By Chip Rossetti
The distribution of print books in the Arab market has always been problematic, due in part to a lack of bookstores. With 300 million Arabic speakers, the market is potentially large, but it is divided into twenty-two countries burdened by import restrictions, different government censorship regimes, and occasional piracy. Ebooks have the potential to eliminate at least some of those problems, but so far there have been two major obstacles to ebook growth in the Arab world: technical/logistical issues and a reluctance of publishers to take the plunge into digital publishing. Fortunately, according to digital publishing consultant and trainer Mahmoud Aboulfotouh, that story has changed dramatically in just the last year, thanks to the growing adoption of EPUB3 and the involvement of some big players in the Egyptian book business.
Originally from the crowded Cairo neighborhood of Shubra, Mahmoud Aboulfotouh worked primarily on e-commerce websites for a number of years before switching to his current work consulting for the Swedish NGO International Media Network Services (INMS) as their liaison to the Arab world. His first project with INMS was a project building an ebook platform in Belarus. “We held workshops for Belarussian publishers and writers on ebooks and self-publishing” — an important technology for publishers in a country sometimes known as “the last dictatorship in Europe.”
Working in Egypt
“After that,” says Aboulfotouh, “I started working in Egypt. I was working with publishers interested in converting their books to ebooks.” Since then, he has presented many workshops on mobile app development, ebooks, digital archiving, and social media—to a number of institutions in his home country, including the Arab Publishers Union, the Goethe Institut, and the Bibliotheca Alexandrina.
Much of the training he does on Arabic-language e-publishing is focused on the EPUB3 format. As he points out, EPUB3 is still fairly new (it was approved in October 2011), and not yet widely used — although it is of profound importance for publishing in Arabic and Asian languages. The International Digital Publishing Forum, the global trade and standards organization that develops EPUB standards, requires the EPUB3 format to support such features as vertical writing, right-to-left texts, and font embedding. For the previous format, EPUB2, suppliers were not obligated to support them, although some do. In other words, when creating an ebook in Latin-alphabet (i.e., left to right) languages, EPUB 2 is perfectly usable, but for other languages (Arabic, Chinese, Japanese, etc.), EPUB3 ensures the kind of accessibility and convertibility that North American and European publishers have taken for granted when converting their print books to ebooks. Likewise, he says, “with EPUB3, multimedia features are native. You can have fully animated ebooks”—something that is particularly useful for children’s books, cookbooks, and textbooks.
Aboulfotouh began a series of workshops in Egypt starting in September 2013, known as the Arabic Digital Expression program. Participants, many of whom were authors looking to bring their content online, learned how to produce a digital Arabic book. Aboulfotouh also held a workshop with the Egyptian Publishers Union, a publishing trade organization that posed its own problems: “They had hundreds of books they wanted to convert into ebooks,” Aboulfotouh recalls. “But they had a problem: the books were all in crazy formats—in Photoshop, in Quark, etc. Some publishers came to us with actual hard copies of their books and explained that they wanted us to scan it for them.” For the latter, Aboulfotouh and his colleagues offered to the get the publishers a scanner with OCR (optical character recognition.)
Turning Point: The Launch of Kotobi
Egyptian publishers were learning how to create ebooks, but those ebooks needed a viable sales platform in order to reach readers. The turning point came earlier this year, when Egyptian telecommunications giant Vodafone launched the Kotobi website. For Aboulfotouh, this was “the biggest boom for Arabic ebooks. A company like Vodafone has the muscle to launch this.” The result was that Egyptian publishers began coming to him to ask about ebook conversions.
One of the reasons for the success of Kotobi is the fact that personal credit cards are not as widespread in Egypt as they are in US and Europe. Instead, people can use their phone credit to buy books and read them on their phones. The site offers iPad and Android apps, allowing readers to buy books on the Kotobi platform and have them downloaded automatically to their phone.
“The amount of books available now on Kotobi is amazing,” says Aboulfotouh. “The latest book from Ahmad Mourad [i.e., the novel 1919] is selling like hotcakes on Kotobi, according to my contacts at Vodafone. That book is one of the platform’s big successes.”
To expand on the success of the workshops, Aboulfotouh and his partners at INMS will be launching in three or fourth months an “Arabic E-books Academy.” “The aim of this platform is that anyone who has a question about ebooks can go there and get answers from the community or from experts,” he says. It will include a series of video tutorials on ebook development, as well as a series of EPUB3 templates that people can download and use to produce their own books.
Ebook Platforms Launching in Egypt
The launch of Kotobi had a ripple effect, as Aboulfotouh sees it, and as a result, there is a growing number of initiatives coming out of Egypt these days. The independent Cairo bookstore Diwan is coming out with its own platform, as is the Alif bookstore chain. At the same time, some of Egypt’s largest and best known publishing houses, such as Dar al Shorouq and Nahdet Misr, are now converting large numbers of their backlist titles and making them available on Kotobi. The fact that some of the big players in Egyptian publishing are now committed to ebooks means that everyone else is more inclined to follow.
For Aboulfotouh, 2013 witnessed a “building of momentum” in interest in ebooks, culminating in what he calls “an ebook frenzy” among Egyptian publishers at the end of the year, as publishers not only had the tools to convert their books to e, but had a growing number of sales platforms for them. He has plans to hold more workshops in Cairo, as well as in Beirut (“the next logical place,” as he puts it) in the coming months. For anyone interested in the culture of reading and the circulation of ideas, the widespread availability (and purchasability) of Arabic ebooks is a welcome recent development, one that will undoubtedly change the face of Arabic-language book publishing in the next few years.
This article appears courtesy of the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair.