For the first time in my literate years, after attending the MENA. Online. Literature. Today. conference on January 17 at Townhouse, I find myself swayed by the allure of e-books.
Initiated by Townhouse’s Digital Resource Library and supported by the Goethe and Swedish Institutes, the two-day conference brought together publishers, aspiring writers and e-book platform initiatives to discuss the ongoing evolution, from page to screen, of the printed word in the Middle East.
Internet as global conspiracy
E-publishing sounds too good to be true. It enables publishers to cut out printing and distribution costs, and reach a wider audience. It allows up-and-coming authors to bypass the existing structures of the publishing industry and make their names from their living rooms. And it saves trees.
But publishers in Egypt have been slow to get started.
“Publishers are very apprehensive towards the e-book thing because they think it doesn’t make as much money,” says Sherif Bakr of Al Arabi Publishing, a reputable publishing house with more than 40 years in the business. “In general, we don’t like to give content to anybody because that’s what we have, that’s our capital — our authors, our books, our content.”
This lack of trust has made it difficult for e-publishing platforms to crack the market.
“One publisher told me you guys are the devil and the Internet is a global conspiracy to destroy the publishing industry in Egypt,” says Ashraf Maklad of Kotobi.com, an e-publishing and distribution platform that launched in February 2014 and is steadily growing in popularity, now offering its 130,000 users more than 9,000 titles to download through its app. “This is not a local phenomena — publishers globally are very paranoid, they’re very scared of digital because they have seen what it’s done to the music industry or the movie industry.”
But Kotobi is not a publishing house. It’s a sort of online shop where publishers can sell online versions of their print books.
Online versions are different from simple scans of printed copies, in that text is converted to one of the widely used formats (EPUB2, EPUB3, Mobi, KF8) recognized by e-ink readers (Kindle, Kobo, Nook and various iOS devices). This makes the book more easily readable, searchable, and allows for the addition of extra features such as dictionaries. Scanning printed work and uploading it online, although widely practiced, is considered piracy.
Pirating Arabic books is so prevalent, and intellectual property law so ineffective in the Middle East, that there are dozens of websites, Facebook groups and third-party apps dedicated to promoting free, pirated copies of books.
“People are already reading online,” says Maklad, “but the publishers aren’t there to sell.”
Even offline, downtown Cairo’s sidewalks are littered with vendors selling pirated copies of bestsellers at half price. But Egypt isn’t particularly big on reading — the latest available numbers from state statistics agency CAPMAS (2013) show that over a quarter of Egyptians are considered illiterate. Although this may sound like terrible news for publishers, there’s a way to turn it around.
“I see it as a very good chance, somehow — that you are expanding your market, that you have more people reading illegally now than officially… So maybe we just need to transform these people from reading the illegal PDFs to a nicely done e-pub,” says Bakr.
Since standard written Arabic is the same region-wide, publishers have 400 million potential readers to appeal to. As Bakr points out, “If 1 percent of those are reading, that’s 4 million readers, and that’s something.”
Maklad agrees, although convincing people to pay for something they’re accustomed to getting for free will be an uphill battle.
“That’s the next challenge,” he says, “to create value in a market where the value is lost.”
Technically doable, however…
The beauty of digital publishing is its simplicity. With a few basic tools, authors can easily convert and upload work onto whatever platform. But many publishing houses in Egypt don’t bother to save the original text file of their books except in PDF or Adobe InDesign formats, which, being un-editable images, cannot be converted to e-ink reader formats (EPUB and the like). This means they would have to be typed out all over again, a costly and time-consuming process.
There is the additional barrier of platforms that do not support right-to-left Arabic script in the first place, and even with those that do there are typographical issues — such as systems for line breaks — that need to be resolved.
“Technically speaking, we are not ready for digital,” says Bakr, although with more publishers becoming aware of the inevitability of going online, more are starting to save files correctly.
Google has been digitizing English content on a mass scale, but Arabic content lags far behind.
“Some estimates say that there are 500,000 Arabic books in circulation, and we’ve struggled for a year now to get 9,000, just 2 percent of those,” says Maklad.
Other than Kotobi, over a dozen interesting examples of start-ups and aggregators exist in the region. Kotob Arabia has been creating an online database of Arabic content (more than 11,000 titles and 50+ journals), as well as offering its services in digitizing print content, since 2011. E-book aggregator iKitab digitizes, publishes, markets and distributes work to various stores. The industry is growing fast, and Maklad predicts that the development of an exclusively Arabic e-ink reader to link with all these platforms is close.
Major e-book stores like Amazon and Nook don’t serve the Middle East, nor do they have a digitized library of Arabic titles to sell. So investing in their e-readers is impractical for Arabic readers for the time being. And even English readers must go through a hassle of changing their IP addresses to non-MENA countries to buy their e-books.
This is the gap regionally developed platforms like Kotobi hope to fill. But how will local readers — those convinced to put their pirating days behind them and buy e-books — actually pay? Kotobi, being a project funded by Vodafone, has instituted a system for paying using phone credit, or having costs added to monthly bills. Other platforms may suffer when selling to individual readers, since credit cards are not common in Egypt.
“Traditional book publishing is mired in its own utter inefficiency,” says Alexander McNabb, self-published author and UAE-based communications consultant. “That inefficiency is actually what sets the price of a book, and that inefficiency is what sets the profit a publisher makes out of a print book.”
As digital platforms revolutionize this model, e-book pricing will be key to defining whether they ever eclipse print books in popularity.
“I believe the price of an e-book should cost 1 to 2 LE,” says Bakr.
But at such a low cost, how will publishers, editors, and the authors themselves afford to get paid? While Arabic books may already seem very affordable at local bookstores (in comparison to their imported English counterparts), if we judge the pricing schemes according to per capita income they are significantly more expensive for readers than books in Europe or the US.
In order to sell e-books at higher prices, Bakr believes publishers need to do more than put words on a screen: Visuals, sound and extra features can be added “to create an e-experience.”
A downside of e-books is they can’t be passed on or re-gifted, and publishers need to consider that when pricing products. According to Maklad, e-books on Kotobi that are priced like print books, at 60 or 70 LE, simply don’t sell.
“Publishers cannot continue to be tied to those pricing models because the internet destroys them,” says McNabb.
Decentralizing market power, disseminating work
Technicalities aside, e-publishing offers immense opportunity for experimentation with writing styles and publishing formats at virtually no cost. The print-on-demand model is already popular with industry giants like Amazon: When a reader orders a book, they print a copy and ship it for a cheaper price than local bookstores.
Moving forward, publishers predict the proliferation of the “digital first” paradigm.
“First you go digital, you experiment,” says Laura Aletti of Narcissus.me, an Italian self-publishing and distribution platform. “It has no costs, so you’re not going to lose if you experiment and you fail… If it works, you can print on demand.”
Massive bestsellers started off this way. The erotic romance novel Fifty Shades of Grey (yes, we all know what that is, don’t pretend you don’t) was initially self-published online, then printed by a small Australian company before being picked up by Random House following soaring popularity.
Using self-publishing platforms such as Kindle’s direct publishing tool , or smaller platforms such as Smashwords, aspiring writers can circumvent industry limitations, take out the middleman and deliver work directly to readers. It’s these kinds of platforms that are lacking in the Middle East.
“What’s needed in the region is a publisher that only does digital books for young aspiring authors,” says Maklad.
While there are examples of start-ups whose activities include self-publishing, such as the Jordanian initiative Project Pen, Syrian NGO Dawlaty, and Tunisian capacity-building organization Taabir, there’s still no Arabic publisher specialized exclusively in digital content.
“We see the potential in it for artistic production. I think it’s the possibility of overcoming the linearity of a physical book,” says Monica Basbous, from Beirut’s Ashkal Alwan, a non-profit arts organization whose activities include e-publishing literary works and artist’s books.
As the author’s power to promote and disseminate work becomes more and more decentralized, transformational market power lies more in the hands of famous authors than ever before.
“If Ahmed Mourad, who is a bestseller here in Egypt, decided that his next novel will be in an electronic format, how will that change the market?” says Sherif El Harraoui, a young author who self-published his collection of flash-fiction pieces through Narcissus.
It would likely change the market altogether. Maklad recounts how Mourad’s latest novel, 1919 (2014), was released on Kotobi two days prior to its bookstore release, as announced by Mourad on his Facebook fan-page. On that day, more than 80 percent of users who visited Kotobi bought a copy.
Creating great books, great readers
Mohammed ElTaher, who works with Lebanese non-profit Social Media Exchange and the local Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression, believes online censorship is already tightening, but we should take advantage of the Internet as the last frontier of free, somewhat anonymous expression.
“There are no clear laws for intellectual copyright online. Many people see this as a drawback, but I think it’s great,” he says. “In the coming period the Arabic content online will increase.”
Once they overcome self-censorship, authors in the region still have to contend with the threat of physical incarceration should their books be deemed blasphemous or offensive.
“There’s something called the department of censoring printed materials. If you search for it online, you’ll come up with practically nothing,” says AFTE’s Sally Al Haq. “It’s just this imaginary thing in the Ministry of Culture that pops up when a book isn’t to the liking of someone high up, and they can ban a book or put the writer or publisher in prison.”
Although lines are being pushed back in recent years when addressing what publishers call “the trinity” (sex, politics and religion), social pressure and threat of state persecution holds back the potential of regional literature, “creating a disincentive to create truly great books, that in turn create truly great readers,” says McNabb.
Eulogy to the printed book
“The printed book as it exists today and the printed book publishing model are dead,” says McNabb. “It’s just a matter of time.”
Printed books, he says, could survive the same way candles survived after the advent of electricity or horses survived after the invention of automobiles, but they will be relegated to the position of ornamental or luxurious items. Taschen-style art books or National Geographic-esque travel books will still sit on people’s coffee tables, but in the very near future (and indeed, in the present moment in some parts of the world) the majority of reading will be done on gently glowing screens.
But that doesn’t matter because “it’s the words that matter, it’s the words that transform you,” says McNabb. And much as I hate to admit it, I realize he’s right.
Ever since all those glossy little Kindles and other e-readers were released into the world, I’ve considered them a direct threat to my way of life. In response, I’ve become a pathological book-hoarder, acquiring an absurd number of novels I may never read but that helped barricade against the advance of the smug, portable, apparently unstoppable devices. I still lug around three to four physical books in my backpack, because I don’t know what I’ll be in the mood to read later in the day.
But McNabb’s talk woke me from years of romanticized denial, just as publishers here are also slowly acknowledging the viability of digital publishing. Authors, activists or people who feel they have things worth saying are empowered by self-publishing to speak their minds. An Arabic e-ink reader is on the horizon — Egyptian bilingual bookstore Diwan, for example, is allegedly working on a self-publishing platform for established writers.
As painful as it is to admit — forgive me fellow physical-book readers — the time has come to hop on the bandwagon and buy an e-reader.