x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Arabic books turn a digital page

In the Middle East, the written word has traditionally lived on paper, but book publishing in the region is joining the global trend of digitising written material, a development that is expected to drive sales.

Book building: one of the major themes at this year's Abu Dhabi International Book Fair was the challenges and opportunities presented by the rise of e-books, print-on-demand and other forms of digital publishing.
Book building: one of the major themes at this year's Abu Dhabi International Book Fair was the challenges and opportunities presented by the rise of e-books, print-on-demand and other forms of digital publishing.

The last thing that might leap to mind when you look at the region's book publishing industry is the cost of broadband internet. But if the sector is to flourish that will be the main driver, says Carlo Emanuele Bona, the president of the Italian digital publishing consultancy Promedia.

Mr Bona has a concrete vision about developing a 21st-century book publishing industry in the Middle East. "In our opinion, every publisher should have a digital asset management system, and this requires broadband at affordable cost," he says. "And here in the UAE, it is very expensive." "A digital asset management (DAM) system" is an unwieldy title for a type of software that helps media producers file, sort, store and distribute their content. It is most often thought of in association with photographs, videos or music, but Mr Bona says an increasing number of Middle East publishers have been seeking his company's help in digitising their product.

The notion is not entirely new to the publishing industry. Long before Amazon's Kindle e-reader became a hot holiday gift item, book publishers were using an array of software that was essentially digitising books for the purpose of graphic design or high-tech print production. What is new is that as a growing percentage of readers want their books on their e-readers, or at their local outlets through rapidly improving print-on-demand technology, publishers are having to think of their final product in a fundamentally different way: not as one book, printed and then reprinted, but more in the way that movie producers have to look at content formatting and distribution.

In much the same way that a producer plans a theatrical release, followed by a DVD release, then a pay-television release and finally a free-to-air TV release, book publishers today must plan for a far wider array of products than their predecessors had to just 15 year ago. E-books are not so much replacing books, Mr Bona says, as they are complementing them in a long menu of consumption options including print-on-demand titles and reading books over the internet and on mobile phones.

"We are in a context where the amount of information has increased and the time to market has increased a lot, so the time to market needs to change because, since we are in the digital era, it means all the books before going to paper are digital." Publishers must have access to their digital book content at any stage of the process, which is where broadband comes in. In order for the new, digital style of book publishing to be profitable, writers, editors and designers must be able to send each other large files over a DAM system - or to e-book publishers or print-on-demand outlets - without large data fees, Mr Bona says.

Two years ago, high-speed internet in the Arab world cost on average six times more than in Europe, according to a study by Teligen, a communications consultancy based in the UK. According to the 2008 report, residential high-speed internet service cost on average US$40 (Dh146.90) per month in Europe, compared with $92 in the UAE and $264 in the Gulf region. Since the report's publication, Etisalat has announced some reductions in its broadband package prices, but they remain above the averages in more developed markets.

Despite the high cost of moving data in the Gulf, Promedia decided to open a satellite office in the UAE in 2008. "We believe strongly in the Arab market, which is, from a publication point of view, a very good market with many opportunities, mainly in the digital realm." At present, the company works primarily with printers to help them streamline their workflow with digital tools, but Mr Bona says that in the past six months he has been approached by a wave of Middle East publishers looking to move into digital publishing, including the publication of e-books.

E-readers have been much in the news this winter after the much-anticipated launch of Apple's iPad. Analysts expect that as many as 5 million iPads will be sold in the device's first year on the market. ABI Research predicts that some 58 million electronic tablets a year will be bought by 2015. This is particularly good news for the Middle East, where traditional methods of distributing "dead tree" editions of books have fallen short. At this month's Abu Dhabi International Book Fair the Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture and Heritage attempted to remedy this situation by launching the region's first independent distribution company, Abu Dhabi Distribution. The company has agreements with publishers to distribute between 40,000 and 50,000 titles, and hopes to have three times that many by the time it begins operations next year.

But in the meantime, publishers who want to skip the shipping costs and bookstore negotiations can distribute their wares electronically, provided they know how to manage the data online in the right way, Mr Bona says. "What's important is not the product or the medium; it's the content," he says. "That's the real asset, and the market is going to tell you how to deliver it." khagey@thenational.ae