Al-Ahram Weekly Online   30 June - 6 July 2005
Issue No. 749
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

E is for literature

E-books, e-bookshops and e-bookworms: Rania Khallaf downloads a phenomenon

Inaugurated last May, <> is the latest Arab e-book Web site. Its mission is to create an integrated Web- based source available to Arabic readers everywhere -- with information as well as credit-card sales of e-books (a book in the form of a digital file designed in such a way as to protect the rights of both author and publisher). Though the owners of <> claim that their site is unprecedented, surfing the Net brings to light dozens of sites offering comparable services. Indeed the phenomenon is widespread enough to allow for specialisation. Of the 2,500 on offer at The Electronic Library, for example, the vast majority are on religious and historical titles. <> offers subscribers a limited range of dictionaries and encyclopaedias as well as children's and Islamic books, while <>, an Amman- based online store, provides music, film and software as well as a wide range of literary and political e-books. For its part the Beirut-based <Arabice->, somewhat predictably, reflects the latest cultural trends in Lebanon.

Rami Habeeb, owner of <>, claims that, while most e-book sites offer only limited selections and inadequate electronic services, his own -- using PDF files -- has "a very wide selection of books in all domains". The idea, he recounts, "was first introduced by Jihad El-Mawardy, my partner. We were working together for a Bahrain-based American e- books site at the time. One evening it occurred to him that the Arabic e-book industry was still very immature. We discovered that, on average, a book published in downtown Cairo, for example, will not be available to potential readers outside a five kilometre radius from its place of origin." Ten months ago, the two partners started designing the Web site; at the same time they signed contracts with writers. "In less than a year, we've managed to publish around 1,200 e-books. With e-publishing, the works of even the least known Arab writers including first-time authors can receive worldwide exposure -- instantly." <> is the work of a group of young people from different backgrounds, often unrelated to cultural life. Habeeb is nicknamed El-Khawaga because he is Canadian- Egyptian, while El-Mawardy is a Bahraini businessman. Like Hisham Auf, a cousin of Habeeb's who is also the general director of the company, neither had much knowledge or experience of publishing in the Arab world prior to embarking on this venture. "We simply developed an awareness of ongoing cultural activity," Auf explained, "including new publishers and authors, together with our own e- publishing system. This lack of experience led to a few mistakes at the beginning. But then you learn from mistakes."

Books are procured in paper format, Habeeb indicated: "First we edit them for spelling mistakes. Then comes our main activity, which is the conversion of hard copy into downloadable e-books. The last step is designing the e-book cover. In several ways our system is completely different from that of e-publishing companies in North America, who neither have an A to Z classification of authors nor accept hardcopy; for the most part they only accept books in PDF format. That's far more lucrative. We would've profited further had we adopted it. In fact we really had to discipline ourselves to focus on Arabic books". Auf elaborated further: "Though we have not started our advertising campaign yet, close to 400 members have already signed up, and I usually receive around five e-mails per day from Arabs who live in far off countries -- New Zealand, Brazil and others." As to targeting the foreign reader, Habeeb elaborated, "if we start translating books, it will be a whole new process; we need to get respectable translators and editors and different criteria for author selection. But this is precisely what we have been thinking of doing in the near future." Concerning competition with the emerging E-content Initiative, he added, "I believe competition is the best way to maintain excellence. That way we are forced to stay ahead of the game. And we can sell copyrights to competitors and vise versa. It's always good..."

Habeeb and El-Mawardy were careful to keep their project in the private-sector sphere. "We will not have any kind of dealing with the government, because we will not allow any kind of censorship over our Web site," Auf said. "We've signed contracts with 600 writers, including some of the most controversial -- Nawal El-Saadawy and Sayed El-Qemny, for example. And we plan to sign more contracts with Arab writers -- from Morocco, Lebanon and Palestine. Because we're targetting Arab readers both inside and outside the Arab world." Habeeb added that contracts have also been signed with research centres and NGOs: the Women and Memory Forum, the African Studies Institute and human rights organisations. "I think these wouldn't be welcomed by a government- sponsored Web site." These contracts stipulate that writers should receive 15 per cent of book sales; authors are provided with updated information on the number of books sold, as well as demographic information about readers who bought them. "Actually, writers tend to be more excited about the fact that their works will be read and distributed outside Egypt." Asked about the criteria for selecting books, Auf replied, "We decided that we will not interfere in the selection process, we'd rather leave this to our readers." But Habeeb interrupted at this point: "The only criteria we have is that the book should maintain a high level of proficiency. We do not have any intention to ban or confiscate books. In fact, we try to avoid one of the most fatal tendencies in the cultural life of Egypt -- the interest groups, which fight one another for space in media and other privileges, with little regard to other groups of the same calling."

Does the company expect to make a profit, nonetheless, considering the fact that e-book Web sites are not very successful even in the West? "It is true that e-publishing is not very successful in the West," Habeeb replied. "It makes less than one eighth of the profit revenue of the publishing industry in the United States, for example (which is estimated at $500 million). However, e- publishing in countries like India and China outsells the paper book industry. This only means that there is no general rule that can be applied everywhere. The secret of the success of e-publishing in Asia is that books were not available to large numbers of readers for one reason or another. Therefore, when they were made available, profit was forthcoming. But we have objectives besides profit. We seek cultural and social gains. Making the work of Egyptian and Arab novelists and philosophers available to the whole world is in itself a great achievement."

A special section for heritage books is soon to be initiated, "in order to make such landmarks available", as Habeeb puts it. "For example, a work of Avicenna's is normally to be found only at the Ezbekiya second-hand book market; editions are old and scattered and reprinting is extremely rare. E-publishing means that Arab heritage will never be lost. In fact some of our colleagues are currently in Damascus collecting rare heritage books there," he discloses. "And for these and other titles, an extensive marketing plan will be launched this month as book Internet sales are officially inaugurated."

The first of a series of articles discussing literature on the Internet, "E is for literature" is to be followed by a report on the E-Content Initiative.

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