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June 13, 2020

Welcome to Publish MENA #8

As a pandemic sweeps the world, publishing limps into the new decade

Whatever high hopes and ambitions we may have had for publishing in the new decade have been mostly turned upside down by a crisis so improbable it was, until a few months ago, the stuff of science fiction. But today fiction has become reality in the cruelest way possible. 

The global publishing industry - from big corporate publishers right down to single authors, from printers to distributors and almost all stops in between - face an unprecedented threat to business and to life, and every aspect of the industry has had to adjust.

Not least the StreetLib-TNPS newsletters, which have been focussed on global opportunities that, given the new reality we face right now, are fewer and further between, at least in the short term.

That in turn led us to pause the newsletters briefly while we re-assessed the global publishing scene.

But as we put Easter behind us and summer looms, the pandemic has, for some countries, peaked, and there is light at the end of a very dark tunnel.

As this post goes live some parts of the world are emerging from lockdown, and publishing is beginning to find its feet again.

Too soon to say how that will go, but it would be crazy to think the print book industry can just pick up where it left off.

However, as we begin the early stages of recovery in some parts of the world, even as others are hit hard and still others have yet to face the worst, there is a need for authors and publishers - and especially self-publishers - to keep abreast of developments and stay attuned to such opportunities as are still out there.

And among the biggest opportunities is the unprecedented interest in digital that the pandemic has brought about.

Because make no mistake global publishing does still have an exciting future ahead, however bleak things seem right now in some sectors of the industry 

And fair to say the brightest element has been, is and will continue to be digital, which is at the heart of our newsletter programme.

With that in mind, let's proceed with Publish MENA #8, which, to remind everyone, is aimed at Middle East and North Africa authors and publishers looking to get a global perspective on the opportunities within and beyond this diverse region, and to shine a light on some of the exciting publishing news from across the region.

And because this is a catch-up edition due to the Covid-19 disruption to our schedule, this edition of Publish MENA will cover key MENA matters across the past several months.

For those new here, I'm writing this from The Gambia, West Africa, so while strictly just outside the MENA region I'm no stranger to the sands of the Sahara and live daily amid Arab cultural influences.

And just to add you'll see that our other industry-facing newsletters Publish Africa and Publish Global newsletters are also getting back on track, and we hope to get our planned launch of Publish South Asia lined up for later this year.

Thinking ahead to the post-pandemic publishing world

Global publishing will never return to its pre-pandemic status

Our opening piece for this issue of Publish MENA is an op-ed from TNPS  early into the pandemic crisis, where I took a look at something many authors and publishers around the world have yet to seriously consider - what will publishing life be like when this crisis is over?

From TNPS (refer to OP for links):

Publishers globally need to understand the new normal now evolving, and to develop post-pandemic “go wide” strategies that may at first glance seem counter-intuitive.

It is estimated at least 50,000 readers in Spain have transitioned to digital reading – ebooks and audiobooks – in the past three weeks as lockdown in Spain keeps bookstores closed, people at home, and makes online print delivery an unnecessary hazard for warehouse and delivery workers.

Spain’s eBiblio government-operated public library platform has grown 130% since the State of Emergency was declared, picking up over 18,000 new users in three weeks, while eLiburutegia, the Euskadi digital books platform has picked up 6,000 new users.

Bookwire and Libranda are both reporting a 50% increase in digital books engagement, while Kobo says ebooks are up 140% and audiobooks 254%.

Subscription platform Nubico reports a 3-fold sign-up increase, with content consumption up 32%. Spotify audiobook consumption is up 17%.

As Javier Celaya says in an Op-Ed for Dosdoce:

Confinement is transforming the book discovery habits of thousands of readers, as well as their purchase and consumption on screens.

While we can argue the detail of the numbers (these may well be very conservative, as they do not take into account untracked consumption on platforms like Amazon, Apple, Scribd, etc), what we can be sure of is that the pattern is being replicated around the world wherever digital books are meaningfully available.

The longer the pandemic crisis continues, the longer time for dedicated print readers to migrate to digital, even as print-based stakeholders like booksellers struggle to survive. Many will stay hybrid readers or even transition fully to digital afterwards.

To be clear, there’s no suggestion this will be an extinction-event for print – but when this is over and we return to whatever the new normal may be, digital books will play a far larger part in the lives of consumers and publishers than we could ever have imagined as this new decade began just a few short months ago.

And for publishers who have for years been practicing digital-distancing not because of any irrational dislike of digital but because of fears that embracing digital would strengthen Amazon’s hand, now is not the time to be thinking how to downplay digital in the future.

Rather now is the time to, in the parlance of self-publishing authors, “go wide” to ensure Amazon’s value is collectively balanced by treating other digital outlets seriously, and to embrace counter-intuitive business models like unlimited subscription to ensure a more favourable balance in publishers digital reach and revenue streams.

Because even if the majority of booksellers survive this crisis and when all the restrictions are lifted and consumers are free to spend where they want, we have to understand that a desperately weakened global economy will for the foreseeable future thrust printed books, with their scant price flexibility, into the luxury category for most people around the world.

For authors and publishers that embrace digital’s capacity to offer flexible pricing, consumer demand will remain high.

Global publishing will never return to its pre-pandemic status.

But let's end this opening item with a number from Kobo that should ram home the points made above. This from Rakuten's 2020 financial report, referencing the number of new users signing up with Kobo globally during the pandemic.

Kobo CEO Michael Tamblyn told Publishers Weekly that that sales were up between 35%-130% "In all our key markets, including Canada and the United States."

Before we proceed: Percentages - a cautionary tale

Percentage increases may not mean what you think

This issue of Publish MENA will have more than its fair share of reports about the digital renaissance brought about by the pandemic. But be warned, a lot of the reports deal in percentages, not actual sales and revenue numbers.

So keep in mind that percentage increases reported, while indicative and exciting, to be fully meaningful to us need baselines which are not always shared. I stress that to make us look at these percentage increase reports across the industry with business-minded caution.

Here’s why:

As a hypothetical example, suppose Retail Outlet A reported a 20% increase in sales, while Retail Outlet B reported a 90% increase in sales, and Subscription Outlet C reported a 200% increase in downloads.

It’s easy to jump to erroneous conclusions here. Because while at first glance Subscription Service C is doing best and Retail Outlet A is performing least well, it may well be that Retail Outlet A is our best option. Percentages don’t tell the whole story.

Here’s the thing:

Let us suppose by way of example that Retail Outlet A was selling 1,000 units each month and suddenly began selling 1,200 units each month.

Meanwhile Retail Outlet C was selling 10 units each month but suddenly that leapt to 19 units per month.

And Subscription Service C was registering 1,000 downloads per month and now was reporting 3,000 downloads per month.

In terms of downloads/sales, Subscription Service C wins hand down, while Retail Outlet B performed least well, shifting just 19 units.

Yet Retail Outlet B shifting just 19 units had a far better percentage increase – 90% - than Retail Outlet A which only increased 20%, but shifted 1,200 units.

Now consider cash values. If Retail Outlets A and B are handing over 70% as a royalty and Subscription Service C is handing over 15% as a subscription shared pot royalty, suddenly that 200% increase in subscription downloads isn’t as hot as it at first appears.

None of which means the percentage increases are not valuable to us. And of course if we are seeing similar increases across Retail Outlets D, E, F, Library Outlets G, H and I, and Subscription Services J, K and L, then these percentage increases become collectively significant.

But what we should not be doing is looking at percentage variations and making business and distribution decisions based solely on that criteria. Otherwise we’d be putting all our efforts into the example Subscription Service C delivering a 200% increase and Retail Outlet B delivering a 90% increase and sidelining Retail Outlet A for only delivering a 20% increase when in fact Retail Outlet A was our best performer.

With that in mind, we'll be taking a look at just a few of the many reports coming in from across the industry globally that shows that while print understandably has struggled because of bookstore closures during lockdowns, digital has boomed. 

But first, a reminder of how it used to be.

The world's biggest book fair clocked 3.5 million visitors

Sadly much of the rest of the 2020 book fair calendar is on hold

Regulars here will know that Africa is home to the world's largest book fair, Cairo, which earlier this year drew a crowd of 3.5 million booklovers. 

In fact three of the world's largest book fairs are in Africa - Egypt, Algeria and Morocco - and when it comes to the Arab markets of the Middle East we can add Iraq, Oman, and Sharjah. Those events alone accounted for over ten million book fair visitors in 2019, and my expectations were that we would see new records broken this year.

Then the coronavirus pandemic struck, and the annual book fair calendar was ripped up and the pieces thrown to the wind.

But for publishers the value of these reports on massive book fairs across regions like MENA is about the potential. And while the pandemic has of course hit this region like everywhere else around the world, causing the cancellation of book events and the shuttering of bookstores, digital has proven to be a safety net - nay, a lifeline - for the industry globally and across the MENA region.

While those publishers that eschewed print are now in limbo, publishers who embraced digital have been able to continue to reach consumers.

And of course when it comes to digital it means that publishers outside the region can just as easily reach these markets as can publishers within.

So rather than sitting around feeling depressed during the global lockdowns, now might be the time to make sure our digital books are reaching as wide a  potential audience as possible, across the African continent and beyond.

The main publishing languages across MENA, aside from the myriad indigenous languages of MENA which have mostly been treated badly by the industry, are English, French and of course Arabic.

Amazon supports Arabic ebooks (not print), although there is no Kindle store for the region despite Amazon having a UAE store.

Google Play is an option for Egypt (and also for the Middle East countries of Bahrain, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the UAE) but the only other African country supported by Google Play Books is South Africa.

Kobo is widely accessible across MENA but only through the Kobo US international store.

There are a growing number of small regional digital players originating out of MENA, but as yet there is no serious attempt to create a pan-MENA publishing and retail scene.

We'll stay with North Africa for a report on the Casablanca International Book Fair, which again just missed the 2020 pandemic book fair shutdown, but before that a look back at how the Emirates Publishing Association tackled Cairo, and how it might have brought MENA content to other parts of the world had the pandemic sent global publishing into a tail-spin.

Emirates Publishing Association took 100s of titles to Cairo and Muscat Int. Book Fairs

The Manassah platform in action

Among the last of the MENA book fairs to go ahead this year were Cairo, Casablanca, and Muscat, and at two of those - Cairo and Muscat - the Emirates Publishing Association's Manassah platform was busy promoting Emirati titles to the wider Arab world.

From the EPA website reporting on Cairo:

Publishers in the UAE got this unique opportunity to showcase their offerings to businesses and visitors at EPA’s pavilion through the Manassah platform, which offers exclusive privileges to EPA members who have less than 20 published works under their hat, and are unable to represent themselves at international book fairs in the UAE and beyond.

The Manassah platform is also an opportunity for publishers in the UAE to distribute their books on a wider regional and global scale through the exposure EPA enables them at prestigious book fairs around the world.

Participating publishers represented under the EPA pavilion comprised of Dar Al Ousra Media, Dragon Publishing & Distribution, Sadiqat Publishing and Distribution, Awraaq Publication and Distribution, Al Fulk Translation and Publishing, Al Enwan Book Trading, Dar Al Andalus Publishing, Jumaira Publication & Distribution, Dar Suad Salibi, Al Takhayul Media, Manarat Alullom Books Trading, and Bibliosmia Publishing & Distribution.

Concluding March 2, the Muscat International Book Fair in Oman, not quite on par with Cairo's visitor numbers, but still in the one million visitor club, attracted 16 EPA publishers that showcased 145 titles at the event.

The Manassah platform, the EPA website explains,

was launched by EPA in 2019 to boost the representation of EPA’s member publishers who have published 20 titles or less due to the high cost of participation at top literary events and exhibitions. The project offers greater visibility and recognition to local publishers as it provides the opportunity to take their publications to a regional and wider audience.

Read more about the EPA at Muscat here.

Morocco's Casablanca International Book Fair pulled in half a million visitors

A reminder of the potential of MENA - still accessible via digital

While not quite on the scale of Cairo, the Casablanca International Book Fair in February drew a crowd of half a million for the third year running.

From TNPS:

It’s a central part of global publishing’s urban mythology. Arabs don’t read. Or rather, they do, but only for six minutes a day.

Not here to give further oxygen to that depressing and all-too-obviously flawed argument. Rather to note that the ten-day Casablanca International Book Fair this year attracted just shy of 500,000 visitors – an average of 50,000 per day. For comparison the London Book Fair typically brings in 25,000 in total over three days.

Yes, it’s apples and oranges – the London Book Fair is a trade event, while Morocco’s Casablanca fair is public-facing.

But worth noting 500,000 visitors is more than any US or UK literary event – even the Hay Festival – can pull in, and from that alone publishers should be reconsidering their position on the Arab markets of the Middle East and North Africa.

At which point it’s worth taking a step back and noting that one reason these events are so popular is because on an everyday basis books are hard to come by in this part of the world, especially outside the big cities.

The cruel realities of print distribution in a region like MENA means few people can buy them, and that in turn limits the choice available, which in turn dampens demand.

But as more and more publishers within and beyond the Arab markets realise the potential digital offers to reach consumers anywhere in the region, 24/7, so the region’s embryonic literary Renaissance will accelerate.

It’s already happening.

Morocco, along with Algeria and Egypt, are the three MENA countries hardest hit by the pandemic  (as this newsletter goes live), and with a tight lockdown shuttering bookstores and other retail, digital is again a lifeline and safety net for the industry and a source of relief for consumes unable to leave their homes.

Sadly Google Play's usually excellent reach does not extend to Morocco, but for those with French and Arabic content there are still ways to reach this market digitally via Kobo, Scribd, YouScribe and others.

Where the option is available authors and publishers might want to consider offering free content to markets like these, offering consumers welcome relief at a difficult time, and connecting with new audiences that might become loyal customers when this crisis is behind us.

India and Asia “realising the wealth of opportunities available in the Arab World”

Opportunities put on hold by the pandemic

The Abu Dhabi Department of Culture and Tourism (DCT Abu Dhabi) participated in the 28th New Delhi World Book Fair in India earlier this year, pursuant to India being Guest of Honour at the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair in 2019.

MENAFN reports that there were at New Delhi,

a series of meetings with Indian publishers and industry specialists, providing details about the 2020 edition of the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair (April 15-21).

The DCT Abu Dhabi delegation met Ramesh Mittal, Chairman of CAPEXIL, a council set up by the Indian Ministry of Commerce and Industry, to encourage Indian publishers to participate in international book fairs. The parties discussed various avenues of collaboration, presenting numerous ideas for collaborative projects.

Abdulla Majed Al Ali, Acting Executive Director of the National Library Sector at DCT Abu Dhabi and Director of the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair (ADIBF) said,

We are very pleased that the ADIBF continues to see an increase in interest from publishers in India and other Asian countries, who are realising the wealth of opportunities available for them in the UAE and the Arab World.

We find that more and more publishers are keen to sell their copyrights and translate their works into Arabic, which DCT Abu Dhabi's 'Spotlight on Rights' initiative supports by exchanging book rights for a subsidy.

While the Emirates tend to dominate Arab literary news, the entire Arab region across MENA is experiencing an unprecedented renaissance.

Last year saw record-breaking book fair attendance across the region, from Morocco in the west to Saudi Arabia in the east, and IPA Vice President Bodour Al Qasimi made a keynote speech at the Emirates Airlines Festival of Literature on the need for data gathering across the regions book markets.

Of course wee could not at that time have foreseen the devastation the pandemic would wreak upon MENA, it's people and its publishing industry.

But as this edition of Publish MENA is designed to show, we should look beyond the harm the pandemic has wrought and try see the new opportunities evolving from the carnage.

Take this next item, for example.

Mexico book market plummets 88.2% amid pandemic

Digital saves the day

Over at TNPS I’ve been covering the impact of the pandemic on global publishing, with a particular focus on how digital has shifted from an afterthought to being of critical importance to the survival of the trade.

For Africa's publishers the significance of these reports is not so much that mainstream publishing around the world is embracing digital as for what it means for consumers.

Put simply, amid the pandemic consumers have turned to digital in unprecedented numbers, many discovering the benefits and advantages of digital reading for the first time.

And while the pandemic doesn’t herald the end of print, and many of these new-to-digital consumers will revert back to their old habits at some stage, many more will be converts for life.

So Africa's publishers can expect not only to enjoy increased sales and downloads in the short term, but for the digital boom to be sustainable into the future.

Each country has been hit in its own way, some extremely hard, others less so. What follows is how TNPS reported on the situation in Mexico.
The latest data on the Mexican book market, as reported to El Economista by Nielsen Bookscan Mexico makes grim reading.

The decline in annual turnover started subtly in the first half of February, with a barely noticeable -2.5%. For week 13 of the year, in the second half of March, economic losses began with double-digit percentages for bookstores in the country were closed, it was 67.3%, and it bottomed in week 15 (April 6-12), with 88.2% publishers. The decrease went from 9.9% to 42.1%; then, at the beginning of April, when practically all the compared to the same period of the previous year.

But from that low point the numbers began to revive, not because of any easing of Mexico’s lockdown, but because publishers belatedly realized digital was their best friend.

Oniine print sales took up some of the slack, but it was digital – ebooks and audiobooks – that became not just the safety net but the rebound platform for Mexican publishing.

Diego Echeverría, CEO of digital conversions specialist Ink It, reported a 60% surge in sales in march and said he expected triple digit increases when the April numbers 

Print focussed publishers and booksellers, while disadvantaged, have also shifted their attentions to digital, with online promotion and author activities.

Read the full post on TNPS.

Abu Dhabi, Riyadh and Tehran among MENA book fairs cancelled in 2020

Sharjah Children's Reading Festival cancelled too

As March began, it became clear the MENA book fair calendar was about to be thrown to the wind. This from TNPS as the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair cancellation was announced on twitter:

The United Arab Emirates had already take the decision to close its nursery schools, but has now closed all schools and universities for a month. Large public events are barred.

That’s put paid to the 2020 Abu Dhabi International Book Fair, which has now been set for May 2021. It’s not clear yet if the Sharjah Children’s Reading Festival in April has been cancelled, but it seems 99.9% certain we’ll see an announcement to that effect in the very near future

The Riyadh and Tehran International Book Fairs in Saudi Arabia and Iran are now certain to be cancelled, and from the TNPS at-risk list from March 2 – Belgium’s Brussels Book Fair, Poland’s Poznan Book Fair, Turkey’s Bursa Book Fair, Germany’s Leipzig Book Fair, Thailand’s Bangkok Book Fair, Turkey’s Izmir Book Fair, Egypt’s Alexandria Book Fair and Canada’s Quebec Book Fair – we’ve already seen Leipzig cancelled.

Paris Book Fair now officially cancelled. LBF as good as cancelled. And dozens more global book fairs on the danger list over the next 6 weeks.

And that just takes us through to end April.

Global publishing has never faced a year like this, and hopefully never will again.

What a way to start a new decade.

In fact only Brussels, of those listed above, went ahead, and since then London, New York, Ghana and dozens of other global book fairs and festivals either shut shop for 2020 or tried to make something happen online.

All credit to the Abu Dhabi IBF organisers for coming out as soon as the problems emerged and letting publishers and other stakeholders know where they stand.

That was not the case with the London Book Fair and New York Book Expo, where the organisers did serious damage to their reputation as they insisted the show would go on even as the Covid-19 body count mounted around them, only to admit defeat at the last minute.

As this issue of Publish MENA goes out it's not at all clear if the massive Sharjah and Algiers book fairs will go ahead later this year, and myriad other MENA and global book events are in limbo right now.

But amid the chaos, the industry has found an ally - nay, a safety net - in digital, and many fairs and festivals are now looking to at least have a "virtual" event if they cannot do the real thing.

As per the next item, the UAE-based Sheikh Zayed Book Awards, usually presented at Abu Dhabi, went ahead online this year.

And around the world book fairs an festivals are testing the water with online or hybrid in-person and online events, sometimes with spectacular results.

We'll be looking more closely at this phenomenon, and what it means for global publishing, in the next edition of Publish MENA.

But right now, let's check out the virtual Sheikh Zayed Award.

2020 Sheikh Zayed Book Awards delivered online

An early casualty of Covid-19

The cancellation of the Abu Dhabi Book Fair this year hit MENA publishing hard, but one part of the event went ahead regardless. That was the annual Sheikh Zayed Book Awards, that were live-streamed in April.

As the Emirates New Agency explained at the time, 

The annual Sheikh Zayed Book Award recognises key literary and scholarly works emerging from the Arab world, with outstanding writers, intellectuals, and publishers from around the globe honoured for their stellar contributions to the advancement of Arabic literature and culture. The Award commemorates the late Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, Founding Father of the UAE, and his pioneering role in promoting the arts and developing the nation.

The seven winners, reported the Emirates News Agency, Tunisian poet Moncef Ouhaibi (Literature), Iraqi writer and academic Hayder Qasim (Young Author), Palestinian-American author Ibtisam Barakat (Children’s Literature), Dutch author, translator, and scholar Richard van Leeuwen (Arabic Culture in Other Languages), Tunisian translator and academic Mohamed Ait Mihoub (Translation), representatives of the UK’s Banipal Magazine (Publishing & Technology), as well as Palestinian poet, writer and translator Dr. Salma Khadra Jayyusi (Cultural Personality of the Year) – all attended the virtual awards ceremony.

The ENA added,

In what was a record-breaking year for submissions, the 2020 Awards were bestowed upon recipients from six different countries (UK, US, The Netherlands, Iraq, Tunisia and Palestine), highlighting the global imprint and influence of Arabic literature and culture. 

Next we take a break from MENA to take our regular look at some global developments with opportunities and implications for MENA publishing, but watch out for news of the opening of submissions for the 2021 Sheikh Zayed Book Award later in this newsletter.

Storytel raised $96.5 million in fresh funding

You can't put the digital subscription genie back in the bottle

We've two stories from the Swedish digital books outfit Storytel for this edition of Publish MENA.

First a look at how Storytel attracted some serious fresh money for its global plans This before the coronavirus crisis threw much of the global publishing industry into turmoil.

As reported here in our previous edition, Sweden's Storytel is targetting 20 new markets over the next three years (on top of the 20 existing markets), and picked up $50 million in a bank funding shuffle in 2019.

Not satisfied with that, Storytel picked up new funding to the tune of $96.5 million in February of this year, to aid its massive global expansion programme.

Many publishers have doubts about unlimited subscription services, a judgement in part no doubt coloured by the issues surrounding Amazon's Kindle Unlimited (KU).

But setting aside the scams that seem never-ending, and the contentious issue of KU's demand for exclusivity for some publishers, let's remember that the KU pot paid out over $300 million in royalties last year. That's quite separate from the payments made to the big-name authors like JK Rowling, whose books are in the KU catalogue, or the payments to A-Pub authors.

The value of subscription for publishers lies in being affordable, accessible and discoverable. The challenge for publishers is balancing what subscription can deliver against what they have invested in the traditional model that might be cannibalised.

For a publisher seeing downloads in small numbers it’s likely the à la carte model would give them a better rate per download. But would they be reaching these new audiences at all?

That's where publishers can really benefit, because with subscription services we can reach markets around the world, even where à la carte sales are challenging because of relatively low incomes or consumers having no bank card to pay.

Last year YouScribe picked up 300,000 new subscribers across francophone Africa, for example, in countries were bank cards are a rarity and where mainstream ebook retailers fear to tread. Consumers buy mobile phone credit with cash and then use that credit to pay for their ebook and audiobook streaming.

And this is being repeated across the globe in countries where mainstream ebook and audiobook retail is all but non-existent, opening up new market opportunities where indie authors can be part of the advance guard.

Places like West Africa's Burkina Faso.

More on that story and its implications for MENA publishing further down this newsletter.

Before that, let's revisit Storytel as the pandemic unfolded,

Digital-first Storytel thrives as other publishers struggle amid the pandemic 

The digital advantage

Amid the global coronavirus crisis Storytel saw subscribers grow 38% and streaming revenue 45%, even as publishers that sidelined digital struggled. for survival.

The only surprise with the latest results from Sweden-based Storytel would have been if subscriber rates and earnings had dipped amid a global crisis that has left print-focussed publishers imperiled.

That of course did not happen, and while streaming revenue took a notional hit at SEK 429m ($44m) compared to the SEK 438m forecast, this in large part was down to “negative currency effects from the Norwegian Krone and an increase in Family subscriptions during the period.”

Overall Storytel’s Q1 results came in at 33.5% revenue growth (streaming and non-streaming) to SEK 513.2 million ($52.7) and a subscriber boost of 71,400, taking Storytel’s total subscribers to 1.54 million.

The average number of paying subscribers in the Nordic segment was 785,800, while 43,200 subscribers were added outside the Nordics, taking total non-Nordic subscription levels to 369,000.

Tellander issued a Q2 forecast of 1.25 million global subscribers, amounting to 41% YOY growth, and a 43% YOY revenue growth to SEK 458m ($47m), with the caveat that the coronavirus crisis meant there was an element of uncertainty about how things might pan out.

Addressing shareholders, Tellander, echoing a common theme that audiobook downloads had dipped as commuters stayed at home, said that afternoon and evening consumption “more than compensated” for the downturn in commuter consumption.

Tellander talked of consumers becoming more “digitally savvy” and noted that,

New consumption patterns have started to emerge as a result of lockdown on many markets. Morning listening while commuting has gone down in some markets for obvious reasons, but this is more than compensated for by a higher rate of listenings in the afternoons and evenings. In the Nordics, we also see a clear growth in consumption on Sundays and at the beginning of the week.

Crime & Thriller and Fiction have kept their positions as the most consumed genres in our service, but the influx of new users, combined with families spending more time with each other at home, has boosted the Children category to third place. At bedtime this category actually surpasses Fiction and is the second-most popular genre among our customers. Biographies and Personal Development are two other genres that have grown pronouncedly during the coronavirus pandemic.

Addressing the bigger picture of print struggling globally in the pandemic era, Tellander told shareholders,

It is obvious that the popularity of audiobooks and the digital transformation of the book market are increasing in both speed and impact due to the coronavirus pandemic. Publishing houses are currently experiencing rapidly decreasing physical sales and might find it difficult to stay profitable. This makes them more dependent on digital sales and audiobooks. The publishers that are likely to come out on top in this situation are those that manage to pivot or have invested in audiobooks at an early stage and already earn a large portion of their sales on audio.

That statement is worth picking up on for its focus on audiobooks, which of course is the mainstay of the Storytel operation, but the lesson here is that all digital formats are soaring as consumers discover the digital advantage.

2020 Prix Orange du Livre goes to Morocco’s Youssouf Amine Elalamy

North-West Africa dominated the shortlist

Moroccan author Youssouf Amine Elalamy is no stranger to literary awards, has won a British Council International award in 1999, the Grand Prix Atlas in 2001, and the “Le Plaisir de lire” prize 2010, reports ArabLit.

And now comes news that the Prix Orange du Livre en Afrique’s second-ever winner is the self-same Youssouf Amine Elalamy, this time for his novel C’est beau, la guerre.

The prize, launched in 2018 for books written by African authors in French, is worth 10,000 euros and includes publication by a publishing house on the continent.

Elalamy writes in both French and in Darija, or what is commonly called Moroccan Arabic. 

Six-books were shortlisted, all by authors from north-west Africa:

•    Abdellah Baida, Testament d’un livre, Editions Marsam (Morocco)
•    Ndèye Fatou Fall Dieng, Ces moments-Là , L’Harmattan Senegal (Senegal)
•    Youssouf Amine Elalamy, C’est beau, la guerre, Editions Le Fennec (Morocco)
•    Mostefa Harkat, Le retour au Moyen Age, Editions AFAQ (Algeria)
•    Ahmed Mahfoudh, Les jalousies de la rue Andalouse, Arabesques éditions (Tunisia)
•    Paul-Marie Traore, Jeu de dames, Editions Tombouctou (Mali)

Read more over at ArabLit.

“A perfect moment for ebooks." – Bloomsbury

“Increased demand for our digital resources, audio and e‐books”

From TNPS:

Bloomsbury Publishing defied Covid-19 expectations, with revenue down just 3%, thanks to robust print sales and a 52% rise in digital. Talking to the UK trade journal The Bookseller, Bloomsbury CEO Nigel Newton said that books were still reaching customers, highlighting supermarkets, the Hive and Waterstones’ website, along with Amazon and sales of e-books.

A 190% revenue growth in audio during the year was not sustained during the lockdown period, although audiobook sales were described as “okay”, but it was ebooks that Newton reported on most positively:

"This is a perfect moment for e-books. Our strategy of expanding and leveraging our digital rights and products means that we are well placed to benefit from increased demand for our digital resources, audio and e‐books"

South Sudanese novel wins PEN Translates Award

The Arab Renaissance continues

When we think MENA literature we often don’t get past a handful of key North African and Middle East countries and authors that dominate the regional literary scene, so it’s especially exciting this year to see a novel from South Sudan take a PEN Translates Award, and against stiff global competition.

As so often, I defer to my go-to source for Arab literary news, ArabLit, and the walking encyclopedia of Arabic literature that is Marcia Lynx Qualey.

Stella Gaitano’s Eddo’s Souls, is set to be translated to English by Sawad Hussain, reports ArabLit.

For this round of awards, the English PEN committee chose books from fifteen countries and thirteen languages. The works include fiction, nonfiction, poetry, short stories, and children’s literature.

Ros Schwartz, Co-chair of the English PEN Writers in Translation Committee, said in a prepared statement that the judges were “delighted at the outcome, which represents a very broad linguistic and geographical spread across diverse genres, as well as a good gender balance – with almost two thirds of the awarded books by women writers, and over half translated by women.”

Before looking at the full list of winners, two things to dwell on from this news.

First, that,

almost two thirds of the awarded books by women writers, and over half translated by women.

In a global publishing industry long dominated by men, that’s great to see.

But great too is that these and other awards are no longer being dominated by a handful of countries.

Per the list below, we have winners here from places as diverse as Guadeloupe, Croatia, Chile, Russia and Palestine, and per the headline of this item, for the first time from South Sudan.

South Sudan is one of the newest countries on the planet (2011), and still finding its cultural identity as it seeks to differentiate itself from Sudan, and is buffeted by the cultural influences of bordering neighbours Ethiopia, Central African Republic, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Uganda, Kenya and Sudan itself.

The Arabic language is struggling against the official language English and the second official language being introduced as the new lingua franca, Swahili, and Arabic, once a joint-official language with English, was demoted, so it’s gratifying to see an Arabic text from South Sudan being acclaimed in this way.

Here’s the full list of winners, as per ArabLit:

•    The Divorce by César Aira, translated from the Spanish by Chris Andrews (And Other Stories, May 2021). Country: Argentina.
•    All Men Want to Know by Nina Bouraoui, translated from the French by Aneesa Abbas Higgins (Viking, August 2020). Country: France.
•    Waiting for the Waters to Rise by Maryse Condé, translated from the French by Richard Philcox (World Editions, April 2021). Country: Guadeloupe.
•    La Straniera by Claudia Durastanti, translated from the Italian by Elizabeth Harris (Fitzcarraldo Editions, April 2021). Country: Italy.
•    Eddo’s Souls by Stella Gaitano, translated from the Arabic by Sawad Hussain (Dedalus, June 2021). Country: South Sudan.
•    Puppets by Daniela Hodrová, translated from the Czech by Elena Sokol and Veronique Firkusny (Jantar Publishing, July 2020). Country: Czech Republic.
•    New Passengers by Tine Høeg, translated from the Danish by Misha Hoekstra (Lolli Editions, September 2020). Country: Denmark.
•    Me and the Robbersons by Siri Kolu, translated from the Finnish by Ruth Urbom (Stripes Publishing, March 2021). Country: Finland.
•    When We Cease to Understand the World by Benjamín Labatut, translated from the Spanish by Adrian Nathan West (Pushkin Press, September 2020). Country: Chile.
•    On the Nature of the Universe (Book 1) by Lucretius, translated from the Latin by Emma Gee (Arc Publications, June 2020). Country: Ancient Rome.
•    Our Daily Bread by Predrag Matvejević, translated from the Croatian by Christina Pribichevich-Zorić (Istros Books, July 2020). Country: Croatia.
•    Brown and Yellow by Paulo Scott, translated from the Portuguese by Daniel Hahn (And Other Stories, September 2021). Country: Brazil.
•    Songs by Ribka Sibhatu, translated from the Italian by André Nafis-Sahely (Poetry Translation Centre, July 2020). Country: Italy.
•    War of the Beasts and the Animals by Maria Stepanova, translated from the Russian by Sasha Dugdale (Bloodaxe, September 2020). Country: Russia.
•    Chinatown by Thuan, translated from the Vietnamese by Nguyen An Ly (Tilted Axis, November 2021). Country: France.
•    There’s No Such Thing as an Easy Job by Kikuko Tsumura, translated from the Japanese by Polly Barton (Bloomsbury, November 2020). Country: Japan.
•    A Decolonial Feminism by Françoise Vergès, translated from the French by Ashley J. Bohrer (Pluto Press, March 2021). Country: France
•    The Book of Ramallah (Comma Press, February 2021). Country: Palestine.
•    Accursed Poets: Dissident Poetry from Soviet Russia 1960-80, translated from the Russian by Anatoly Kudryavitsky (Smokestack, August 2020). Country: Soviet Union

Read more over at ArabLit.

Morocco’s National Library went digital as country locked down

The digital ascendancy

Morocco was among the many countries that closed libraries to help contain the coronavirus threat, and as elsewhere, it is turning to digital to ensure services were not halted.

The National Library of Morocco in Rabat (BNRM) was among numerous Moroccan public institutions that shifted to a work-from-home policy and a commitment to providing digital content in lieu of physical products.

But like with so many countries across the Middle East and North Africa, the belated realisation of the value of digital means the transition from physical, in-class education and social support to online is a slow and cumbersome process.

Morocco World News reported that the BNRM said it would,

offer online administrative services to its subscribers, and access to electronic documents including legal deposits, manuscripts, magazines, books, and more.

The library will adopt a work system that doesn’t require its employees’ physical presence, opting instead for video chats to carry out administrative meetings.

Remote educational activities will replace lessons and classes, allowing students to stay at home and continue studies.

It's not immediately clear how things stand in Morocco as this edition of Publish MENA goes live, but we can confidently say this:

As and when the pandemic crisis finally subsides, Morocco, like most other countries, will be a more digitally-aware society and the publishing industry will have to adjust to a new reality where digital is in the ascendancy.

New global subscription service for English-language Manga publishers

A great way for MENA’s comics publishers to  extend their reach

From TNPS:

The iOS-only launch of a new Manga subscription service may hinder its reach, but on the other hand its focus on legal English-language titles will give it an edge in the global markets, and presents an opportunity for MENA publishers who produce content in English..

Mangamo offers two-month trial for unlimited access to what will be over 300 legal titles split across 1,000 volumes, with new chapters added daily.

Initially some 11 publishers, including North Star Pictures, Toppan, Kodansha and Comicsmart, will be providing backlist and newly translated material to the service, which will cost $4.99 per month once the trial period expires.

In a press release, Mangamo CEO and founder Buddy Marini said:

I grew up reading Manga and watching anime as a child in Japan, and I’m inspired by the global rise of this treasured Japanese form of entertainment.

Mangamo offers something I’ve always wanted as a fan: an easy and affordable way to read a ton of new Manga while giving back to the publishers and creators so they can continue to make the Manga I love.

Per the website, 

Every Manga available on Mangamo is curated by our editorial team, professionally localized, and licensed from publishers legally.

The TNPS report concludes,

While the Mangamo service purports to be accessible worldwide, there are exclusions, namely China, Japan and Korea.

The website makes no allusion as to whether an Android app might be coming, but without that the claim to be accessible worldwide is a weak one.

The bigger question, perhaps, is whether in the post-pandemic world there is room for a niche subscription service like this with relatively little content. The $4.99 price tag will work in its favour, of course, but as subscription services continue to proliferate in a depressed global economy a subscription market adjustment is inevitable at some stage in the next year or so.

The two months free trial during the pandemic will no doubt see a high volume of trial subscribers. The real test will come as the trial period expires just as the harsh economic realities of the pandemic hit home hardest.

For Mangamo the waters are muddied still further by the relatively slow take-up of digital comics and Manga outside the core Japan and Korea markets.

But for MENA publishers this might not be such a challenge given the engagement between MENA TV streamers and Manga video content producers.

Take this post from TNPS, for example.

2021 Sheikh Zayed Book Award opens for submissions

"The Arab Nobel Prize"

The Sheikh Zayed Book Award, often called the Arab Nobel Prize, is actually nine awards, each worth the USD equivalent of $200,000, and among the biggest and most prestigious literary prizes on the planet.

Each edition sees writers, translators, academics, publishers, and cultural organisations from around the world awarded for their exceptional contributions to advancing Arabic literature and culture.

In a statement on the Sheikh Zayed Book Award site, Saood Al Hosani, Acting Undersecretary of the Department of Culture and Tourism - Abu Dhabi, explains:
The Sheikh Zayed Book Award continues to celebrate the literary pioneers and thought leaders who play a pivotal role in both highlighting and adding to the richness of Arab culture, opening ever broader horizons for creative innovation. Those we are honouring have contributed greatly to building bridges of communication and dialogue between the many different cultures of the world, in the spirit of our founding father, the late Sheikh Zayed, after whom this Award was named and who greatly believed in the power of the twin pillars of knowledge and culture.
But while the topic is Arab culture and learning, the website makes clear that,
Authors, publishers, translators and organisations of any nationality can make submissions, which are welcomed from all countries in Arabic and other languages.
Previous winners of the Award include Dame Marina Warner (UK), Amin Maalouf (France), Banipal Magazine (UK), Professor Philip Kennedy (USA), and the Institut du Monde Arab (France).
The nine award categories are:
•             Literature (including both fiction and poetry)
•             Young Author (for writers under the age of 40)
•             Children’s Literature
•             Cultural Personality of the Year
•             Publishing and Technology
•             Arabic Culture in Other Languages
•             Translation (either into or from Arabic)
•             Literary and Art Criticism
•             Contribution to the Development of Nations

I end this post with the topical words of Dr. Ali bin Tamim, Secretary General of the Sheikh Zayed Book Award and Chairman of the Abu Dhabi Arabic Language Authority:
During this current global crisis, we have been reminded that no matter what happens, culture adapts to the most difficult of circumstances, and endures. As the rich cultural life of the Arab world continues to flourish, I urge writers, publishers and scholars around the world to bring the fruits of their labour to the judges’ attention. We look forward to appraising the submissions for what is sure to be another fresh and exciting edition of the Sheikh Zayed Book Award.
Closing date for submissions is 1 October 2020.
More details here.

“Severe and lasting damage” as 2/3 of French publishers miss out on the 30% digital surge during lockdown 

Lessons for MENA publishers

From TNPS:

French publishing has for the past decade or more proudly stood firm against the trend to embrace digital, determined to give French consumers what publishers felt they wanted: Printed books sold at high prices in bricks & mortar stores.

And when the coronavirus crisis arrived French publishers were hit hard.

Of course that’s been a story retold around the globe to some degree, but few if any other countries appear to have been hit quite as heavily as France, with the national publishing body warning of “severe and lasting damage” as it appealed to the government for assistance.

But it’s hard not to see the message from the French Publishers Association (SNE – Syndicat National de l’Edition) as an appeal to rescue the industry from its own shortsightedness, while declining to seriously address certain key issues, among them digital and Amazon.

Consider: The results of an SNE survey of “132 publishing companies or groups representing around 250 publishing houses” shows a bleak picture across the French publishing landscape, with 18 publishing houses expected to fold, and 57% of respondents experiencing cash flow issues.

The SNE report singles out bookstore closures as a reason for the national publishing industry’s plight, and cites insufficient funding from government in assisting the industry to ride out the pandemic, but declines, for example, to mention the role the closure of Amazon’s warehouse may have played in preventing online sales meeting demand.

Rather, SNE argues, without any evidence offered beyond the fact that bookstores were closed, that readers had priorities other than books during this difficult time.

If so that would put France, a nation of booklovers by any measure, at odds with pretty much the rest of the world, where demand for books rose significantly during lockdown, driving readers to look to online delivery or digital delivery to fill the gap bookstore closures left.

SNE spends as little time as possible dealing with digital, noting that sales of ebooks rose by 30% and audiobooks by 8%, but that only 30% of respondents offered digital titles in the first place.

But in its conclusions, where the SNE outlines its proposed solutions, the suggestion that French publishers might spend a little more effort in putting in place a digital safety net, or building on the 30% surge in digital sales that the few publishers that did make an effort with digital experienced, is notably absent.

Read the SNE report in full (in French) here:

For more detail from the SNE report in English, try The Bookseller or Publishing Perspectives.

For MENA publishers, it’s a reminder that France is behind the curve with digital compared to some other markets, and that should be borne in mind when considering investment strategies (time, effort and cash) for French translations.

Don’t for one second think France is a no go area for digital. Far from it. But do be aware that mainstream French publishing has done little to encourage consumers to adapt during the last decade

Many MENA publishers will be publishing in French as their primary output language, so the situation in France with digital engagement is both a hindrance and an opportunity.

Simon & Schuster Q1 revenue up 4%, driven by 16% growth in ebook and audiobook sales

And how Big Pub deliberately depressed ebook sales, redux

From TNPS (see OP for further links to quotes):

As part of ViacomCBS the Simon & Schuster management, like HarperCollins, understands the value of digital. Said ViacomCBS in its Q1 report:

Domestic streaming and digital video revenue – which includes streaming subscription and digital video advertising revenue – grew to $471 million, up 51% year-over-year.

Content licensing revenue grew 9%, fueled by growth in original studio production for third parties. Paramount Television Studios, CBS Television Studios and Cable Networks’ studios all benefited from strong content deliveries during the quarter.

While it’s fair to say ViacomCBS has never given Simon & Schuster CEO Carolyn Reidy full reign to explore the potential of digital publishing, and of course Reidy has to balance existing print interests, the Q1 results at a time when many publishers are negatively reporting the early-stage impact of the Covid-19 crisis, are testament to the value Reidy placed on digital options in the previous decade, that have acted as a safety net as the new decade unfurls.

Simon & Schuster sales rose to $170 million, from $164 million, in the period, while earnings were flat at $19 million.

Perhaps most significant in the detail, as explored by Jim Milliot over at Publishers Weekly, is that Reidy reports that the early dip in audiobook sales as commuters stayed at home soon grew again.

Significant because the dip had been seized upon by the digital nay-sayers as evidence digital was no panacea in the era of the coronavirus.

This narrative gained steam when a Tor editor posted on Facebook in early April that,

people mostly, almost 100%, listen to audio books while they commute to work. Sales of audio books collapsed about three weeks ago. Fortunately, there isn’t a physical supply chain there, so theoretically that business can restart immediately upon resumption of commuting.

Curiously Simon & Schuster had no need to wait for commuter resumption to see audiobook sales pick-up. In fact it may well be these same commuters found they had more time to listen to books at home.

The same Tor editor explained that ebooks were an insignificant part of the book revenue streams.

First, you need to know that the vast majority of our business remains in hardcover and paperback books. Hard copies, physical objects. The second strongest sector has been audio books. Ebooks are a distant third.

This in the context of a sweeping assertion that,

publishing is in so much trouble right now.

The argument was not without merit.

Selling books is a very long and complicated supply chain. Ignore editorial – writers and editors can work at a distance and electronically. It really starts with the paper.

Storing paper for the big presses takes an enormous amount of warehouse space, which costs money. Printers don’t store a lot — they rely on a “just in time” supply chain so that when a book is scheduled to go to press, the paper is delivered to the printer. Most of that paper is manufactured in China. Guess what isn’t coming from China? Anything, for the last three months. Some of it comes from Canada. Guess what the Trump administration put a big tariff on at the beginning of the year?

So, we don’t have adequate paper supplies. Then consider, big printing plants are not “essential businesses”. There are only a couple printers in the US that can handle the book manufacturing business. One of them shut down last week. Covid-19. We started rescheduling books like mad to deal with that.
But supposing we had paper, and a printer and bindery, the books have to be shipped to the warehouse. Again, non-essential movement. The freight drivers moving books? Staying home, as they should. Not all of them. I hope they remain healthy, because dying to get the latest bestseller to the warehouse doesn’t seem quite right to me.

Now then, our warehouse. We have a gigantic facility in Virginia. Lots of people are working there, bless them, but it’s putting them at risk. There they are, filling orders, packing boxes, running invoices. Giving those boxes to the freight drivers who take the books to the bookstores and distributors. Again, truck drivers risking their lives to bring books to the bookstores.

But think again. The bookstores are closed. The distributors are closed . No place open to deliver the books to. Some bookstores are doing mail order business, bless them, but they aren’t ordering very many books from our warehouse. Amazon isn’t ordering very many, either — because they have (correctly) stopped shipping books and are using their reduced staff to ship medical supplies and food.

So the books that distributors and sellers ordered months ago are not being printed or shipped or sold. And because of that, they aren’t making any money. And because of THAT, they are not ordering any books for months from now. Plus they aren’t paying for the books they got from us last month and the month before. Cash flow has ground to a halt.

The problem with all this being that this is just one company’s experience.

Sure, other publishers have similar issues with their print sales right now, but many publishers have spent the past decade or more developing print whilst also embracing, not dismissing, the advantage digital confers.

Ebooks are a distant third in sales?

Not to question that statement, for this particular publisher.

But might it just be possible that this is due more to publisher policy than to consumer demand?

Does this editor seriously believe that consumers who at one stage back at the start of the 2010s were creating triple-figure ebook growth – far higher than anything we’ve seen more recently from audiobooks – suddenly decided they didn’t like ebooks after all and reverted to print?

Or might it be that by deliberately raising prices to protect print and thumb noses at Amazon’s attempt to control ebook pricing, publishers artificially dampened ebook demand because it suited them to do so.

We only have to look at how well digital-first publishers were doing, before and during the lockdown, to see how that policy has backfired spectacularly.

Take the digital-first publisher and distributor OpenRoad Integrated Media (OR/M).

In a press release in February OR/M CEO Paul Slavin said:

We had another terrific year! We have helped more book-hungry consumers discover more wonderful books than ever before. Our websites and newsletters are thriving with a mix of original content and books, our unique technology is making the user experience seamless and helping our marketing team scale our efforts into the stratosphere. Our data and analytics teams are without peer, working to help us uncover important trends and needs of our consumers. Everything is up, from advertising sales, to content sales, to library sales. Our Ignition partners are seeing well over 100% increases in their revenue. Overall our revenue increased just shy of 24% year over year, EBITDA grew 130%. We are profitable and thriving.

This pre-pandemic, so it will be interesting to see how OR/M has fared since lockdown began.

Staying with pre-pandemic reports, there’s Amazon’s Kindle Unlimited, the exclusive ebook arm of KDP, which caters for self-publishers and micro-presses, that alone paid out over a quarter billion dollars in royalties in 2019.

Amazon’s ebook subscription service Kindle Unlimited paid out over a quarter billion dollars in royalties to KDP authors for second year running

That’s quite apart from regular ebook sales on Amazon for this sector, and quite apart from the sales of APub.

If some publishers chose to deliberately slow down their ebook sales last decade, for whatever sound reason, still it is disingenuous to suggest that the format is at fault.

At which point let’s wheel this discussion back to Simon & Schuster, a company that did take digital seriously, not just with regular ebook and audiobooks but also in its Pimsleur division, which offers audio teaching aids for language-leaning, including a subscription option.

CEO Carolyn Reidy, reports Publishers Weekly, said Pimsleur saw a “big jump”, while ebook sales were up 13% in Q1 and running at 50% higher than YOY in early April as lockdown got serious.

From PW:

Print sales began to soften at the end of March and took a major hit in April, Reidy said, as most bookstores across the country had closed by that point. Some print sales have shifted to outlets like Walmart, however, and online sales have also risen.

As Stephen Page, CEO of Faber told The Bookseller,

Publishers who have broad publishing programmes and sell across a range of retailers, including digital, are faring better than those reliant on high street visibility or sales.

NOTE: Simon & Schuster CEO Carolyn Reidy has since passed away. She was a legend in the western publishing arena and will be sorely missed.

YouScribe launched in Burkina Faso

You can't put the digital subscription genie back in the bottle

For those who learned their geography in the last century, Burkina Faso used to be called Upper Volta. A land-locked country on the southern edge of the Sahara Desert, so bordering MENA and with a strong Arab cultural influence. Population 20 million (twice the size of Sweden, home of Storytel), and probably the last place you might expect to find an ebook and audiobook subscription service. But then, global publishing is full of surprises.

From TNPS:

With over half a billion Africans online it was always just a matter of time before digital subscription took off in Africa, and France-based YouScribe has led the way in spectacular fashion.

Last year YouScribe launched its digital books subscription service in Senegal, Cote d’Ivoire, Tunisia, Madagascar and Cameroon, to the mild bemusement of the few (western) industry commentators that even noticed.

Digital subscription in Africa?

It was only two years ago (January 2018 in fact) that Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie was famously asked “Do they have bookshops in Nigeria?”

In fact Nigeria is also one of a handful of African nations that has embraced digital books, alongside, of course, having regular bookstores. Nigeria of course another sub-Saharan African country with strong Arab influences on its culture.

Previous YouScribe launches have focussed on the more digitally advanced francophone nations of Africa, and we can welcome the Burkina Faso launch as confirmation of YouScribe’s inclusive vision for the continent.

Partnering with the telco Orange, YouScribe becomes a telco value-added service (VAS) that benefits from the reach (9 million users in Burkina) and carrier billing options (pay with your mobile phone credit) to deliver digital content in the most effective way across a continent where traditional book retail has always been challenging.

It’s a reminder, as Storytel has shown us elsewhere, with launches in tiny countries like Iceland and cash-strapped nations like India, that no country is off-limits to digital subscription.

And a reminder too that you can’t put the digital subscription genie back in the bottle.

Burkina is, as this newsletter goes live, under lockdown, being one of the hardest hit of the sub-Saharan countries in Africa, although as yet the numbers compare very favourably with the horrific scenes being played out in western Europe and North America.

For publishers with a digital-first focus it seems there is a shimmering silver lining to this very dark cloud that hangs over the world right now.

Much more on YouScribe in the next edition of Publish MENA.

Sweden’s Nextory sees 94% revenue and 110% subscriber growth in Q1 

Nextory keeps its momentum as the pandemic hits

Storytel’s thriving while print-focussed industry stakeholders struggle (see item elsewhere in this newsletter) is not a lone story in the pandemic era. Sweden’s Nextory also reported impressive figures.

But as per caveat earlier in this newsletter, do remember these are percentages with no baseline numbers, and without a base line the claims of 94% and 110% growth don’t tell us much other than as Nextory itself asserts, the company is the fastest growing subscription service in the Nordics.

That’s an enviable claim to fame, of course, but it leaves us none the wiser as to how well Nextory is actually doing.

Here’s the thing. If Nextory had 100 subscribers in Q1 2019 and 210 in Q1 2020 that would be 110% growth.

If Nextory has 1,000,000 subscribers in Q1 2019 it would be 2,200,000 subscribers in 2020 with the same 110% rise.

Safe to say Nextory has a lot more than the first example and a lot less than the second but beyond that the percentages, without context, tell us little.

Likewise for revenue. Did Nextory go from $100 to $210 dollars or from $1 million to $2.2 million or any of myriad other possible combinations somewhere between?

So while we can and should be excited by Nextory’s continuing growth, and kudos to Shadi Bitar, and while there’s no reason to doubt Nextory’s claim to be the second largest subscription service in Sweden after Storytel (Bookbeat has not disputed this), the latest press release, like so many before, doesn’t really tell us much other than that digital is riding the storm better than other formats.

More detail over at TNPS.

Abdelouahab Aissaoui wins International Prize for Arabic Fiction

TV credited with enhancing Algeria’s publishing prospects

An Algerian novelist has for the first time won the International Prize for Arabic Fiction, and as part of the $50,000 prize, sponsored by the Department of Culture and Tourism – Abu Dhabi and run in conjunction with the Booker Prize Foundation, the book will be translated into English.

Abdelouahab Aissaoui is the author. The Spartan Court the book. The ceremony was streamed live on YouTube, reports the UAE’s The International, which explains:

The Spartan Court is a multilayered tale of five characters and their varied experiences of colonialism in 19th-century Algiers.

Abdelouahab Aissaoui is no stranger to awards. His 2013 debut, Jacob's Cinema, won Algeria's President of the Republic Prize.

The award for The Spartan Court brought controversy as well as fame and fortune, as the historical novel tackles Algeria’s transition from part of the Ottoman Empire to part of the French Empire. 

In the era of satellite TV, video-on-demand and other distractions one might think the Arabic novel would be struggling in Algeria, but fascinatingly, Aissaoui sees just the opposite happening.

We are living through the awakening of the Arabic novel in Algeria. You know, about 20 years ago you would only find about 4 to 5 Arabic books published a year. Now you can get up 200 novels out annually.

This, Aissaoui explains, is due to Algerians being “Arabised” by the explosion of Pan-Arabic satellite television.

You can’t underestimate the power of this. We have moved from generations influenced by French culture to an Arabic one. Watching Arabic channels has influenced Algerians to embrace the language and literature. 

"A life saving growth of 300% in our D2C e-commerce sales during lockdown” – Verso

A UK publisher's D2C strategy pays off during lockdown

While many publishers have this past decade continued to rely heavily on bricks & mortar bookstores as a buttress against Amazon’s dominance of the online print and ebook market, UK publisher Verso has long since put its efforts into building a D2C (direct to customer) relationship with its audience.

And that has paid off handsomely, not just with a 25% increase on global sales year on year, but a massive 300% increase in its e-commerce sales in 2020’s first quarter while other publishers were hit by lockdown closing bricks & mortar stores, UK distributors like Bertrams and Gardners variously operational or closed, and Amazon prioritising non-book goods distribution.

Verso MD Rowan Wilson, in conversation with the UK trade journal The Bookseller, explained:

Verso has spent years developing its D2C e-commerce business to its enthusiastic and supportive readers, so that last year it was already responsible for one third of our sales—it’s been key for our long backlist as well as our frontlist. As soon as the situation with the lockdown and the book trade developed, our marketing and publicity teams devoted all their energies to our D2C sales and we have seen a life saving growth of 300% in our e-commerce sales, and a consequent 25% growth on our sales from last year.

There's much MENA's publishers can build on here, both for domestic and international sales.

And a reminder that for D2C sales the regional chaenges of delivery need not be a problem as D2C sales of digital books mean any MENA publisher can reach any consumer anywhere in the world and instantly receive payments and deliver the goods from their own website or using a third party D2C-lite option that will give the publisher 85% of the list price.

This post first appeared in TNPS;

Mills & Boon launches unlimited subscription service

MENA publishers need to be aware of the new world emerging

The last featured item for this edition of Publish MENA is a cautionary tale warning that “Big Pub”, as we affectionately call mainstream western publishing that relies on deep pockets, big names and a snail’s pace approach to change, is going to emerge from this pandemic stronger than it started.

Digital change was already accelerating before the coronavirus pandemic turned the publishing world on its head, and the crisis has done nothing to dampen that momentum.

Rather, digital opportunity abounds even more than before!

From TNPS:

Yippee is a new video streaming service for families with 2 to 10 year old children, rolled out to meet the needs of lockdown parents. The subscription model offers over 1,000 hours of curated content,

to appeal to kids who are interested in crafts, cars, animals, adventure and more (and includes) the first-ever car show for kids called Backseat Drivers.

Meanwhile Alamo Drafthouse Cinema has teamed with ScreenPlus and Vista Cinema to launch a new VOD platform as cinemas remain mostly closed across the USA.

While publishers are finding digital an invaluable safety net, few have made any bold moves to step up their digital game.

But among those that have is HarperCollins-owned romance imprint Mills & Boon. Mills & Boon is no stranger to subscription – in fact many would argue subscription has been at the heart of its success, with both print and digital subscription packages long since in place.

Mills & Boon has risen to the challenge of the pandemic by taking the logical next step – an unlimited subscription service that leverages its backlist.

The move has received remarkably subdued coverage from the industry, historically dismissive of romance books and of subscription initiatives, but the logic behind the decision by HarperCollins to go down this road, albeit limited to the UK and Ireland, is worth rehearsing.

Already with a monthly UK readership of 1.3 million, says HarperCollins CEO Charlie Redmayne, the new unlimited subscription service is,

a brilliant opportunity for us to help our authors reach even more readers and to extend backlist e-book sales; given the current increased demand for positive escapist entertainment, now is the perfect time to launch this new service.

Okay, let’s remove the pandemic timing and look at what this really means, and its application for MENA publishers:

Reach(ing) even more readers and extend(ing) backlist e-book sales.

This is where the unlimited subscription model really comes into its own, leveraging the digital backlist that if available through regular ebook retail may go undiscovered and that, because of the very real limitations of print distribution and retail, can never be matched in the paper & ink sector.

It’s the same logic that drives film studios to release their catalogues to VOD services, because they understand that the very act of maximising content availability attracts new eyeballs and drives new revenue streams.

Not every publisher will be in a position to emulate the HarperCollins Mills & Boon experiment, but of course there are existing subscription services that can be used, from Storytel to Scribd to 24Symbols to Bookbeat to Kindle Unlimited.

And while the latter, being Amazon-owned, may be a step too far for publishers that see Amazon as a necessary evil, there can be few arguments that will stand up to serious scrutiny when it comes to not participating at least with backlist catalogues in the other unlimited subscription services.

Yet ironically it is this very reluctance by – nay resistance from – publishers to participate in services like Scribd that keep Scribd from fulfilling its potential and becoming a major force in North American digital subscription.

Unlike Storytel, Bookbeat, etc, Scribd is readily available in North America and the UK, for example, but without the full participation of the big publishers its catalogue cannot attract the subscriber levels needed to take it to the next level.

In the pre-pandemic era the popular position of the big western publishers has been to dismiss subscription as something consumers are not that interested in, understandably wanting to protect their print interests.

But in the lockdown era digital has shown its true value.

The big question is, will publishers in the post-pandemic era include unlimited subscription in their “new normal” as that evolves?

For those MENA  publishers (and authors) still wedded to the pre-pandemic mindset that belongs, if not quite in the last century then at least in the last decade, it might be worth reminding ourselves of another VOD success story: Disney+.

Disney+, the unlimited subscription service from, you guessed it, Disney, is barely six months old, but in just five months hit 50 million paid subscribers worldwide, including picking up 8 million subscribers in India.

Disney+ launched in the US in November, expending into western Europe in March and in India in April.

Kevin Mayer, chairman of Walt Disney direct-to-consumer & international, said at the time,

"We’re truly humbled that Disney+ is resonating with millions around the globe, and believe this bodes well for our continued expansion throughout Western Europe and into Japan and all of Latin America later this year."

The 50 million Disney subscribers come alongside and in addition to Hulu’s 30 million subscribers, Netflix’s 167 million subscribers and too many other millions of subscribers to too many other myriad VOD subscription services out there to count, that show consumers will embrace digital subscription wholeheartedly given a quality catalogue to buy into.

That’s something most publishers, across MENA and globally,  have consistently declined to consider, and it’s likely the near future new normal will not see that mindset change.

But publishers clinging to the past have, during the pandemic, been forced to take a step back and look again at how much the “This is how we’ve always done things” mantra has cost them in missed opportunities to ride out the current crisis.

I leave you with this summary of thoughts from Faber CEO Stephen Page, in the UK industry journal The Bookseller, where he explained Faber’s print sales were down 33% during the lockdown period but digital sales were rising.

Page said the company had “moved quickly” to close its offices a week before lockdown and had adapted “rather amazingly quickly to home working”. He admitted that it was “a challenge to get the company in the right shape and rhythm” for lockdown, but added, “As with many other businesses we’ve been surprised by how quickly we adapted”.

MENA's authors and publishers would do well to see the new normal emerging as an exciting opportunity to accelerate digital engagement both at home and aborad.

StreetLib CEO Giacomo D’Angelo participates in Abu Dhabi panel discussion

On the future of ebooks in the Covid-19 era

Last month StreetLib CEO Giacomo D'Angelo was part of a panel debate about the future of publishing in the pandemic era, with a special focus on Arab publishing 

The Publish MENA newsletter is not intended as a vehicle for promoting its own publisher, StreetLib, but occasionally StreetLib news has a bearing on MENA publishing, so warrants an end-item inclusion.

From the StreetLib press release:

While Italy-based, StreetLib’s reputation as one of the foremost global players in the digital books arena was enhanced this week when the company’s CEO, Giacomo D’Angelo, joined a panel of publishing industry experts in an online discussion about the impact of digital publishing amid the coronavirus crisis.

Organised by the United Arab Emirates’ Abu Dhabi Department of Culture and Tourism (DCT Abu Dhabi) as part of a series of online seminars for the Arab and global publishing industry, the discussion was moderated by Salah Chebaro, General Director of Thaqafa and Founder and CEO of Neelwafurat, one of the largest online sales platforms for Arabic books.

Online alongside the StreetLib CEO were Seham Abdulla Al Hosani (e-Publishing Manager at DCT Abu Dhabi); Julia Balogh, Head of Foreign Rights at Austrian publishing house Ueberreuter Verlag GmbH: Steven Rosato (Manager, OverDrive Professional; and Octavio Kulesz (Argentinian publisher and UNESCO expert in digital creativity and artificial intelligence).

See the discussion on YouTube here.

Explaining the reason for the discussion, DCT Abu Dhabi Publishing Director Saeed Hamdan Al Tunaiji said:

“Ebooks have witnessed tremendous growth even before the spread of Coronavirus,especially among young people, because it is the easiest way to reach the public around the world. The Department of Culture and Tourism - Abu Dhabi is especially focused on digitisation and artificial intelligence because of the great role they play in the process of exploring the future of knowledge. They also enable us to develop the frameworks for creativity and innovation, by focusing on traditional print publishing and also e-publishing, including audio books.”

Seham Abdulla Al Hosani looked at the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic.Noting that globally ebooks sales were up over ten percent, but it quickly became clear that in some parts of the world the numbers were much higher.

For OverDrive Steven Rosato noted that downloads had increased 30% in the first week of US lockdown, with children’s and YA titles seeing increases of 65%-75%, while publisher interest in OverDrive’s K12 (primary-school to college) digital library facility rose from an average 50-100 enquiries a week to 1,500.

For StreetLib, Giacomo D’Angelo shared that the company has seen a 30% increase in publisher interest in getting their catalogue digitised, while revenue for partners was up more than 50%, and across the StreetLib catalogue of 400,000 or more ebooks, print books (POD), comics, audiobook and podcasts downloads were up 90%.

“Not only are publishers rushing to digitise their catalogue more and more, but they are also starting to evolve their internal workflow in order to become leaner and faster, which will benefit not only their bottom line but also benefit consumers."

Talking about the Arab markets, Steven Rosato said OverDrive, which supplies Sharjah and Abu Dhabi digital libraries, was seeing increased demand.

On the negative side, Julia Balogh raised the issue of publisher pricing for ebooks acting as a deterrent to sales, with many publishers charging the same, or close to, for an ebook as for a print book.

For StreetLib, Giacomo D’Angelo made the point that many of the international retailers like Amazon, Kobo, Apple and Google Play, where they offer ebooks internationally, do so at US prices (as set by the publisher), which artificially depresses demand and discourages interest in ebooks in the emerging markets.

While all participants shared the perspective that the digital boom during the pandemic will not fade away as the crisis recedes, some expressed concern that a handful of big players so dominate the market that development might be limited by their actions or lack thereof.

Giacomo D’Angelo for instance made the point that Amazon had not opened a new Kindle store in more than five years, leaving much of the world without access to the Kindle store.

But he stressed that numerous smaller players were rising to fill the void and that digital reading – not just regular ebooks but “online reading” as we are seeing in China and across Asia – showed the enormous demand for digital content that many western publishers were missing out on.

The issue of piracy could not be ignored in a discussion like this, but the suggestion that ebooks were particularly prone to piracy was quickly dismissed, with OverDrive’s Steven Rosato making the point that most piracy in the emerging markets involved print books having their spines ripped off, pages scanned, and PDFs being sold online. Other respondents agreed that quality ebooks, sensibly priced, would help solve the piracy problem, not make it worse.

StreetLib CEO Giacomo D’Angelo ended the discussion on a note of high optimism, saying that the pandemic crisis had brought about a renewed focus on the advantages digital offers publishers and the opportunities digital brings to the table, saying there has never been a better time to be a digital publisher than right now.

Thanks for reading 

The next edition of Publish MENA will be along soon

That's it for this edition of Publish MENA. A bit longer than usual to make up for the lost time during the early stages of the pandemic.

As this newsletter starts hitting inboxes it’s easy to get the impression the pandemic is all but over, with lockdown being eased in many countries, but the reality is we're nowhere near the end of this, with over 7 million coronavirus cases reported globally, and lockdown easing bringing new challenges.

For the rest of this year and likely much of next year we'll still be figuring out what the new normal is and how we need to adapt. Nowhere is that clearer than watching the Frankfurt Book Fair- the almighty Buchmesse - as it struggles to find its new role in the pandemic era.

I'll leave you with a link to a TNPS report on how the Big 5 are already pulling out of the Buchmesse - not due to take place until October.

We are experiencing a paradigm shift in global publishing like nothing conceivable as this year began five short months ago.

Be under no illusion there are challenging times ahead for all of us, whether mainstream or indie, corporate, micro or individual author, whatever continent we may be on.

The best - and the worst - are yet to come.

I've been Mark Williams, writing from The Gambia, West Africa, saying on behalf of everyone at StreetLib, our publisher, thanks for reading, and wherever you are, stay safe, and be sure to check out the next edition of Publish MENA when it comes along.

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Publish MENA is a bi-weekly review of the MENA publishing scene across all formats, but with an unashamed tilt towards the digital opportunity unfolding.

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Publish MENA is brought to you by Mark Williams


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