Technology giants are not proving especially keen to develop the software necessary to open up the potentially huge market for Arabic-language e-books, resulting in a dearth of available content.
Arabic potential left unread
Major global players in electronic publishing are failing to address the potentially lucrative market for Arabic-language e-books.
So far, technology giants such as Sony and Apple and publishers such as Amazon have failed to develop the software needed to support electronic versions of Arabic books. This hole in the market was illustrated at the London Book Fair this week.
"Electronic versions of Arabic books are very difficult to find," says Abdullah al Shami, the projects co-ordinator at Shawati' Publishing, an arm of the Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture and Heritage (Adach).
"There is not a lot of technical support for Arabic media and the Arabic language is itself challenging in terms of characters. Research into this area is so far minimal. Publishers may be missing out."
The Abu Dhabi International Book Fair, which exhibited at the London event, is a major business initiative of Kitab, a joint venture between the Adach and the Frankfurt Book Fair. Monica Krauss, the general manager of Kitab, pointed out that international publishers were losing out on one of the world's biggest e-book markets because of a lack of simple technology.
"The absence of the necessary supporting software is why none of the e-readers have much in the way of Arabic content," says Ms Krauss. "The big problem with e-publishing in the Middle East is the conversion of the Arabic language into an electronic format."
Although it is possible to read electronic versions of Arabic-language books on devices such as computer tablets and e-readers, these are only in portable document format (PDF) or as electronic photographs.
Anyone who has viewed PDF documents on a computer screen will realise how difficult they are to follow. Readers cannot easily turn pages or change the print size to suit their eyesight. By contrast, fully supported e-book Arabic texts would be easy to view and read from right to left by flicking open pages.
"There are very few e-books as the majority are in PDF format. There are no real platforms for Arabic-language content on Amazon Kindles, Sony e-readers, iPhones or iPads," says Abdul Rahman, the chief executive of the Saudi publisher Al Rushd International, speaking on behalf of the Saudi Publishers Association.
Nawfall Aburgchief, a spokesman for the Iraq ministry of culture, echoed those views. "E-books have been late to arrive in the Middle East … The market has yet to grow," says Mr Aburgchief.
As yet, none of the big IT companies have developed the software needed to support Arabic text fully. Even the technology giant Hewlett Packard (HP) has failed to come up with anything better than PDF books.
However, HP says PDF technology could be useful for making a record of antique Arabic texts and the company has developed the software needed to clean up images of old and discoloured manuscripts.
Last year, the global e-book market grew by more than 200 per cent, according to Futuresource Consulting, a research company. But no one has yet calculated the full extent of the vast global market for e-books.
At the moment, Arabic is the fifth-largest spoken language in the world. With internet penetration spreading across the region, there is a growing demand for e-books in the Arab market that stretches well beyond the Middle East.
"E-publishing in Arabic is not confined to a specific geographic region - because there are Arabic readers in South America, Asia and Europe," says Emad Aldoghaither, the president of the electronic publishing software company Semanoor, based in Saudi Arabia.
"Arabic speakers outside the Middle East often have greater access to credit cards and internet access than those in the region," he says. "The growth potential for e-books within the Middle East is very high as the younger generation prefer electronic to printed media."
Semanoor is trying to tap into that market after developing the software needed to support electronic versions of Arabic books. The new version of its SBoook services is currently awaiting approval as an application to run on Apple's iPad tablet computers.
The company supports e-books covering the Saudi curriculum and university publications in addition to more general titles. But at the moment Semanoor offers only about 10,000 Arabic-language e-books.
Other small technology companies are also working hard to produce the necessary software.
The international developer iPublishCentral, which has just opened an office in Dubai, has 200 software engineers developing new products, including programmes to support Arabic-language e-books.
For those outside the IT industry, it seems strange global companies such as Sony and Apple should leave it to small tech houses to develop software essential for a potentially huge market. But the big IT companies have traditionally found it cheaper and easier to snap-up software once it has been developed.
When that happens, the Middle East will finally get the electronic publishing technology it needs.