Rossetti

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VIENNA: For Jörg Hotter, CEO of Blackbetty Mobilemedia GmbH, a Viennese company that creates the software to make texts readable on mobile phones, the future of publishing looks small. Specifically, he says, it will be the small screens on the 800 varieties of mobile devices currently on the market worldwide that will be the next step in electronic publishing. “Mobile-device publishing will not replace books as we know them,” he says, but ultimately, “it will be a gateway to bring people to buy more books.”

On its sister Web site, www.mobilebooks.com, Blackbetty sells both German and English-language e-texts — from classic works to recent novels — formatted for the small screens of mobile phones.  It is also currently producing software to make Arabic ebooks readable on phones, and hopes to have a prototype ready at Frankfurt this October. “People in Arab countries are very eager for mobile publishing, very open to it, especially in Egypt,” he says. After an enthusiastic response at the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair this past spring, Blackbetty is now negotiating licenses with Arabic publishing houses, and plans to launch with titles from Egyptian ebook publisher Kotobarabia.com.

Blackbetty is currently working out the technical kinks, including making a readable right-to-left script. “Many people don’t understand the problems of small-screen publishing,” he says. “You can’t just take a large-screen text and make it small.” Readable software is particularly important for Arab readers, he points out, since “it’s a culture of writing, and therefore it’s important to provide a nice-looking typeface. You can’t use the mobile phone settings, because they look terrible. This is why we take so much effort to make the type look good.”

But the challenges go beyond technical ones: “We also have to establish a billing system in Arabic countries,” where, he noted, credit cards are not always commonly used. “The first easy-payment billing method will be by premium SMS. Our goal is always to let people pay on their phone bill. Credit cards are too complicated. It’s much easier to browse online, click, and have it charged to your phone bill, which is how it’s done now with our German-language books.”

“There is a big difference in publishing mobile-device books for the Arab world than publishing for Europe. In Europe, it’s more about entertaining people, since readers have easy access to printed books anyway. But I think that in other countries, where book publishing and distribution is not that developed, it’s important to bring people books that they can’t buy in stores.  If you look at Africa, it’s been the fastest growing mobile market in the last three years, even if many mobile-users there are using older phones. We think for these countries, it’s not about entertainment, but about making books accessible in a way that is already technologically possible. In many parts of the Arab world, people have jumped directly to the mobile age. As with land line connectivity, they jumped a technology.”

While Blackbetty is starting with licenses for previously published books, “what will be really interesting is when we get exclusive publications: books original to mobiles, not just licenses.” Hotter hopes the technology will open up new possibilities for Arabic fiction, the way the cell-phone novel has emerged as a distinct genre in Japan, and increasingly, in Europe: “When authors are more used to this publishing format, we hope that they will take the chances offered by this new media. There are authors who are already writing in German specifically for mobile phones. They write texts that are more specific for use on the mobile device: stories are shorter, they are written more simply, and they get to the point more directly.” If mobile-device publishing software lives up to Blackbetty’s expectations, there should soon be a new generation of Naguib Mahfouzes and Mahmoud Darwishes writing cell-phone masterpieces in Arabic — as well as a substantial audience reading them.

LEARN: more from Blackbetty’s Web site and blog

CONTACT: Jörg Hotter directly

BUY: books from Mobilebooks.com

About the Author

Chip Rossetti

Chip Rossetti is the managing editor of the Library of Arabic Literature translation series at NYU Press. He is a translator of contemporary Arabic fiction.