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Bringing e-Books to Africa and the Middle East

Infrastructure, economics and censorship are major issues

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In the United States, Western Europe and Asia, e-Books are becoming a major player, especially now that e-Readers like the Kindle and Nook are available. But people living in the Arabic-speaking world or Africa haven’t been invited to the dance. Two of the keynote speakers at the upcoming Tools of Change conference are working to improve access to e-Books in these areas: Arthur Attwell in South Africa and Ramy Habeeb in Egypt. We talked to each of them about how e-Books are important in their area of the world, and the challenges that they are facing.

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Arthur Attwell runs Electric Book Works, based out of Cape Town. His company does both traditional print publication and electronic publication, but he believes that e-Books have a particular promise in South Africa. “Certainly in South Africa, our traditional model doesn’t even begin to reach the market that I think digital publishing could cater for. For me, digital is a massive social development tool. I like to think of e-books as one small application of digital publishing, which is really a grand process of putting the world of letters onto the internet.

“Mobile is one of the keys to that, I think, for Africa because of the existing penetration of mobile devices, but there may be other ways of harnessing digital as well that will include distributing e-books through libraries and internet cafes, kiosks, any infrastructure that doesn’t require someone to be spending a lot of money on a device. I think print on-demand has got a massive future for Africa, and developing countries in general, because of the way it caters to people with low cash flow and who just need a book right now; they can’t afford to get an e-reader or even a netbook computer to read books in the long-term.”

Tools of Change

“I think that we will see an incredible growth of digital publishing in Africa over the next few years, we’re in the process right now of really just laying down the infrastructure that’s going to make that possible. Mobile has done a lot, but because mobile tends to be controlled by network operators, it doesn’t have quite the freedom of the internet. So I don’t think it’s necessarily going to see the same innovation at a very high centralized level. But I do think that with the massive growth of bandwidth and connectivity we’re seeing right now, especially in Central Africa, that more conventional web-based applications of content and content-sharing will take off there as well.”

While mobile access to e-Books in Africa is largely an urban phenomenon right now, Attwell thinks that is changing. “You’re probably going to find that 80 percent of internet connections in any African country will always be in the urban centers. So that’s naturally then where the investment money’s going to be going. But we’re already seeing some exciting innovative approaches to getting internet connectivity into more rural areas. I know that in South Africa, we have fairly common solution where farmers in a particular area will get together and pool their resources to share a satellite internet connection or something similar, often even solar-powered connections. Naturally, rural is an area where mobile will be critical.”

“I think one of the really exciting trend-setting technologies at the moment is the success of the M-Pesa mobile payment system in Kenya. I think that that system is showing the power of a simple effective mobile application, there obviously for the purpose of transferring money between people. But it’s an incredibly powerful tool in Kenya and used as much in rural areas as it is in urban.”

One of the challenges Attwell faces is the issue of obtaining rights to translate works, something that currently requires laborious individual negotiations for each book. “What I’m going to be speaking about at Tools of Change this year is about encouraging publishers to license their work more flexibly. I think a translation license is one particular area where this is going to be important and powerful. I don’t think that, for real market penetration in Africa, it’s going to be possible to use the existing person-to-person, deal-by-deal negotiated translation agreements that the publishing industry is used to. It’s not going to be a case of sitting across the table from someone at the London Book Fair signing a rights deal. You’re going to need to have a very flexible way to allow local operators to translate your work into their languages for a very straightforward, standardized, quick, easy license transaction because ultimately, the language is one of the issues of last-mile delivery.”

Ramy Habeeb faces very different issues with his project. Kotobarabia, which means Arabic Books, is trying to become the primary source for Arabic literature in electronic form. Habeeb started Kotobarabia because he found there was a real lack of e-Books available in the arabic language. He says that he never wants to see another situation like the Library at Alexandria, where one fire wiped out huge chunks of cultural wealth.

But unreadable books could be as devastating as burned ones, so one of the challenges Kotobaradia faces is keeping all the content fresh. “As long as you’re aware of the changes in the markets, you’ll be able to keep up with it. An example of this is when we first launched Kotobarabia, we only did PDFs because PDFs were pretty much the only software display that was reasonably compatible with Arabic. Now, we created our own simple form of DRM to display our books, which you can see on our website. And very soon, we will be launching an e-pub version, the first Arabic e-pub book that I know of at least. So we are keeping up-to-date with the formats and we are trying to keep the content relevant.”

Another problem Habeeb faces is the non-uniformity of arabic texts. “One of the problems with Arabic e-books is that there is no OCR. Google claims that they have cracked the OCR nut, and if anyone can do it, it’s Google. But I haven’t yet actually seen that with my own eyes, to see how it works. Part of the reason why we have issues with OCR is because there are thousands of fonts that are usually customized to local publishing houses. It’s almost like a signature of that publishing house to create their own font, it’s part of the culture in publishing. Also, there are so many dots and lines and other things that an automated OCR system can mistake for a letter or distort into another letter. And to complicate matters even more, because the industry is relatively poor, the quality of paper and the quality of ink used isn’t always the highest. All of these factors combined make OCR an extremely difficult endeavor. So as a result, whenever we take on a book, it either goes through one of two processes.”

“One process is that we fully type it so that it’s fully searchable. We discovered that typing a book with a series of edits is actually cheaper than working with current OCR software that’s on the market. Then we’ll go through a whole process of creating the metadata behind it and uploading it to the site and converting it to the two formats that we are currently using commercially.”

“The thing that we do is to scan the pages, and then we’ll have people read the pages and pick out key words so that the books become semi-searchable. We do these for most of our books. But if we find that a book is being read over and over again or that this title has a particular interest, then we’ll go back and retype it. It’s actually cheaper this way to do it, it’s a more sustainable business model.”

Another issue Habeeb faces is that rights clearance can be very complicated. “We’ve had several cases where we’ve signed with publishing houses only to discover that the publishers never owned the e-rights, nor did the publishers really understand what e-rights were. So we tend to sign directly with authors, which is a real pain for us because we’ve signed with over 1,300 authors. That’s a lot of contracts to keep in mind and follow-up with. It would be easier to sign with 200 publishing houses than 1,300 individuals. But it was the only way to ensure that we were honoring copyright law.”

Obviously, the issue of censorship is a huge one for Habeeb, but it’s one he doesn’t shy away from. “You have a choice when looking at a project like ours. And the choice is you either do it and bear the risk or you don’t do it and you’re happy with the status quo. So we, of course, have taken legal measures to best protect ourselves. But our rule of thumb is that just because the book has been censored doesn’t mean that it’s not valid, so we do have censored books on our site. But we also do take steps. For example, with Egyptian law, as long as the content is hosted from a server outside of Egypt, Egypt has no control over that server to ask you to shut it down. So that’s why we have a US server. “

Habeeb is aware that certain books are so controversial that they can cause problems. “Like the censorship game, it is a diplomatic game that needs to be played. We won’t necessarily publish the book the day after it was published. We might wait a year for the attention on it to die down a little bit. It is a game that needs to be played, and we play it to protect ourselves. But ultimately, we believe in transparency and we believe in the free dissemination of information. We believe that information should be equally accessible to those who are interested in it.”

“Kotobarabia is myself and two other business partners, but the three of us aren’t political crusaders who have some agenda in mind. We’re just three people who have an appreciation for books, who love books and who want to share these books with the world. I’m always hesitant to come across as someone who has any political agenda.”

Censorship is more than a policy issue that Kotoarabia has to work with, it is also an ingrained mindset that can be insidious. there is a lot of self-censorship. “I have personal experience with that as well as knowledge of the market, that there is a political atmosphere of fear. If I write this down and it gets published and someone reads it, I could go to jail or I could get in trouble or I could bring problems to my family. And then there is also an issue of just lack of understanding. For example, the concept of free thought in the sense of that all ideas are okay is not very prevalent there.”

“For example, as I mentioned earlier, we type books. We had a case where there was one book written by a Muslim author about Egypt. And if I can remember correctly, he basically was writing a book about 1968 and saying that this year was paramount to modern Egypt, in how modern Egypt exists today. He would list events from this year from the newspapers, and one of the events that he listed was that in this year, an effigy of the Virgin Mary appeared on a few of the Catholic Church walls in Zaytoun. So we have these typists who were typing the books from A to Z, and then we have editors who will go in afterwards. It’s common for a typist to miss a line or miss two lines, they’re going so fast that their eyes just skip it. But this guy actually missed three pages, and when we looked closely at it, it was the three pages talking about the Virgin Mary effigy. And so when we questioned this guy about why these three pages were missing, he very innocently looked up at us and said, ‘Oh, because it’s not true so why write it?’”

Both men are looking forward to attending Tools of Change in February. For Ramy, it’s all about networking. “TOC is an incredible event for sharing of technologies and for seeing what the modern trends of publishing are. One of the things that we’re looking at is, because the state of distribution in the Arab world is so dismal, we need to look at other forms of distribution, and e-publishing is the way. It’s just a fantastic forum to sit down with people and discuss issues. I participated in the TOC event in February in Frankfurt, and I met Neelan Choksi, the head of Stanza. That was a fantastic eye-opening meeting where we sat and discussed the possibility of having an Arabic catalog in Stanza. Another person that I was introduced to by Andrew Savikas was Liza Daly, who was really fantastic in helping us figure out some of the issues with Unicode, and also understanding that in the Arab market, we just don’t necessarily have the expertise to deal with some of these problems so we need to teach ourselves. Just being in an environment where you have people who understand publishing but also understand innovation, it’s absolutely inspirational.”

Attwell agrees that TOC is a great resource for trading information. “I think that it’s always helpful to get a whole lot of people in one room who’ve been thinking about the same kinds of issues. Perhaps it’s simply because I’m kind of far away out here in Cape Town, but I often feel that those of us who think very deeply and hard about digital publishing issues are very often working in little silos either within our companies or as freelance consultants. Much of that thinking can be shared at a place like TOC, it’s incredibly valuable to each of us personally and also to the publishers that attend. For me, one of the major things I get out of TOC is putting faces to names. I think that in the e-book digital publishing communities, everyone knows each other by their Twitter handles, and it makes a huge difference to actually sit down around tables with people and have real conversations. I think it can have a massively positive effect on our businesses, not just our enjoyment of our jobs.”

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  • Mike Trucano

    This is a topic of discussion we are having over at the World Bank’s EduTech blog as well, where we are wondering “Can eBooks replace printed books in Africa? An Experiment” http://blogs.worldbank.org/edutech/africa-ebook-experiment

  • Sam Fleming

    Great use of mobile books for education happening in South Africa – see example of mobi book, integrated with use of MXIT – social networking
    http://m4lit.wordpress.com/