1,001 Arabian Rights: Digital Publishing and Its Role in Exposing Non-English Languages

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It is unfortunate, but the reality of the Arab Publishing world is quite chaotic. Cross boarder publication is almost unheard of and the concept of subsidiary rights trading is almost nonexistent, practiced by only a handful of publishers on a very limited title basis.

In late 2005, Kotobarabia did a little experiment that I presented to the Ministry of Communications, Information and Technology (MCIT). We hired students from Cairo University to find where certain authors existed in a physical form. One hundred authors were chosen – from the Crème de la Crème to the obscure and extremely niche. The result were frightening. 10% were available anywhere on conventional distribution routes (we have a few large scale distributors). 10% were nowhere to be found except the rare copy that the author or publisher retained. The remaining 80% were only available within a 5km radius of the physical publishing house. In other words – these titles were only available where the publishers could physically carry the books.

The reasons for the above distribution problems are many, with poor economic situation probably taking the lead. But there are other reasons why we have such a limited distribution for books, whereas Coca-Cola can be found in the smallest and most obscure villages of the Egyptian Delta.

The reasons are a topic of great debate, but one central problem is the lack of ISBNs or other book IDs that can be measured and tracked. ISBNs were introduced into Egypt in 1979 and (due to the failure to adopt the system) reintroduced in 1981. Yet, despite it being law that every publication has to have an ISBN, less than 55% of titles actually have one. Without this lynchpin of the publishing industry, it is impossible to track the history of a title. Chaos dominates, and titles can be published simultaneously by several publishing house, have no distribution, and almost always fail to reach their true potential.

In this presentation, I wish to speak about the difference (cultural, economic, and political) in systems of publishing in the Arab world and the West. Furthermore, I hope to discuss how epublishing is one of the most valuable tools in overcoming these obstacles – from a wider distribution network, to overcoming issues like censorship – epublishing offers solutions. But is is more than that…

Without the existence of a central database (preferably ISBN based) to indicate what titles have been published and by whom – the Arab Publishing industry is condemning itself to a system of publishing that mimics that of Europe in the 1800s – both in scope and methods of doing business.

The presentation will focus on these issues and how epublishing, mobile phone technologies and the Internet can bring the industry into the modern ages of international best practices.

Examining the Arab Publishing Industry offers us a unique case study which offers those working in the industry today many insights into how publishing was and can be.

Photo of Ramy Habeeb

Ramy Habeeb


Ramy Habeeb graduated from McGill University with a double major in Literature and Religious Studies, after which he lived in Okinawa, Japan for three years.

Returning to Egypt in 2004, Ramy saw that Egyptian Literature was not reaching an international audience due to two disadvantages the local publishing industry had yet to overcome: Distribution and Censorship. Seeking to bypass these problems, he established Kotobarabia.com in September 2004, becoming the first Arabic language e-book publishing house in the Middle East.

Through the Internet, Kotobarabia’s books can reach Arabic readers anywhere in the world at the click of a button. Furthermore, due to the lack of Internet regulations, Kotobarabia is able to publish books that have previously been banned by local governments, publishing books from all religions and political opinions side by side.

To date, Kotobarabia has acquired the e-rights to over 1,300 Arab authors and has digitized over 5,000 titles.

Ramy’s vision is to build a Library of Alexandria that cannot be burned down, preserving and distributing Arabic literature for people today and generations to come.

In April 2007, Ramy was awarded Egyptian Young Publisher of the Year by the British Council.

Comments on this page are now closed.


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John Warren
02/24/2010 10:42am EST

Great presentation and great style. I’d like to see more case studies of emerging markets at TOC.

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Sean Harrison
02/24/2010 9:36am EST

I love your sense of humor, the telling of your story, and the extra effort you took with your slides to make the presentation more interesting.

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