March 3, 2014

Arabic e-books get a new online bookstore, Kotobi


The Kotobi logo.

The Kotobi logo.

This year’s Cairo International Book Fair brought a new player to the field of Arabic publishing and bookselling: the website, created by entrepreneur and self-described “techie” Ashraf Maklad, with the support of Vodafone Egypt.

Kotobi is an online bookstore for Arabic e-books, and though it’s early days yet, it seems poised to make significant changes in the Arabic book market, which has faced logistical problems for many years, especially in distribution.

It’s not the first or only such bookstore: the largest online bookseller in the Middle East, Neel wa Furat, started selling e-books recently, and the website Kotobarabia, launched a few years ago, is dedicated exclusively to e-books. But Kotobi is an exciting development, for a couple of reasons.

Maklad has managed to convince a number of major publishers who had stayed out of the e-book market because of fears of piracy and other concerns to allow him to sell their books. And it’s these publishers that, as Maklad says in a long interview with M. Lynx Qualey on the blog Arabic Literature (in English), “that have kept the market blocked. These publishers have everything – they range from kids books to educational books to bestsellers. These are the big publishers that really dominate the market.”…

Along with in-demand titles, books can be bought with mobile payments, instead of credit cards, which Maklad argues makes far more sense for the e-commerce landscape of the Middle East:

Here in Egypt for example, and in a lot of other Arab countries, they have never experienced the web on a PC and a laptop, but are experiencing the web on their mobile phones because of the barrier of entry to a laptop and a DSL connection. So a lot of people skipped that and went straight to mobile internet.  And I think that a lot of people will skip credit card payments and go straight to mobile payments.

A pragmatically organized, well-stocked e-bookstore is not only good news for readers, but also for publishers, for whom traditional bookselling isn’t working very well: bookstores in the Middle East take books on consignment, meaning that all the expenses, including high shipping costs, fall on publishers. Sales reports are infrequent, and there’s no uniform books-in-print database or distribution and invoicing system. So publishers keep print runs low, do a lot of their selling at book fairs, and often can’t afford to make books by new or midlist authors widely available.

These problems have been exacerbated in the past few years. Noua Mustafa described the situation in Egypt in an article for Al-Ahram recently: increased costs (paper prices, always a major expense, have risen about 10 percent) and decreased sales, in part due to the political unrest in the country.

“At that time [2011] many publishing houses, especially the small ones, were on the verge of bankruptcy. It was the worst downturn for the publishing business since 2007, which was also bad, but not that bad. We have never been threatened to this extent,” said publisher Wael Salah Al-Mulla, the owner of the Masr Al-Arabia publishing house.

The ability to reach a large number of readers without crippling up-front investments, and the timely sales information, could be a great boon to both big and small Arabic publishers in a tough climate.

And it’s not only in the Arab world that these transformations are afoot, of course. It’s truly exciting to see e-books and e-bookstores begin to erase historic supply-and-demand issues here in the US. In January, Ken Bensinger reported for the Los Angeles Times on the tremendous rise in Spanish e-book sales in the US over the past two years — a welcome change from the problems Spanish readers have long faced in finding any kind of broad selection of affordable Spanish-language titles.

Kotobi promises to make similar changes possible in the Arabic-language bookselling world — as Maklad puts it, “our objective is to really open it up.”



Sal Robinson is a former Melville House editor. She's also the co-founder of the Bridge Series, a reading series focused on translation.