Abu Dhabi: Kobo Plans To Begin Supporting Uploads of Arabic

In Feature Articles by Porter Anderson

The 12-year-old international digital book service’s CEO Michael Tamblyn addressed the Abu Dhabi book fair’s conference.

Rakuten Kobo’s Michael Tamblyn addresses the International Congress of Arabic Publishing and Creative Industries at Abu Dhabi’s National Exhibition Centre. Image: Publishing Perspectives, Porter Anderson

By Porter Anderson, Editor-in-Chief | @Porter_Anderson

See: Our coverage of the 2022 Abu Dhabi International Book Fair and Our special Abu Dhabi International Book Fair Show Magazine

‘From the Beginning, We Supported Multiple Languages’
One element of news that came out of the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair‘s (May 23 to 29) bilingual International Congress of Arabic Publishing and Creative Industries here in the United Arab Emirates arrived during Rakuten Kobo CEO Michael Tamblyn’s keynote address.

Kobo, he said, during the last quarter of this year will adopt Arabic “as a primary browsing language” for users.

Update, June 2: What this means–the company has clarified today–is that Kobo, “will begin with supporting the uploading and display of Arabic content later this year, but we will not have a localized Arabic storefront or Arabic-language interface on our eReaders and apps at this time. Once we can support Arabic content this fall, [that] will open the doors for conversations with publishers to build up a fulsome catalogue, and kick-start and grow the business.”

Based in Ontario, Rakuten Kobo is the second largest e-reader brand in the world (after Amazon), hosting some 7 million titles in 76 languages, and operating its delivery of ebooks to consumers in 190 countries. In addition, Rakuten Kobo is running local operations now in 25 countries.

The 8.5-hour conference on Sunday was presented by the book fair’s producer, the Abu Dhabi Arabic Language Centre under the direction of Dr. Ali Bin Tamim, who made himself a faithful audience member after his own thoughtful comments at the beginning of the day, watching from the front row as the program proceeded.

Tamblyn, one of the most reliable conference speakers in world publishing, was a bit less given to humor in his comments in the Abu Dhabi event than he has been in other book-business conference settings, but made his points with his usual quick pace and apt observations, saying that Kobo aims to enhance the ebook sales sector in the Arab region and create a thriving, digital market for the publication of books.

The heft that Rakuten Kobo can bring to the Arabic markets is considerable, of course, as much of the region works to develop both its digital-publishing and -distributional capacity while working to draw its broad consumer base of hundreds of millions of Arabic speakers in the direction of digital potentials.

“At our heart,” Tamblyn said of his company and its Toronto-based staff, “we are booksellers.”

‘A Different Approach to Culture’

Rakuten Kobo’s Michael Tamblyn addresses the International Congress of Arabic Publishing and Creative Industries at Abu Dhabi’s National Exhibition Centre. Image: Publishing Perspectives, Porter Anderson

Founded in 2009 and now a brand of Tokyo’s Rakuten conglomerate, Kobo he said, now is “very much in that middle point between the world of paper and the world of screens, with the focus and immersion of ‘deep reading,’ but with the accessibility and portability that technology provides.”

Kobo is “very much in that middle point between the world of paper and the world of screens, with the focus and immersion of ‘deep reading,’ but with the accessibility and portability that technology provides.”Michael Tamblyn, Rakuten Kobo

Being a Canadian company, he said, has actually been a driver in the company’s widely recognized geographical range.

“If you know anything about Canada,” Tamblyn said, “you know that the only way to become a global company is to expand outside of Canada as quickly as possible. And that’s what we did.

“So from the very beginning, we supported multiple languages, different currencies and payment methods. And now, 12 years later, our sales are roughly one-third from Asia, one-third from the Americas north and south, and one-third to Europe.”

Much of what Tamblyn wanted to put across to Arabic publishing interests in his comments had to do with the question of being not seen as a primary “big” market.

“Any of us who do not live in China, the United States, the United Kingdom, Germany, or Japan, we really have two choices.

“We can let our markets be defined by other larger markets. If you’re a fan of totally free market capitalism, that’s maybe the path for you.

“The second option though, is to make specific decisions to do things differently, to make our way” in choices “that could involve private business but also involves governments and industry associations and groups working together to decide what the digital future should look like—and making policy decisions.”

He conceded that sometimes that second option, which might seem the richer, more nuanced and beneficial approach, isn’t the way to go.

“Sometimes we choose option one,” Tamblyn said. “We decide that we aren’t interested in making our own cars. So our cars come from the US and Japan and Korea and Europe like everyone else’s.

“But we took a different approach to culture,” he said, in Kobo’s home market. “We made laws and built programs around music, books, film, radio, and television. We protected languages, we engaged in a level of cultural funding—not as much as our friends in Europe, but much more than our friends in the USA.”

Six Elements Across Many Markets

“What’s interesting,” Tamblyn said, “is that because we’ve been working in so many different markets, and we’ve seen many of these programs and policies at work.

“Some are supported by governments, some by industry, some are a mix of both—[they] generally include some of these six elements:

  • “Wide distribution, the ability for publishers to sell books to every retailer;
  • “Even conversion, the ability for publishers to convert their friends easily and cheaply to digital formats;
  • “The availability of aggregators and distributors who could collect ebooks into places that were easy to access;
  • “The rise of self-publishing, as a service for individual authors;
  • “The availability of audiobook public production services, to make high-quality audiobooks available; and
  • “Global distribution, meaning the ability for a publisher or an author to sell the books in any country where a reader wants to read it.

“The more of these components are available,” he said, “the more a market has control of its digital economy, the more it will be easier to encourage the interactions and competition for the readers.”

Exclusivity, he pointed out, is an interesting factor in digital vs. print marketing and retail.

“In the print world,” he said, “publishers sell to every bookstore they can, and it would be very rare for a publisher to sell only one retailer. But this happens all the time in the digital market, and as a significant contributor to digital growth. We call it the ‘conversion-capture problem.’

“Digital retailers love exclusivity. If they can get it, it easily keeps other retailers from getting into a market that differentiates them. And it keeps publishers focused on the needs of one retailer, instead of being spread across multiple outlets.”

By the end of his comments, Tamblyn had a rather tired, post-afternoon-break audience paying close attention to such observations from the field.

And more coverage of the book-fair-eve International Congress of Arabic Publishing and Creative Industries is here.

At Abu Dhabi International Book Fair 2022, May 23. Image: Publishing Perspectives, Porter Anderson

Our special Abu Dhabi International Book Fair 2022 Show Magazine is here for your free download (PDF).

More from Publishing Perspectives on the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair is here, and more on the United Arab Emirates’ market is here. More from us on book fairs and trade shows in world publishing is here. More on translation is here, and more on Arabic in the publishing world is here. More on Rakuten Kobo is here, more on Michael Tamblyn is here, and more on the Canadian market is here.

Publishing Perspectives is the world media partner of the Sheikh Zayed Book Award and the International Publishers Association. Our extended coverage of ADIBF 2022 is supported by the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair.

More from Publishing Perspectives on the ongoing coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic is here.

About the Author

Porter Anderson

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Porter Anderson has been named International Trade Press Journalist of the Year in London Book Fair's International Excellence Awards. He is Editor-in-Chief of Publishing Perspectives. He formerly was Associate Editor for The FutureBook at London's The Bookseller. Anderson was for more than a decade a senior producer and anchor with CNN.com, CNN International, and CNN USA. As an arts critic (Fellow, National Critics Institute), he was with The Village Voice, the Dallas Times Herald, and the Tampa Tribune, now the Tampa Bay Times. He co-founded The Hot Sheet, a newsletter for authors, which now is owned and operated by Jane Friedman.