Kotobarabia’s Arabic E-Books Extend Borders

In Feature Articles by Chip Rossetti

By Chip Rossetti

online bookCAIRO: Most of the difficulties faced by Arabic-language book publishing stem from two basic problems: government censorship and very limited distribution. But with e-books, Ramy Habeeb, founder of the Egypt-based publisher Kotobarabia, has managed to bypass both seemingly intractable problems. As the first e-publisher devoted exclusively to Arabic-language titles, www.kotobarabia.com now offers over 8500 books in 31 subject categories, ranging from “Literature” to “Business Management,” “Banned Books,” and the provocatively titled “Hot Topics.”

Surprisingly, Habeeb’s entrée into Arabic e-publishing came via Japan, where he lived for three years teaching English after graduating from McGill University: “While working in Japan, I connected with a couple of individuals who were creating an English-language e-learning program for Japanese speakers. That experience was amazing, and opened my eyes to the whole e-learning sector.” Habeeb took that interest back with him to Egypt, where he saw the potential for electronic publishing in Arabic.

In 2005, he founded Kotobarabia, and quickly discovered just how bad book distribution in the Arab world really is. “We did a study,” he says, “where we looked at 150 titles from the market at large, from the crème de la crème of Arabic writers to little-known authors. What we discovered was that the top 10% of the books were available along any conventional distribution route, and could be found at most bookstores. The bottom 10% was not available anywhere: Basically, you could only get them at the publisher’s office or at the author’s home. The middle 80% was only available within a five kilometer radius of the publishing house.” With a typical distribution radius of five kilometers, a book published in Cairo would be hard to find in Alexandria, let alone Amman or Casablanca.

In general, Arabic publishing houses have been slow to catch on to e-rights, but “the climate is changing: publishers are becoming more aware of subsidiary rights, although they tend to be for individual titles only. In Egypt, maybe 1% of publishers will claim e-rights across the board. Maybe another 10% will claim them for individual books.” With so few publishers engaged in electronic publishing, Kotobarabia “in over 85% of cases” signs up e-rights directly with authors, who often approach the company directly.

A few Arabic publishers offer electronic versions of their own titles, and some web-savvy authors have taken the initiative to make their work available electronically. “The difference between them and us,” says Habeeb, “is that we are a content aggregator.”

Currently, the company operates on a subscription basis, with separate platforms for individuals and institutions.  Previously, when books could be bought individually, only 3% of visitors to the site would end up buying a book.  But, on average, those book buyers were return customers, buying books from the site every six weeks after that.  Books on politics and religion (both Islam and Christianity) sell well, as do novels and poetry collections that have caught the media’s attention.

Habeeb would occasionally notice large bulk orders from individuals buying up entire categories of books. When he tracked down customers to ask why, their answer was always that they knew it would be just a matter of time before his site was shut down. The looming presence of censorship is one reason why Kotobarabia’s servers for the site are in the United States, rather than in the Arab world itself.

Despite the realities of censorship, Habeeb says his site has never run afoul of governments in the Arab world, a fact that gives him a reason to hope, not only for his company, but for the relatively untapped world of Arabic e-publishing: “When I opened up Kotobarabia, everyone told me I was crazy. But here we are five years later, still coming on strong.”

SHOP: The Kotobarabia site.

CONTACT: Ramy Habeeb directly.

READ: Ramy’s tips from Lonely Planet for enjoying life in Cairo.

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.