This post originally appeared at the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair blog.

One of the most interesting panels I’ve attended here at the book fair was the “Business Potentials of Digital Publishing” seminar that took place this afternoon. This is a topic that I’m personally really interested in, and following a few disparaging comments about e-books in the Arab Market Overview session, I couldn’t wait to hear about what kind of digital projects are going on in this region, and what Arab publishers thought of the brave new e-world.

Dalia M. Ibrahim of Nahdet Misr Publishing & Printing in Egypt–which happens to be the Arabic publishers of the Harry Potter books–put forth a strong presentation about the need for e-content, and more importantly, the need to create and distribute this content in a smart fashion. It’s easy to recognize the potential of e-books and other forms of online content, but as Dalia has experienced at Nahdet Misr, where over they past six years they’ve spent a lot on e-projects without receiving a return on investment, there are a lot of obstacles that have to be overcome to make this a viable model.

The way that Dalia and Ramy presented internet use in the Arab world was pretty interesting. According to both of them, although internet use increased by 1000% between 2000 and 2007, only 10% of the searches by Arab users were for “meaningful” information. (Obviously this is a bit of a value judgement, but they compared searching for information about a potential health problem as meaningful versus chatting and IMing as meaningless.) A corollary to this situation is that there is a lack of worthwhile content available online in Arabic. According to Ramy, “unlike the west, there aren’t even very many personal webpages.”

This situation can be seen as a great opportunity, and Dalia called on Arab publishers to invest in the future and start creating e-content so that their future market share will be that much greater. With a lack of immediate economical incentives, she also called for governments and NGOs to supply funding to publishers to allow for the creation of culturally valuable e-content.

Ronald Schild–who works with Libreka! (exclamation point theirs)–provided a slick, well-organized, effective overview of the potentials of the e-book market, providing a case against allowing Amazon and Google to dominate the marketplace, and instead arguing for a more open market with several modes of distribution. He also offered some “best practices” to publishers entering the e-world, including the need to stop piracy, the need to offer your whole catalog as e-books instead of just the best-sellers, the need to leave behind the insanities of DRM, and the need for publishers to “be fast.”

All of this is very interesting, and actually offers one potential solution to the distibution difficulties existing in the Arab world: Instead of trying to figure out how to deliver books from one country to another continent and sell them at a reasonable price, why not just work towards developing e-books, which can be downloaded from anywhere at a (potentially) cheaper price?

Another technology-related solution that’s come up a few times is the idea of decentralized short run printing. Basically, the idea is that there could be ”book centers” in every Arab country equipped with similar short run digital printing equipment. So to avoid shipping costs under this model, a book published by an Egyptian publisher, let’s say, would be digitally sent to the book centers where there is a market for the book (different countries have different censorship standards) and then printed in quanties of 50, or 300, or whatever is needed. (The number that keeps getting bandied about is that the average book sells around 1,500 copies throughout the Arab world.)

Unfortunately, there were only a few Arabic publishers who attended this whole session, but everyone who did was very engaged and excited to talk about all the opportunities that e-publishing presents. And according to Ramy, this is another market that foreign publishers could participate in, and which could serve a way to increase the interactions between Arabic publishers and the rest of the world.

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