CAIRO: A new form of information is storming through Egypt and the Arab world. It may be a few years away from dominating the industry, but Arabic e-book publishing is starting to make a direct impact in the world of literature and culture. Ramy Habeeb, managing director of Kotob Arabia, an e-book publishing house, has begun the revolution.
“We are about creating a culture that accepts the Internet as a source of information, Habeeb says. Habeeb, co-founder of Kotob Arabia, believes the Arabic speaking world is ready to endeavor on the e-book. “It is a way to get authors to sell their books at a cheap price. We want to be the modern Library of Alexandria that cannot be burned down, he says.
Habeeb came to Egypt a few years ago with nothing. “I came in September 2004 with a bit of money and started moving around in order to secure some deals, Habeeb explains. He had tried to build an English language-publishing house in North America but the costs of running an out-of-print publishing house were too high and it proved extremely difficult to find agents willing to sign their clients onto the idea of re-selling their titles.
“It was too time consuming and cost too much money for us to run the out-of-print house, so we thought about doing something with literature in the Arabic speaking world, Habeeb remembers. “So one day we just thought, ‘there’s nothing like this in Arabic.
A few months later, Habeeb found himself in Cairo. They told publishers what had been done in English and a few people seemed interested.
“We met a guy who was interested in our idea of e-books, Habeeb relates. “After about three minutes of hearing what we envisioned, he signed us to a deal in Egypt.
Although they had a few contracts, Kotob Arabia seemed to be hitting a wall toward the end of 2004. A random meeting with a daughter of a famous writer in a café proved to be the catalyst in building their clientele; she got them 43 contracts with writers directly. Kotob Arabia was ready to take off.
It was the 2005 Book Fair that gave Kotob Arabia the base needed to grow and established them as a legitimate source for literature across the Arabic speaking world.
“We went into the 2005 book fair with only 43 contracts and came out with over 300, says Habeeb. According to him, it was the failure of Arabic publishers at the Frankfurt book fair a few months before that helped Kotob Arabia gain credence.
“They believed that we were a response to the dismal showing of Arabic publishers at Frankfurt, Habeeb says. At Frankfurt, a book fair that showcased Arabic publishing and e-book publishing, Arab publishers were not up to the level of their European counterparts, which led many to believe the Arab world was not ready to engage the world of literature.
While Habeeb feels Kotob Arabia received more respect because of Frankfurt, their success was not directly related to Frankfurt. They offer writers a wide range of services that only an e-book publishing house can.
“People are able to buy e-books at such a cheaper price with us that it gives writers the opportunity to see if their books will sell, Habeeb argues. “Also, with our large staff of typists, we are able to catch mistakes found in the original text.
Habeeb says that three out of 10 characters can be wrong if you upload a manuscript, but with their large staff of typists, this helps make errors minimal. Plus, Kotob Arabia conducts two rounds of edits, which make the copy clean and ready for publishing.
With over 900 authors and 3000 titles, Kotob Arabia is establishing the e-book publishing industry in Arabic.
But they don’t stop at publishing; instead, Habeeb has enveloped himself in culture throughout the Arab world and especially here in Egypt. They host nedwas, which are gatherings of authors to discuss ideas and their writing. These events have sparked a renewed interest in writing and help to break down the barriers that exist in Egypt’s cultural society.
“We cannot have a reactionary culture [here in the Arab world], Habeeb begins. “We haven’t had any books banned here in Egypt, although we have a lot banned in Saudi Arabia. We are not out to piss off the government.
“Our main goal is about helping people express themselves in a forum of respect.
Kotob Arabia’s latest initiative is directed at Egyptian youth. At the present moment, they are running a writing competition for high school students. The winner of the contest will receive a LE 25,000 scholarship for university. Habeeb hopes this will give Egyptians the belief that they can pursue writing as a career.
“That scholarship will give someone the opportunity to go to Cairo University, Ain Shams or 6th of October University for free, Habeeb relates.
“We hope that education will be the key, he adds. “Like what Kofi Annan said a while back, education is the way the developing world is going to break down barriers.
With approximately 90 percent of their authors Egyptian, Kotob Arabia gives them a forum to write and express their ideas without worrying too much about censorship.
“They still censor their writing to some degree, but we hope eventually there will be no need to censor, he believes. Only time will tell.