By Kassem Al Tarras
The ebook market in the Arab World does not look as promising as it is in the West. It seems that we inherited a revolution without practical solutions to remedy the weakness affecting the printed book: weak metadata, serious piracy issues, and unreliable contracts. The Arabic ebook market needs a complete and immediate reorganization to avoid being taken over by huge international companies, which would rob contemporary publishers of their relevance and make them extinct like dinosaurs.
I have attended several training courses on e-publishing, starting from the first one held by the Kitab organization in 2010 at NYU Abu Dhabi and most recently, at a Kitab course held at Sorbonne University Abu Dhabi at the end of 2013. Through these training courses, I became qualified and acquired the skills to be immersed in the Arabic e-publishing world. However, I found that the Arabic e-market is totally distorted, and that the sophisticated tools used by the Western e-market are in fact double-edged swords, wielded by book pirates who are much more effective at using them than Arab publishers themselves. Moreover, advanced e-publishing technology has not yet been customized for the Arab world, primarily because the giant companies in the west can’t see any revenues in the Arab e-market that would cause them to invest in it. And even if they were to see a way to profit from it, the benefit to us as Arab publishers would be very limited.
The Arabic ebook market faces a number of challenges:
Piracy is the creativity killer and all efforts taken against pirates of printed books disappear at times of crises in the Arab world. Pirated books represent more than 60% of the printed book market,, while it represents more than 98% of the e-market. What complicates matters is the fact that digital crimes don’t have a digital law to put them to the court. Pirates of printed books operate differently from pirates of ebooks and are not the same people.
The problem of display—of both Arabic fonts and a right-to-left language system—has not been completely solved yet. For textbooks, the results are fine but enhanced and app books are unsatisfactory, especially books with verses of the Holy Quran. That means that the substantial field of religious publishing in Arabic is currently cut off from the ebook revolution. For now, PDF is the only book format that helps with this, but it is easily subject to piracy.
Training courses, while helpful, are costly and time-consuming for Arab publishers and language can be a barrier for some of them. While Arab publishers have often been a “jack of all trades” in the printed book market, a lack of expertise doesn’t fit with the realities of the e-market.
Censorship is one of the main obstacles that affects the reading market in the Arab world. Because censors have authority and executive power, they even censor the digital world, despite the difficulty involved. Some websites are blocked in some countries and some titles can’t be downloaded in others.
As with other publishing markets, earlier contracts for printed books in the Arab World don’t mention anything about the author e-copyrights. But Arab publishers and authors have an added burden of a weak legal system covering publishing: since current laws in the Arab World are not satisfactory for printed books, how could they begin to address the complexities involved in ebook publishing in a relatively primitive Arabic ebook market?
Since the challenges outlined above are communal rather than individual, they should be faced collectively. We won’t be able to surmount any of the above mentioned challenges if we stayed divided.
Arab publishers should work hard to confront piracy by empowering the Arab Publishers Association to press authorities in the Arab World to get them to block websites that infringe copyright laws and bring them to the court. It can contact stakeholders and decision-making companies to block such websites.
Arab publishers should think digitally: they should update their archives, replacing outdated plates with digital files. They should have each title readily available as a Word document, PDF file and Adobe InDesign file (or any other desktop publishing format.)
Arab publishers should partner with an e-service company to sort out ongoing font problems and create a standard font that will work with all smart devices. The Epub3 format has solved most problems for the western e-market and I think with some efforts it can solve ours. I believe one of the very powerful steps would be creating an Arabic e-reader that is fully compatible with the Arabic Language System and affordable to everybody.
There are a lot of short training courses and workshops for e-publishing in the Arab World. Some of them are for free and some are really affordable, such as training by Kitab, Frankfurt Academy and the Sharjah International Book Fair. Some Arab publishers have taken a very intelligent step by assigning the responsibility for e-publishing to the younger generation. They are ensuring that the next generation of Arabic-language publishers is fully conversant with e-publishing.
The Arab Publishers Association has recently issued a sample boilerplate contract that contains all the expected details needed by Arab publishers, including digital ones. It was sent by email to all members of the Arab Publishers Association and it can be adjusted according to any local environment.
Finally Arab publishers should know that simply waiting for the future of Arabic ebooks to arrive will ensure that it never comes. Arab publishers should make their own future now. Change needs three essential things: A new thinking system, new skills, and new tools. We need to ensure that we have all three in order to ensure a viable future for Arabic e-publishing.
Kassem Al Tarras is ISBN Syrian Agency Manager (The Syrian Publishers Association) and Manager of AlRowad Publishing House.