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Thursday October 3, 2019

Reflections on the IPA Middle East Regional Seminar in Amman


The Arab markets - an exciting opportunity or a lost cause?

With the remit to "take a fresh look at the publishing industry in the region and worldwide to answer the pivotal question: how can reading change the course of history?" the first ever IPA Middle East Seminar has just wound up in the Jordanian capital, Amman.

In this issue of Publish MENA I'll be focussing on Day One of the two-day event as reported through the lens of IPA blogger Ben Steward.

As well as my own take on the event and what it means for regional and global publishing I'll also intersperse the newsletter with frames from a special presentation StreetLib and TNPS put together that takes a look not so much at where we are today in the Arab publishing world as where we might be tomorrow.

The penultimate item in this newsletter will include a link to the presentation

It should be stressed the overview of the event is Ben Steward's and you'll see clearly where I quote his exact words from the IPA blog.

The interpretations that follow the quotes are mine and do not necessarily reflect Ben's or the IPA's views.

I'll take a closer look at Day 2 of the event and at reportage from elsewhere in the next issue.

Welcome to issue #5 of Publish MENA - the digital advantage.

"A crackle of promise in the air"


Day One of the IPA Amman Seminar

A crackle of promise in the air was how IPA blogger Ben Steward described the just closed Middle East Regional Publishing Seminar as Day 1 concluded.

Said Steward,

This was more than a conference opening – it was like the inauguration of a new bridge spanning the space between the IPA’s global membership and the Arab World.

This is the first time in its 125 years that the IPA has spent so much quality time with Arabophone publishers, and the gesture has landed well. This event is a move that one delegate described as very welcome in a region whose publishers have been feeling a touch neglected. But the IPA has been listening to its members and is focusing on places where publishing’s potential still outstrips its performance. It is concentrating new energy where the need is greatest, and where gains can be made through targeted, locally-owned initiatives.

Palestinian poet Mourid Barghouti talked of “the publishing crisis in the Arab World,” and left us in no doubt what he had in mind:

Everything from education and culture to agriculture, industry, commerce, freedom of speech and movement, the absence of an agreed method of peaceful exchange of power and the heavy interference of governments in the simplest affairs of the people.

And that was just for starters.  The lack of agents, children’s publishers and literary editors came under the spotlight too.

But it wasn’t all negative, and Barghouti allowed that there were a,

few select Arab publishers that already have editors, respect intellectual property rights, fight censorship, and understand that they are part of the solution in our troubled lives, not part of the problem.

For many of these problems there are no easy solutions, especially where governmental controls are concerned.

What wasn’t clear from Steward’s summary was whether Barghouti acknowledged the exceptions and positives among these negatives.

As the Seminar was very much Middle East rather than full Arab-market focused it was perhaps unsurprising Egypt and Algeria seem not to be referenced as examples where the state provides support for two of the world’s biggest book fairs, for example.

And if Sharjah was not mentioned as a shining example of Arab governments supporting all things literary then that would be remiss.

MENA Snapshot #1


Arabs don't read?


From MENA publishing in the 2020s: Obstacles and opportunities in the Arab book markets.

Digital Disruption



The digital advantage explained first hand by those in the front line

Digital was next on the agenda on Day One, and at the Digital Disruption discussion, explains Steward,

a panel of young entrepreneurs made the case for a digital-first, e-commerce model as the solution to the distribution question in the 22 Arab countries. In doing so, however, Eman Hylooz urged publishing houses to use homegrown regional platforms, and not the US-based giants, to support and reinforce the digital economy.

Which is fine to an extent, but raises two problems:

First, the absence of many local and regional initiatives that can deliver the infrastructure needed. Jamalon of course is the biggest online bookstore in the Arab world, while in the audiobook sector Dahd, Booklava, Kita Sawti and most recently Storytel Arabia are present. Localised ebook stores are largely limited to telco operations in Arabophone North Africa (Egypt and Algeria), although there are small players in the field.

Worries about the US tech giants (if indeed this was a worry expressed) seem misplaced. OverDrive is in the region (operating from US, but Japanese-owned) and Google Play has some token Middle East bookstores and one in Egypt.

All evidence suggests Google Play has no expansion plans. Canada’s Kobo (also Japanese-owned) has shown no serious interest in the region, and Amazon has dabbled with discussions with Egyptian publishers, and offers token Arabic-language support in the Kindle store.

But along side limited local reach all these stores offer Arab publishers valuable export opportunities, to reach global audiences beyond the region.

That seemed to be understood by the Jordanian Minister of Culture, who Steward reports as focusing on,

the need for standards, innovation and international thinking to safeguard the publishing industry’s future.
I hope to follow up with Eman Hylooz to explore her statement further. Here just to note she is the figure behind the Arab ebook store and social reading network Abjad, based out of Jordan since 2016.

The digital discussion had its dissenters, with one audience member unhappy that digital was undermining the tradition of print.

Well, we’ve all been there. Ardent traditionalists will continue to see digital as an inferior product, but for the survival and expansion of the industry we have to embrace both the old and the new.

As we constantly state here, it’s not an either/or debate.

In this instance Booklava’s Tarek El-Bolbol addressed the criticism later in the day. Booklava is a digital audiobook service for the Arab markets. But maybe the dissenter would prefer everyone carried about cumbersome audio-cassettes to listen to audiobooks rather than embrace digital.


MENA Snapshot # 2

Arabs don't read?

Arab book fairs are among the best-attended in the world.

From MENA publishing in the 2020s: Obstacles and opportunities in the Arab book markets.

Arabs only read for six minutes a year and other nonsense

Is anyone questioning these figures. And if not, why not?

I have the greatest respect for UNESCO, but sometimes the data attributed to it is too easily recycled as fact even when it flies in the face of day to day reality.

It becomes all the more surreal when we take these Arab reading numbers and put them in the context of the Arab refugee crisis, as happened at Amman, where the juxtaposition of narratives raises some intriguing contradictions.

On the one hand, Syria’s Zeina Yazigi told the Amman Seminar that UNESCO figure show Arabs to be among the least voracious readers on the planet. The following bullet points area as laid out by Ben Steward.

  • Arabs read a mere six minutes each per year on average.
  • Just 6,500 books are published annually in the Arab World, compared to 100,000 in the US.
  • One book is translated into Arabic per million Arabs.
  • This region consumes just 1% of the world’s books.

Ouch! It seems there really is no hope for Arab publishing.

But hold on.

“These scarcities,” says Steward,

are in stark contrast to the 26 million refugees and displaced people from Arab states. Italian children’s publisher Carlo Gallucci stressed the importance of creating books that educate kids (‘the younger, the better’) about different cultures, of which he has published seven in 2019 alone. Alluding to his national context, Gallucci said: ‘This helps refugees to integrate, and it helps Italians to accept their presence.’

We also heard about the Kalimat Foundation’s innovative Pledge a Library initiative, started in 2017 by the foundation’s manager, Amna Al Mazmi. The scheme has produced and donated 80 mobile libraries of 100 kids’ books each to a huge range of vulnerable children around the world. To a refugee child arriving in a strange country, seeing books in their own language tells them they are welcome, Amna said. ‘For them, it’s like returning home.’

And therein lies the crazy contradiction. On the one hand we are told Arabs don’t know what books are. On the other, Arab refugee children arriving in foreign lands are delighted to find Arabic-language books which they instantly embrace like old friends.

How did these refugee children, by definition from countries least likely to have ever encouraged them to read at home or even in school, come to be such avid readers?

Let’s place this consideration alongside other glaring contradictions in the “Arabs don’t read” narrative.

This is the region after all, that has hosted a UNESCO World Book Capital no less than three times.

This is a region where, while we’re told Arabs only read for six minutes a year, in Arab country after Arab country the biggest cultural event year after year is… a book fair.

How do we balance this idea that Arabs read for six minute a year with the reality that c. 15 million Arabs will attend book fairs this year?

Yes, we can cite Sharjah, 2019 UNESCO World Book Capital and host of a book fair that attracts over two million people each year, as the exception that proves the rule.

Except that it isn’t an exception.

The Algiers International Book Fair also attracts over two million visitors.

While in a good year the Cairo International Book Fair can attract more than Sharjah and Algiers combined.

It doesn’t stop there. Muscat, Riyadh and Baghdad all this year held international book fairs that attracted over one million visitors each, and Arab book fairs attracting more than a half million are commonplace.

At which point let’s hear that UNESCO count again – Arabs read for less than six minutes a year? Be serious.

MENA Snapshot # 3


Digital presents exciting opportunities for the Arab book markets.


From MENA publishing in the 2020s: Obstacles and opportunities in the Arab book markets.

The MENA education and publishing sectors go hand in hand


Both teachers and publishers need to face up digital

In the final discussion of Day One, Digital Publishing and the Arab Classroom of the Future, the challenge of overcoming traditionalist reticence was again an issue. Like publishers, many teachers fear digital was take their jobs.

Kamkalina’s Siroun Shamigian countered,

Technology is here to stay, and it can help teachers get better results, but teachers need to be educated and better trained to understand how to use it.

Dr Hanada Taha Thomure, a Professor of Arabic Language Education in the UAE’s Zayed University added,

Our job is to help teachers understand that technology is a tool that gives new insights, but teachers need handholding and training.

Substitute publishers for teachers and we have the single biggest challenge facing the Arab book markets – convincing publishers that digital is not the enemy and can in fact be their best friend.

MENA Snapshot # 4

Digital can take Arab publishing to the next level

From MENA publishing in the 2020s: Obstacles and opportunities in the Arab book markets.

MENA snapshot # 6

The digital advantage - a global perspective

From MENA publishing in the 2020s: Obstacles and opportunities in the Arab book markets.

MENA publishing in the 2020s: Obstacles and opportunities in the Arab book markets



The Middle East North Africa Arab market has a population of 447 million - more than the US, UK, Canada and Germany together. And 220 million are online


In conjunction with the IPA, TNPS and parent company StreetLib produced an online slide-deck exploring the digital opportunities emerging in the MENA Arab markets, with emphasis on a global perspective.

You'll have seen some snapshots from the study interspersed through this newsletter.

To see the full slide-deck click on the image above, or click here.

Further Reading



We close this newsletter with links to some MENA-related posts there's not been time or space to cover here

Prior to the IPA Middle East Seminar event Publishing Perspectives ran a piece on four viewpoints and hopes for the Seminar.

Read more here.

Leading the recently announced Abu Dhabi Arabic Language Authority, Dr. Ali Bin Tamim wants to provide more incentives to translate Arabic literature.

Read more here.

Fifteen novels and one collection of poetry has been submitted to the 2019 Saif Ghobash Banipal Prize for Arabic Literary Translation. ArabLit has the details.

Read more here.

Sharjah International Book Fair 2019: Nobel Prize winner Orhan Pamuk, US comic Steve Harvey and Gulzar among headliners.

Read more here.

That’s it for issue #5 of Publish MENA - the digital advantage.

The next issue of Publish MENA will be hitting in-boxes Thursday, October 17, and thereafter every other Thursday, alternating with sister newsletter Publish Africa.

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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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