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Publish MENA # 10 - July 12, 2020

Welcome to Publish MENA #10

Perspectives amid a pandemic


The big story for this edition of Publish MENA is the buy-out by Sweden-based digital books subscription service Storytel of the Arabic-language audiobook subscription service Kitab Sawti. That's one of two Storytel items this time around, as digital subscription continues to drive the debate about the future of Arab and global publishing.

Storytel's latest results and its announcement to launch soon in Indonesia and Thailand, make up one of our three International perspectives posts this edition, with subscription services Nextory and Bookbeat being the other two.

As ever this is not about global publishing news per se but how these operations are demonstrating there is an alternative to the age-old model that currently defines MENA publishing, which per several items in this newsletter is widely regarded as being "in crisis".

Our MENA focus starts with news of a live discussion on YouTube between representatives of the International Publishers Association and the Arab Publishers Association. That's Monday July 13 at 1 PM CEST.

That's followed by the opening of applications by Emirati publishers for financial support from the EPA Emergency Fund, and then we stay with the UAE for news about a seminar to discuss Arab book fairs, before heading off to Egypt for news from the Bibliotecha Alexandrina.

Saudi Arabia's newly launched Literature, Publishing and Translations Commission comes under scrutiny, and we take a look at the Qatar-France 2020 event designed to being these countries closer through cultural exchanges.

Staying with Qatar and a look at Arabic-translations into Bengali before we visit the perspectives of  a major Italian publisher trying to break into the exciting Arab book markets.

Digitisation comes up yet again with topics on Egypt and Jordan and talk of the "never-before-seen subscription model in the Arabic markets, and we wind down with a note about yet another online event, this time arranged by the UAE's Sheikh Zayed Book Award and the UK's trade journal The Bookseller, and that's all about The Arabian Nights.

What's not to like?

So let's plunge in with the Storytel expansion in MENA.

Storytel acquires Arabic audiobook subscription service Kitab Sawti

CEO Sebastian Bond to lead a new regional operation, Storytel MENA



Originating in Sweden in 2016, Kitab Sawti has been a leading force in Arabic-language audiobooks, competing with local players like Booklava and Dadh and the recent arrival (2018) of Storytel.


Now Storytel has bought out Kitab Sawti in a surprise move that puts Storytel Arabia, operating out of Dubai, in a commanding position, with over 5,000 Arabic-language titles, which it is claiming is the largest offering of Arabic audio titles anywhere.

Kitab Sawti CEO and co-founder Sebastian Bond said:

We are very proud of what Kitab Sawti and our fantastic team have achieved in the Arab region. I am convinced that Storytel, with its scale, technical ability, entrepreneurial spirit and global experience, will be an excellent owner to take the business to the next level.

I am also looking forward to continuing to drive the audiobook passion of the Arabic-speaking consumers and to highlight the unique qualities that exist with Arab writers and publishers.

Kitab Sawti had sales of SEK 2.4 million ($261,000) in 2019, and in 2020 saw subscribers double during the region’s lockdown.

For Storytel, CEO Jonas Tellander, said:

I am very happy and excited for the exciting opportunities that the combination of Storytel and Kitab Sawti will be able to offer to Arab consumers, publishers and writers. Online media consumption is in a boom in the Middle East, and so is consumer confidence in digital products and The positive trend for audiobooks that we see among customers in the region clearly shows great potential. And so does the combined knowledge and skill of Storytel’s and Kitab Sawti’s fantastic local Arabic team.

Sebastian Bond will lead Storytel’s operations as Storytel Arabia upgrades to become Storytel MENA, potentially encompassing all the Arabic-speaking markets of the Middle East and North Africa.

The deal was formally closed on July 10.

Press release here.

More news on Storytel in an international insights post further into this newsletter.

IPA-APA Debate: Publishing in the Arab World during the COVID-19 Pandemic

Live on YouTube Monday 13 July, 1PM CEST


IPA Secretary General José Borghino will be talking with Bachar Chebaro, Secretary General of the Arab Publishers Association about how the COVID-19 Pandemic has affected publishers across the region, and what the future might hold.

The discussion will be live on YouTube on Monday 13 July, at 1pm CEST, 

For updates on the schedule, visit the IPA announcement here.

EPA Opens Registrations For Emirates Publishers Emergency Fund

Active membership required

The Emirates Publishers Association, EPA, has announced that it has begun accepting applications for the Emirates Publishers Emergency Fund launched by Bodour Al Qasimi, founder and former President of EPA, to support and finance UAE publishers impacted by COVID-19.

The 1 million AED fund was launched by the EPA this June in partnership with the Ministry of Culture and Knowledge Development, the Sharjah Book Authority and Sharjah Publishing City.

Criteria for applications, which can be in Arabic or English, can be found here.

All applicants must be active members of the EPA from 2018 to 1st June, 2020, and ought to be working in the publishing, printing or distribution sectors. They also have a valid commercial licence from either the Economic Development Departments or free zones across the UAE.

To avail the monetary benefits, publishers must present proof of the amount of loss incurred as a result of the cancellation of contracts, book fairs or other cultural engagements between February and June 2020.

Publishers will also be evaluated based on their efforts to sustain their business and ensure continuity of work through the pandemic. Additionally, only those businesses which did not terminate the contracts of their employees since the beginning of 2020 will be considered.

Arab Publishers Association discusses digital solutions surrounding the future of book fairs in the pandemic era

"Adjusting to the digital shift in the Arab publishing industry"


Attended online by directors of Arab book fairs and the Exhibitions Committee of the Arab Publishers Association, along with several members of the Association’s Board of Directors, the virtual meeting sought to develop a "common vision of ensuring the continuity of the Arab publishing sector and supporting the exhibition industry."

Abdullah Majed Al Ali, Executive Director of the Dar Al Kutub sector at DCT Abu Dhabi, said:

With the internet continuing to be a popular first point of reference and a key source of information for readers, especially during these times of social distancing and staying at home, the impact on the publishing industry has been significant. However, this has granted us the opportunity to develop solutions that can help promote the publishing industry and utilise digital technology at the same time. 

Al Ali added,

It is imperative that we continue to coordinate local and regional efforts in order to mitigate the effects of the pandemic on Arab writers and exhibitors, and to support the work of Arab publishers as they adjust to the digital shift in their industry.

Digital was not the only topic discussed, but played a significant role as the debate addressed issues and solutions. From the DCT Abu Dhabi press release about the seminar:

The meeting concluded with a surplus of recommendations, many of which could have a significant impact on the future of the Arab publishing industry. These include a proposal for the creation of an online platform for holding virtual Arab book fairs, complete with a marketing plan to promote the virtual fairs and encourage readers to "visit" and purchase books.

Arab publishers were also urged to use digital platforms, in order to adapt to today’s fast-paced exchanges of information. Meeting attendees also recommended the creation of digital platforms suitable for Arab publishers and partnering with the Arab Publishers Association to send lists of modern books to universities, cultural institutes, and educational bodies.

Read more here.

DCT Abu Dhabi's commitment to digital engagement is well documented.

But MENA is a diverse region and while the pandemic has left nowhere unscathed, the debate about digital options covers the whole spectrum of reaction.

We take a look at Jordan's mixed response later in this newsletter.

Egypt’s Bibliotheca Alexandrina holds a virtual seminar

There's more to digital than just ebooks


Egypt’s Bibliotheca Alexandrina held a virtual seminar at end June, titled "Fantasy Literature Between Criticism and the Book Experience".

Moderated by writer Jehan el-Sayed the seminar involved critic Ahmed Samaha, authors Amr el-Gendy and Nesma Atef and was supervised by Mounir Atiba, director of the Narration Laboratory at the Bibliotheca Alexandrina.

Akhbrna Today’s News explained

Amr el-Gendy is an Egyptian writer, novelist, producer of short films, member of the Writers’ Union of Egypt, and editor in more than one newspaper and electronic magazine.

Ahmed Samaha is a member of the Writers’ Union of Egypt, the Arts Atelier, the Arab Critics Association, the Bloggers Union, the Poets Union, and others. He is a journalist, critic, poet, editor-in-chief of the cultural and opinion section of the Saudi Today newspaper, the editor-in-chief of the Journal of Electronic Literature and the current cultural advisor of the Center for Arab Literature.

Nessma Atef started publishing her work on her Facebook page, before issuing “Rewayet al-Entiqam” [Novel of Revenge], and “Tabaq Yoqadam Baredan” [Cold Dish], among others.

By the time this edition of Publish MENA goes live the event will be over, but is included here as an example of how different countries are either embracing the digital advantage or holding digital at bay, perceiving it as a threat rather than an opportunity.

Bibliotecha Alexandrina has long been embracing digital – most recently in March it made available 20,000 digital books free of charge through its website during lockdown – 

Bibliotecha Alexandrina is the modern incarnation of one of the world’s first and greatest libraries, that was founded in the third century BC, but was itself by no means the first. 

Much later Timbuktu in modern-day Mali would become the centre of the western hemisphere’s books and learning - a reminder that the African continent and the Arab peoples are no strangers to books and learning.

The modern BA is also a masterpiece of architecture.

I leave you with this aerial view of the Biblotecha Alexandrina courtesy of the BA website.

Sweden’s Nextory grows YOY revenue 95% in Q2. 58% new user growth in June

Digital books subscription in action


While many publishers - within MENA and globally - remain wary of the unlimited subscription model for digital books, consumers continue to vote with their smartphones, driving growth of subscription services to new heights.

Among the first to announce Q2 results in Sweden-based Nextory, founded in 2015, which saw new users up 58% in June and revenue almost doubled compared with Q2 2019.

The latest press release offers no detail of subscriber numbers, as per Nextory policy, nor a breakdown of how reported growth is spread across Nextory’s markets, but confirms the company’s claims to be the fastest growing of the Swedish digital books subscription services. We’ll have to take Nextory CEO Shadi Bitar’s word for it that Nextory is the second largest player in the Swedish market after Storytel.

Bitar said,

Despite a very challenging first half with new conditions and working from home, we have continued to grow at a furious pace. It is now clear that the summer is on and that the holidays have started. We can clearly see that the activity has increased in the app and that more people have started reading and listening to books in June compared to May.

At end 2019 Nextory launched in Austria and Switzerland, which with Germany, Finland and Denmark took Nextory’s European reach to 6 markets, although of course the Austrian and Swiss launches simply capitalised on existing content for the German market.

In March, as Bitar talked about ”fantastic growth”, Nextory picked up $6 million in new funding for its expansion plans.

Saudi Arabia’s Literature, Publishing and Translation Commission live sessions on YouTube July 5-18

The digital advantage


While many publishers across MENA are struggling with the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, digital is proving a valuable safety net for those that have adopted a hybrid print and digital approach, and often MENA governments are at the forefront of the drive to digital engagement in the publishing sector.

Running July 5-18, Saudi Arabia’s Literature, Publishing and Translation Commission is, as this edition of Publish MENA goes out, live with a series of wide-ranging cultural discussions using Ministry of Culture social media channels.

Last year Saudi Arabia’s expanded its digital cultural initiatives – see the report on YouTube here – and in February of this year the KSA Literature, Publishing and Translation Commission was formed, under the leadership of Mohammed Hasan Alwan, himself a published author with a BSc in computer information systems so unsurprisingly comfortable with using technology to further the interests of the Saudi publishing sector.

Critic Dr Abdullah Al Ghazhami was the first guest, July 5, talking with journalist Mohammed Al Tumaihi about ‘The Efficiency of the Reader’ and related topics, including factors affecting the reader’s effectiveness, the recipient’s ability to recycle literary text, the act of reading in literary criticism, the writer’s role in productivity, effectiveness of reading and the ability of the reader in representation and assimilation.

On July 6 novelist Dr Wasini Al Araj was interviewed by Dr Zainab Al Khudairy about the magic of narration and the various stages in the emergence of a novelist.

July 7 was the turn of author Mohamed Reda Nasrallah, discussing the memory of culture, including the Saudi cultural identity and the role that cultural media played in the intellectual development of society. He also shared his personal experience with the giants of literature and thought in the Arab world.

July 9: Arab calligraphy. Ibrahim Al Arafie was interviewed on the spirituality of Arabic calligraphy, hosted by Nisreen Al Turki.

July 10: Cultural critic Ali Al Amim led a session titled Something of Criticism, Something of History’, offering glimpses of Saudi culture.

July 11: poet Sultan Al Sabhan will talk about poetry and its arts.

July 12, historian Dr Saad Al Rashid will talk about ‘Antiquities of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia Through the Ages’.

July 13: Dr Arwa Khamis and Amine Ibrahim will present ideas on ‘Creating Imagination in Children.’

July 14: Poet Abdullatif Bin Youssef will talk about ‘The Poetry Engineering’ and the pillars of building a poem'

July 15, novelist Zainab Hefni will talk about the rituals of writing, the life cycle of the text and its relationship to reality under the title ‘The Life of Writing’.

July 16: Novelist Hawraa Al Nadawi will talk about the poetry of the narrative text and the role of diaspora literature in documenting the Arab experience.

July 17: ‘Translation and the Thresholds of Text’, is the topic, with translator Dr Walid Belhaysh Al Omari.

July 18: the topic is ‘Traditional Culture and Folklore’, with social thinker and historian Dr Saad Al Suwayyan who will be taking part in a discussion on the cultural identity and signs of folklore in literary works, and the importance of multiple sources of culture in a civilisation.
According to the Saudi Press Agency, the meetings are,

Part of the efforts of the Literature, Publishing and Translation Commission to build bridges of communication between intellectuals and the public, enrich the local cultural scene with qualitative cultural meetings, and enhance the cultural dialogue.

Qatar-France Year of Culture 2020

Qatar's HBKU Press releases newly translated books in Arabic from the original French


In honour of the Qatar-France Year of Culture 2020, Hamad Bin Khalifa University Press (HBKU Press) has released several newly translated books in Arabic from the original French.

The books are a part of HBKU Press’s overarching initiative to build bridges between nations through cross-cultural communications and to participate in the knowledge economy.

Amani al-Banna, in charge of copyright exchange at HBKU Press, said:

Every year, HBKU Press plans its publishing schedule to align with Qatar’s chosen partner country for the annual Year of Culture. This includes participating in copyright exchange whereby we purchase translation rights for important works from the chosen country, and we also promote the sale of translations rights for original work that we publish to foreign publishers from that country as well.

Al-Banna said:

Translated works allow readers to cross cultural thresholds to discover new perspectives and ways of thinking, while highlighting key figures from other countries. In that way, we see ourselves as cultural ambassadors showcasing our literary creativity and culture to other nations while getting to know other nations’ cultures at the same time.

The Year of Culture programme was established by Qatar Museums and aims to convey Qatar to an international audience. 

The Year of Culture Qatar France 2020 contains a series of events celebrating the relations between Qatar and France through cultural partnerships between French and Qatari organisations, institutions, and individuals also in collaboration with the embassy of Qatar in Paris, the Embassy of France in Doha and The French Institute.

Sweden’s BookBeat sees 82% revenue rise in Q2. Launches in Poland

Targets 400,000 subscribers and $50 million revenue in 2020


US and UK publishers will be watching nervously as the Q2 streaming service results emerge, and with two announcements already the picture lucid: given a fair choice, booklovers are voting with their smartphones.

We’ve already seen Nextory report 95% revenue growth and 58% subscriber growth (see report elsewhere in this newsletter):

And now comes news that BookBeat saw an 82% YOY revenue surge in Q2. That on top of crossing the 300,000 subscriber mark in April, with a forecast of 400,000 subscribers by end 2020.

BookBeat launched in Denmark and most recently Poland, adding to its token presence in UK and its more meaningful activities in Finland, Germany and home country Sweden. Q2 saw a new level entry-point for Finland with a BookBeat Basics option at a lower price than the regular subscription rate.

BookBeat CEO Niclas Sandin said in a press release:

The ambition with BookBeat has always been to create something that can adapt in the long term to new technical conditions and customer needs.

That is where the Nordic publishers (BookBeat is owned by Bonnier) differ from their Anglophone counterparts, where the reaction to the unlimited subscription model for digital books is mostly to keep it at arms length.

That’s been relatively easy in the Anglophone markets where the only meaningful competition are Scribd and Amazon’s Kindle Unlimited, neither of which carry substantive content from the Big 5 publishers (Scribd more than Kindle Unlimited).

It’s ironic that these unlimited subscription players are mostly audiobook-focussed (although ebooks play a significant or even dominant role for some) and by eschewing these services while riding the consumer audiobook book boom means placing heavy reliance on Amazon-owned Audible, effectively handing the same dominance to Amazon in the Anglophone audiobook sector that they did in the ebook sector as the last decade began.

As BookBeat found to its cost when it launched in the UK, Anglophone publishers simply will not play this game right now, and the US and UK audiobook markets will continue to be driven by publishers’ short term interests rather than consumer demand, even if it means ceding even more leverage to Amazon.

What’s interesting with the Big 3 Nordic players is that Storytel alone has ventured outside Europe, with 20 markets connected, plans to increase that to 40 by 2023, and a 2020 revenue target of $200 million.

BookBeat and Nextory so far remain fixated on Europe, but likely we will see that change as this decade unfurls. Meanwhile other players are way ahead in that respect, with Storytel, Bookmate and Ubook among the leading global players, and regional players like YouScribe making big inroads into virgin territory like the francophone Africa markets.

New kid on the block Anyplay has yet to make any serious moves on the global market while Playster, which tried to mix books, music and video, looks to be on the ropes.

Talking to Boktugg, Sandin said:

We are still growing well in the Swedish market in absolute numbers of new paying users and revenues, however, the percentage development is not as high as in previous years because we have already got quite big here. Our assessment is that we are continually gaining market share by growing faster than the market, but that it has far from grown clearly.

Boktugg raised the question of an overcrowded Danish market. Despite a population of just 5.7 million – fewer people than London or New York – a fierce battle rages for digital consumers in Denmark, where BookBeat competes not just against Sweden-based rivals Storytel and Nextory but also against domestic players like Saxo and, soon to launch, Chapter, a new subscription service operated by three Danish publishers.

Chapter’s key attraction for other publishers, as well as the reason for launching for its own titles, will be data availability, something BookBeat is already addressing, with the launch of BookBeat Insights.

Sandin responded on Denmark’s crowded market:

It has so far been proven that as long as growth is high, there is room for a lot of players. In the long run, when that growth is slowed, that number should reasonably decrease. So far no market has come to that point so it is difficult to refer to any empiricism but my assessment is probably that in the long term there should be around three players per market.

Sandin added the caveat that Audible and Spotify were on the fringe, their interest in the Nordic audiobook markets as yet nascent (Audible has lately been pushing for content in Sweden), but a potential challenge for the future.

Arabic translations in Bangladesh

And vice versa


A webinar titled “The Reality and Prospects of Translation in Bangladesh from and to Arabic” recently aired with the media team of Sheikh Hamad Award for Translation and International Understanding (SHATIU) in debate with Bengali academics and translators.

A common consideration when considering whether or not to explore translations is how many people speak a particular language, and Bengali fares well on this count, with about 170 million speakers worldwide, it emerged, and most of them in Bangladesh.

It also emerged the first Arabic-Bengali translation dates back to the year 1500.

But translations to and from Arabic and Bengali (also known as Bangla) can be challenging.

From the press release:

Dr. Abu Jamal Muhammad Qutb Al-Islam Nomani, Professor of Arabic Language at Dhaka University, Bangladesh, spoke about Bangladesh’s experience in translating into Arabic and vice versa. He spoke about the rule of Bengal and introduction of Islam, the most famous and first translations in Bengali, including the translation of the Holy Quran several times due to the great demand and its popularity.

He also talked about the institutions that were interested in translation in Bangladesh, including the Islamic Foundation, which is one of the largest institutions concerned with translation, especially translation of Islamic books and others.

About individual efforts, Dr. Qutb said that individual efforts in translation were not less important than the efforts of institutions drawing attention to the scarcity of translation from Bengali to Arabic due to the lack of market and the high financial cost. Dr. Qutb Al Islam stressed on the importance of translation from Arabic to Bengali due to the keenness of people to understand Islam, and Arabic books translated into Bengali enjoy more popularity.

Dr. Mahfouz Al Rahman Muhammad Zaheer, Department of Arabic Language and Literature at the Islamic University of Kushtia, Bangladesh, talked about his own experience of translation from and to Bengali pointing out the prevalence of religious translation in Bangladesh because translators know religion, and they do not know other fields like philosophy, which prevented them from working in translation in other fields outside of religious sciences. 

The third speaker, Dr. Abdullah Al Maamoun Abdul Latif, known as Al Azhari, and lecturer at the Department of Islamic Studies at Shantou Maryam University of Creative Technology Dhaka, spoke about areas of translation in the Bengali language (literature and humanities) and their nature. 

Read more here.

An Italian publisher's perspective on the Arab book markets

“Intimacy and direct interaction connect the audience with the publishing house”


While not free of the Covid-19 virus, Italy has gone from one of the hardest hit countries to one that is making good progress, and with the easing of lockdown Italian publishers turn their thoughts one again to the international markets, including those of MENA, where Italian publishing house Giunti Editore has long had an interest.

Sada el-Balad English (See) interviewed Giunti’s International Sales Officer Leeann Bortolussi, who in a revealing interview shone a light on the many differences between the western and Arab markets.

Giunti, which started to open its offices in Milan and Florence on June 29, has been dabbling in the Arab markets for some years with Italian-Arabic translations, but, reported Bortolussi, with little progress made because of quality issues. 

The correct translation needs to take into account the difference in traditions and terminology as well as the meaning and synonyms, which may differ from one dialect to another in the same language.

No surprises there, and we can safely say the same applies to any translations from and into any language.

But where Bortolussi’s interview was more instructive was in her insights into the differences between the way western and Arab publishers work, and the differences between western and Arab book fairs.

Talking about the Cairo International Book Fair, which Bortolussi attended in person,

It surprised me that publishers interacted directly with the public. In the US or Europe, publishers follow-up sales only by reports. It is impossible to find the parent company dealing with the reader face to face.

I found in Egypt that the owners of publishing houses watch the sales movement, receiving opinions of the public themselves. That intimacy and direct interaction connect the audience with the publishing house.

The difference between (western) book fairs and that of Cairo is the big crowd and the family atmosphere. The Cairo Book Fair opens its doors for a diverse audience. It is also considered as a picnic, in which children get an early association with books and culture.

As regulars to TNPS and the Publish MENA newsletter will know, Arab book fair differ in scale at a level it’s hard for western publishers, cushioned by a well-developed bricks & mortar sales infrastructure, to comprehend.

Even the smaller international Arab book fairs routinely draw crowds of a half million or more. Morocco’s Casablanca International Book Fair for example.

Even the Erbil Book Far in Iraqi Kurdistan pulled in 400,000 visitors last year –

and Saudi Arabia’s Jeddah Book Fair attracted 440,000 in 2019.

Meanwhile Baghdad (Iraq), Muscat (Oman)

and Riyadh (Saudi Arabia)

all pulled in over one million visitors each, in 2019, as did Algiers (Algeria) where one million was considered a major disappointment. Usually Algiers attracts over 2 million visitors, along with Sharjah (UAE).

But none of those come close to Cairo. This year’s event was one of the few before the pandemic put book fairs globally on hold, and 3.5 million booklovers turned out for the 2020 Cairo International Book Fair.

For publishers beyond MENA this huge and proven interest in books presents exciting opportunities that many are just beginning to wake up to. In the mainstream western markets book fair attendance figures like these are almost unheard of.

While for MENA publishers and publishing stakeholders on the ground it is proof of the potential right at home on our doorstep.

Storytel beats forecast for Q2, taking subscribers to 1.23 million and Q2 revenue up 43%

Announces plans for launches in Thailand and Indonesia


Per our lead story in this edition of Publish MENA, Sweden-based digital books subscription service Storytel has just acquired the Arabic-language audiobook subscription service Kitab Sawti and plans to expand its operation across MENA.

But it's not the only news from Storytel this past week, with the Q2 results in and plans for further expansion in SE Asia announced.

Storytel has already been in the Arab market a couple of years, but the relevance of this addition Storytel item is to remind MENA publishers and related stakeholders of the power of digital when unleashed rather than treated as an afterthought in the publishing process, or deliberately eschewed.

A reminder then that while Storytel also owns several print publishing houses, all the numbers here are about digital subscription - that is, ebooks and digital audio.

Taking the numbers first, and the summary is pretty simple. Revenue up 43% YOY to just shy of $50 million for Q2, while paying subscribers reached 1.25 million.

Digging into the detail, and from the press release:

The average number of paying Storytel subscribers in the second quarter of 2020 in the Nordic segment was 832,800, which corresponds to 6,800 paying subscribers above forecast and a customer base increase of 163,600 subscribers compared to the second quarter of 2019. Streaming revenues in the Nordics came in at 366 MSEK ($40 million), which was in line with forecast. 

At which point some context. That’s $40 million streaming revenue from Storytel's presence in Sweden, Finland, Norway, Denmark and Iceland - total population 26 million (equivalent to UAE, Jordan and Lebanon) and five different languages, while competing against fierce competition from Nextory, Bookbeat and others.

A reminder that even small single language markets can easily sustain digital subscription operations. Denmark, population just 5.7 million, has four subscription services and another due to launch at any time.

While ahead of Storytel’s global markets for now, the non-Nordics saw subscribers grow 94% YOY, closing in on a half million, while streaming revenue growth from the non-Nordics markets amounted to 113%, with 93 million SEK ($10 million).

CEO Jonas Tellander said:

Storytel saw a continued strong influx of customers during the quarter - not least in the Nordic markets where the audiobook wave originally started and where the competition is tougher. The service is attractive and appreciated by the customers in all stages of our development - from when we enter and build new markets from the ground up, to aggressive and forward-leaning strategic investments in content, user experience and production that consolidate and strengthen our position.

Storytel is currently in twenty markets - Brazil, Bulgaria, Colombia, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, India, Italy, Mexico, Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Russia, Singapore, South Korea, Spain, Sweden, Turkey and United Arab Emirates.

This year it will be launching in Thailand, and in 2021 in Indonesia. Storytel has committed to being in 40 markets by 2023.

Yes, Storytel has deep pockets right now thanks massive investment.

But it wasn't always so. Storytel started out as a bootstrapped backwater digital audiobook service in Sweden, and has built a business empire based on consumer demand for digital books.

The point here for MENA publishers is that the money flowing into Storytel is because investors have confidence in the model, and in turn that confidence derives from publishers actively engaging with digital because digital subscription massively increases their audience potential.

“The never-before-seen emergence of ‘subscription culture’ in the Arab world”

“Building a Digital Ecosystem for Knowledge”


The Sheikh Zayed Book Award recently hosted a seminar exploring digital publishing opportunities in the Arab book markets, titled “Building a Digital Ecosystem for Knowledge”,

Moderated by Saeed Hamdan Al Tunaiji, Director of Publishing at the Department of Culture and Tourism – Abu Dhabi (DCT Abu Dhabi), the panel comprised Abdulla Majid al Ali, Executive Director of the Dar Al Kutub Sector at DCT Abu Dhabi, Rashid Al Kous, Executive Director of the Emirates Publishers Association, Dr. Abdulsalam Haykal, Executive Chairman and Founder of Haykal Media, and Salah Chebaro, Chief Executive Officer of ‘Neel wa’.

Majid al Ali cited a number of successful DCT Abu Dhabi initiatives:

We’ve had new and unique experiences that yielded great results, such as turning Louvre Abu Dhabi into a virtual museum, for example, and the large number of virtual concerts and activities we have broadcast to a wide audience through DCT Abu Dhabi’s digital channels.

Those included the Sheikh Zayed Book Awards themselves this year, held online because of the Covid-19 pandemic.

The online event garnered over two million engagements.

Rashid Al Kous talked of how the UAE’s Emirates Publishing Association had gone from 15 members when founded in 2009 by Bodour Al Qasimi, to 175 members today, and of the emergency fund for Emirati publishers to help them through the pandemic era. See Publish MENA # 9.

Salah Chebaro of ‘Neel wa’ said:

Digital publications currently represent 10% or 15% of total published works in Arabic, which can be attributed to both financial and technical factors.

The press release adds,

(Salah Chebaro) pointed out initiatives aiming to bolster Arab digital publishing, most particularly that of the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair, which works closely with Arab publishers and authors in order to build a feasible model for digital publishing.

Abdulsalam Haykal, arguing that the Arab publishing sector is neither mature nor stable enough to sustain itself, stressed that,

Publishing is an industry just like any other, and it requires a set of factors in order to succeed, such as planning, investment and legislation.

The issue of piracy came up with, Al Kous talking about the efforts and coordination between Emirati authorities aiming to address the problem, while Chebaro argued the case for a subscription service (already happening with audiobooks).

Haykal concurred, talking about the,

Never-before-seen emergence of the ‘subscription culture’ in the Arab world, by which people are happy to pay for content through video and music streaming platforms,

and the need to construct a model for books that met the needs of both investors and creators.

Read more here.

“Egyptian and Arab publishing were in crisis before the pandemic. Now exacerbated by lockdown”

Opinions differ on solutions


Said Abdo, head of the Egyptian Publishers Association, said recently that Arab publishing was already in crisis before Covid-19 reached the region, but now the problems have increased as lockdown restricted sales and closed the all important regional book fairs where so much publisher-to-consumer engagement happens.

Abdo paints a bleak, if realistic, picture where the pandemic will not fade away any time soon, and that this exacerbates the,

challenges facing the publishing sector in the Arab world, especially poor distribution and poor marketing and problems associated with shipping and customs, as well as importing paper and printing from abroad.

Abdo estimates Egypt’s publishing losses to be in the region of $20 million March through June despite the EPA’s “Stay at Home with the Best Companion” initiative to encourage book sales during lockdown.

Abdo acknowledged there is “growing interest” in digital books but if the translation is accurate then there seems some confusion about the nature of digital, with Abdo paraphrased as saying,

the paper book has its specificity that distinguishes it from the e-book embodied in the fact that it is easy to carry it from one place to another and read it in some place, which is not provided by the digital book that makes the reader uncomfortably connected to a computer screen,

suggesting Abdo’s perception of digital reading is at a desktop device, not on a smartphone or ereader.

Other commentators took a broader view.

Dalia Ibrahim, chairman of the board of the Dar Al-Nahda Publishing Foundation, said that there are a number of options,

we can use to increase sales and reach the reader through electronic sales, which we have already done in our organisation, after we launched the Nahdet Misr app that contains all our publications from cultural books and children’s books, which we sell through the app to easily reach the consumer.

Ibrahim added,

There are already a large number of Arabic books on these global apps, but they need more marketing because a large number of readers are unaware of the availability of Arabic books on these international platforms, and the number of publishers providing books from across these sites is still a little disproportionate with the number of real publishers in the market. 

The Arab Publishers Association has written to governments across the region calling for support for the publishing sector, suggesting solutions including,

allocating funds to buy books from publishers through education ministries to strengthen school libraries, abolish taxes in the publishing sector and provide incentive packages to the publishing sector.

Read more at Vaaju.

To end this post, a look again at the observation of Dalia Ibrahim on digital awareness. Ibrahim said:

There are already a large number of Arabic books on these global apps, but they need more marketing because a large number of readers are unaware of the availability of Arabic books on these international platforms, and the number of publishers providing books from across these sites is still a little disproportionate with the number of real publishers in the market.

When talking about Egypt we are addressing a country which, while only at 48% internet penetration, is still 49 million people online using devices that could be holding apps like Nahdet Misr.

It is a chicken and egg problem, with few digitised books meaning little consumer interest which in turn discourages publishers from digitising.

But as we see elsewhere in the MENA markets, where publishers are embracing digital they are seeing consumer interest rise in tandem.

And as the international insights liberally dispersed through the Publish MENA and Publish Africa newsletters are intended to demonstrate, globally digital is now an integral part of the industry, 

Only 30% of Jordan’s publishers took digital seriously before the pandemic ripped up the MENA book fair calendar

Now digital is too little too late to be a safety net


From TNPS: One message constantly driven home here at TNPS is the way in which, in contrast to “western” book markets, public-facing book fairs in the MENA region and elsewhere are central to publishing’s bottom line.

In the Arab book markets, for example, book fairs can make or break a publisher’s finances, with many Arab nations regularly attracting a million or more visitors.

As noted  in preceding posts in this edition of Publish MENA, Riyadh, Baghdad, Muscat, Algiers, Sharjah are all in the million-or-more-visitors club, while Casablanca, Jeddah, Beirut, Amman and others all attract footfall most western book fairs can only dream of. The world’s biggest book fair is in Egypt.

The reason is simple enough. With bricks and mortar bookselling infrastructure far from adequate outside the biggest cities, MENA readers head for book fairs as their best chance to find books they want. And in turn publishers push their marketing efforts towards book fairs.

Online and digital? Well, that was happening, but at a leisurely pace. Partly because of publisher indifference or on occasion antipathy towards digital, but mostly for the simple reason that there were few consumer options to sell digital books.

Online print book sellers like Jamalon, that lately also sells digital audio, can only do so much, because selling print books online still needs an effective delivery infrastructure, something sorely lacking in many parts of MENA.

Digital books face the problem that, while almost everyone nowadays owns a smartphone, there simply isn’t the digital book infrastructure to make publisher investment in digital books worthwhile.

Amazon for example, has stores in UAE and Saudi Arabia, but neither sells books and there is no Kindle store, even though KDP/KEP does now support Arabic for ebooks (but not for POD).

Apple doesn’t support Arabic and there are no Apple Books stores in MENA.

Google Play does support Arabic but has only token Google Play Books stores across part of MENA (only as far west as Egypt).

Nook of course isn’t there, and Kobo only offers ebooks and audio via its US international store. Localised ebook stores are few and far between, while audiobooks have fared a little better, but digital audio is still in its infancy.

At which point let’s return our focus to Jordan.

Jaber Abu Fares, President of the Jordanian Publishers Union and head of the Amman International Book Fair spoke to the Jordan Times which summarised the conversation thus:

Publishers in Jordan “depend greatly” on their participation in Arab and international books fairs.

The cancellation of the fairs “will impact the sector significantly, causing an economic crisis for Jordanian publishers, who lack the support of the local market and the interest of official institutions”, Abu Fares said.

The publishers union president predicts that the sector will see “fewer new publications and will probably be unable to continue delivering its messages if not supported by the government, higher education institutions and the private sector”.

In March lockdown began and the Jordanian Publishers Union began to look at options, including digital, surveying members to find out how many Jordanian publishers had any digital savvy in terms of online sales, digitisation and social media engagement.

Just 30% replied in the positive, and the Jordanian Publishers Union has committed to running workshops once the crisis is over, to,

clarify the importance of utilising technology and online publishing.

A decision will be taken in July on whether the Amman book fair will go ahead this year, but there seems little enthusiasm for a digital substitute, and perhaps also little real understanding of what digital actually involves.

Piracy, for example, is cited as a reason to avoid digital progress. Per the Jordan Times interview with Abu Fares:

As an example of challenges facing the sector, the union president pointed to online websites that share the publications of publishers in PDF format without prior approval. Piracy, he said, makes books available with no respect for the publishers’ rights.

“The union is working continuously with the Department of the National Library and the authorities to stand in the face of this new and dangerous phenomenon facing the local economy,” Abu Fares said.

But hold on. The problem of physical books being scanned and put online or being photocopied and sold  is neither recent nor the real issue here.

Digitally-scanned print books are a problem, of course, but PDF copies are not easily read, and what this really shows is that readers are online looking for books that publishers are not making available, and having to settle for low-quality PDF pirate versions because the real digital version is not an option, or that the print version is unavailable or unaffordable..

And ironically this ties directly into the book fair problem. When book fairs aren’t happening then, as publishers well know, consumers have difficulty buying print books elsewhere. Pirated books are not a first choice of criminals but the last resort of the desperate.

Basem Al Zoubi, General Manager at Alaan Publishers and Distributors, expressed concerns about the book fair calendar being upended but also took a more pragmatic approach towards the digital opportunity available.

Per the Jordan Times:

With the shift to digital reading, Zoubi noted that “it is too early” to judge the situation of paper books in the Arab world, noting that sales average at 1/8 of a book per person each year, while in Europe, the average is at 35 books per person annually.

“There are many Arab societies that still face poverty and illiteracy, and so digital books will not be the suitable solution for the reading crisis in the Arab world, making the need for paper books more lasting for many years to come,” the general manager said.

But hold on, if illiteracy is the problem then a) it makes absolutely no difference whether a book is available in print or digital format, and b) the literacy-challenged can still enjoy digital audio.

The Jordan Times report concludes, referring to Al Zoubi:

He reiterated the sector’s need for government support, noting that the coronavirus crisis “has only increased” the crisis Arab publishers were already facing.

“The publishing sector was not ready to face such conditions. Publishing houses have been affected a lot by the suspension of book fairs and the idea of digital fairs was not very effective, especially for households that depend on paper publications,” Zoubi said.

And again we have this contradiction that lies at the heart of the issue.

Households depend on paper at least in part because there is no meaningful digital alternative on offer.

Yet as we have seen across the globe where a choice is offered, many consumers rush to embrace digital if it is available in a meaningful way at sensible prices and with a real choice of content.

We saw this in the now mature western digital markets when they first began. Look at the US in 2007 when the Kindle store launched and there were only expensive ebooks from a handful of publishers available. Ebooks took off very slowly at first.

But as prices came down and the choice of titles rose, ebooks took off at a phenomenal rate, often seeing triple digit growth. So much so that big publishers had to rein in demand by deliberately raising prices, in order to protect print and bricks & mortar book sales.

And we’ve seen that mad rush to embrace digital repeated time and again, not least in the Storytel, Nextory and Bookbeat examples that make up the international perspectives of this newsletter.

The idea that consumers are not ready for digital books is clearly nonsensical. Arab consumers are no more "not ready" for digital books than they are not ready for digital music and digital video.

The problem for MENA publishers is that many – not all, but many – are not keeping up with consumer preferences. Rather they are dictating consumer options based on conscious dislike of digital, or indifference to / ignorance of how digital is shaping publishing around the globe.

UAE’s Sharjah International Book Fair will go ahead Nov 4-14. All exhibitor spaces sold

But 2 million visitors is unlikely this year

Our last big story this time around is that the Sharjah International Book is expected to go ahead this year, although with the caveat that it may not. This from TNPS:

As the biggest territorial Middle East book event (Cairo attracts more visitors but is in North Africa) the annual Sharjah International Book Fair has been at the centre of speculation as the Arab book fair calendar was torn to shreds by the coronavirus. Would it go ahead? Could it go ahead?

It seems the answer to both of those questions is yes, but with whatever restrictions are deemed necessary nearer the day.

In 2019 the UAE’s Sharjah event attracted 2.5 million visitors -

but with social distancing rules likely, and many international players unlikely to risk attending (Penguin Random House has just announced it has cancelled all in-person book fairs for the remainder of 2020) it’s anyone’s guess how many visitors will turn out, or even how many exhibitors will turn out, although the event organisers are reporting all exhibition space has been sold.

Sharjah Book Authority chairman Ahmed Al Ameri said in a statement:

It is heartening to receive such strong industry support even in these challenging times, which drives us to host an exceptional edition this year to continue benefiting both the reader as well as local, regional and global publishing markets.

We are committed to employing the highest international health and safety standards on the exhibition site, and will have detailed preventative protocols in place to ensure the safety of participants and visitors during the book fair.

This year, the fair will shine a strong spotlight on ways publishers can collaborate to successfully navigate the challenges posed to their businesses, complete projects stalled due to Covid-19, and continue operating profitably in the fast-changing market landscape.

The Frankfurt Book Fair has also committed to proceeding this year, albeit with a hybrid in-person and digital format, but Sharjah has yet to say if it will go to Germany this year.

The global influence of the Arabian Nights

A joint Sheikh Zayed Book Award (UAE) and The Bookseller (UK) presentation


Returning to the Sheikh Zayed Book Award for our final item, and the UK trade journal The Bookseller in partnership with the Sheikh Zayed Book Award will on Thursday 16 July at 1600 GMT+1 launch a webinar "exploring a monument to world literature and the ageless art of storytelling".

The press release goes on: 

The influence of The Arabian Nights on modern literature - from Marcel Proust and James Joyce to Vladimir Nabokov and Margaret Atwood - is unmistakable, but it's rich legacy is often underestimated. 

The Bookseller’s Managing Editor Tom Tivnan. will chair the panel in which authors Marina Warner and Richard van Leeuwen, both of whom have won the Award for their respective books exploring the Arabian Nights, and translator of Aladdin Yasmine Seale will "unpack the influence of this collection of stories - a timeless toolbox of literary motifs.

For more details visit The Bookseller here.

Further Reading

From ArabLit, with thanks to Marcia Lynx Qualey


For anyone with enough energy to still want more MENA insights, here's two recent items from my go-to place for Arabic literature perspectives, ArabLit.


The Poetry of Sudanese Band Iged al-Jalad: ‘Offering the Starving a Bite’

The most exhilarating aspect to the lyrics of Sudanese band, Lemya Shammat writes, is that they “give voice to the neglected, disadvantaged, and those who are left behind”:

Read more here.

Emirati Author Thani Al Suwaidi, Author of ‘The Deisel,’ Dies at 54

Emirati poet and novelist Thani Al-Suwaidi, one of the most prominent Emirati literary artists, died in Cairo on Sunday. He was 54:

Read more here.

Thanks for reading

The next edition of Publish MENA is already being prepared


And so another edition of Publish MENA draws to a close, and it takes us into the second half of 2020 and now 2021 is in our sights.

Per my winding down speech last edition, 2020 has seen changes in global publishing the likes of which we could only have imagined as 2019 drew to a close, and the next six months will bring plenty more surprises, some bad but hopefully most good.

The news that the Sharjah International Book Fair is likely to go ahead was a great positive note on which to end this edition of Publish MENA.

I've been Mark Williams, writing from West Africa where, on behalf of the team at StreetLib that make TNPS and the B2B industry newsletters Publish MENA, Publish Africa and Publish Global possible, I say thanks for reading this, stay safe, and see you again soon in the next edition of Publish MENA.

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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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