This article is part of a series on publishing in the Middle East which is sponsored by the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair.
By Olivia Snaije
The Abu Dhabi International book fair (ADIBF) opens next week with just over 900 exhibitors, two thirds of which are from Arab countries. The fair’s eZone, dedicated to digital products and technology continues to be one of the biggest attractions at the ADIBF, where Arab publishers can meet with international speakers to discuss the evolution of digital initiatives in the fast growing and diverse area.
The fair’s professional program will be hosting various events including a session March 29th on “Making Arabic eBooks,” which will focus on how to create EPUB books and the technology involved. The list of speakers includes Samer Al Sayyah, Senior Developer at Flagship Pro, Dubai, Dominique Roux, Presses Universitaries de Caen and Emmanuelle Corne, Publisher at les Editions de la Maison des Sciences de L’Homme, France.
Just before this session there will be a roundtable discussion on the state of digital publishing in Arab region. Panelists include Shadi Hasan, Managing Director of Dubai-based Rufoof.com and Flagship.co, Sana Ghenima, CEO of Sanabil Med, Tunisia, Salah Chebaro, CEO of Neelwafurat.com, Lebanon, and Octavio Kulesz, Director of Editorial Teseo, Argentina.
In 2010 Kulesz had carried out an in-depth study on digital publishing in developing countries and had, at the time, written the following about the Arab world:
“In the Arab world digital publishing is highly incipient. The Arabic language represents a very powerful cohesive force, which may give rise to electronic platforms with transnational reach, but which at the same time – due to technical issues such as the treatment of fonts – involves numerous challenges. Of course, none of these challenges is insurmountable; in fact, the proliferation of blogs and the eagerness for digital content demonstrated by a section of the population indicate the potential that exists. If there were a way to bring together its human resources and existing technology, the Arab world could become a significant player in the field of electronic publishing.”
While part of the problem remains with the difficulties of conversion of the Arabic language itself — which some publishers in countries such as Lebanon and Algeria, where English or French are widely read, avoid the problem altogether — other hurdles in the region exist such as a vast disparity of purchasing power and internet penetration, piracy, or censorship.
However, new regional digital businesses are growing, such as digital publisher, Qordoba books, which will launch at the fair. The book arm grew out of Qordoba Ltd, a language technologies company dedicated to creating high-quality digital content in the Arabic language. Qordoba books will carry a wide selection of e-books by a variety of Arabic publishers and authors on different subjects and will include both Arabic books, and Arabic translations of international bestsellers and classics.
Tunisia-based Sana Ghenima produces apps for children in Arabic, English and French and will be participating in several roundtables. An industrial engineer, Ghenima focusses on edutainment and e-books for the Arab region.
Ramy Habeeb of the Egyptian Kotobarabia.com, the first company in the Arab world to convert print books into e-books assessed the current situation as both slow-moving yet moving nonetheless: “Unfortunately, we have not seen much change in Arabic language digital publishing. There has been a lot of talk and a lot of hope, but in the end the digital transformation continues to be slow. There are many reasons for this, stemming from the difficulties in converting Arabic books into EPUB to eReaders not being Arabic compliant. That said, there is hope. Kotobarabia is launching an app on the iPad with nearly 100 titles — and we plan on expanding. We are in discussion with several publishing powerhouses which express (what I can only hope to be) a serious interest in expanding in this space. Furthermore, due to the Arab spring’s use of Twitter and Facebook, we are seeing many waking up to the potential that digital publishing provides.”