The Skype discussion with Maklad was too varied and interesting to fit into an 800-word article. Here, a longer version of our talk:
ArabLit: How did you get started on the Kotobi.Com project?
Ashraf Maklad: I’m a techie, I’m a geek in general, and [epub is] one of the things that didn’t make it to the Middle East. It never kicked off. We have e-commerce, we have a lot of other online products, but it’s one of the things that’s just not kicking up. It needed a jumpstart; it needed someone to trigger it. And that’s why I felt it’s a good project and will change something.
AL: What are the problems you’re facing?
AM: The problems are the problems of the region. Fragmentation. A lot of mistrust and technology just adds to those trust issues. A lot of trust issues. When I talked to the big ebook players abroad, their comment was, the market is very fragmented, and maybe it will look interesting in 2016.
AL: So the issues are less technological and more psychological.
AL: Putting in a credit card online, and those sorts of consumer mistrust issues?
AM: That’s one side of the problem — consumer mistrust and the penetration of credit cards is nonexistent. Online use of credit cards compared to the economies of the Arab world is nothing. Arabs would generally use their credit cards on Western sites, but for instance on iTunes more than a local site.
AL: How did you start getting over these trust issues?
They have actual examples where people have come into the market, set up shop, taken their books, sold it, and have not paid them.
AM: Also, the mistrust is not just on the consumer level, it’s also on the publisher level. There’ve been a lot of attempts at doing this ebook shop. And publishers are generally scared. They have actual examples where people have come into the market, set up shop, taken their books, sold it, and have not paid them. They have not reported that revenue. And I think that has caused them to not to go into this ebook market. Which in turn encourages piracy.
AL: And piracy is a huge issue for Arab publishers.
AM: Which makes a vicious circle. They see the piracy online, PDFs being shared online on 4shared, on a lot of sites, for free. And they feel that that’s the reason why they’re not selling more books.
AL: When in fact there are such distribution problems that people look to 4shared because–
AM: —because they can’t find ebooks. It’s kind of like a chicken and egg situation. But the reason why I thought why I would be able to pull this off is basically my experience on the mobile internet.
Here in Egypt for example, and in a lot of other Arab countries, they have never experienced the web on a PC and a laptop, but are experiencing the web on their mobile phones because of the barrier of entry to a laptop and a DSL connection. So a lot of people skipped that and went straight to mobile internet. And I think that a lot of people will skip credit card payments and go straight to mobile payments.
AL: And so that’s one of the reasons why you think this will work. Because people can use mobile payments.
AM: Yes. And I think that was one of the key factors that got the publishers excited.
AL: How many publishers do you have now?
AM: Forty, but the top forty. That is the key. And it’s not about the number of publishers and the number of books. What I’ve come to realize is: It’s which books and which publishers. And it’s those publishers that have never done anything with anyone on ebooks. These are publishers, I think, that have kept the market blocked.
AL: You’re looking at bestsellers?
AM: These publishers have everything – they range from kids books to educational books to bestsellers. These are the big publishers that really dominate the market.
AL: For instance, Dar Shorouk?
AM: Shorouk is one of them. Nahdet Masr, Merit, Masreya Libnaneya, Hindawi.
AL: They’re giving you a limited number of their books?
Going back and collecting the covers from the designers and collecting the Word files from the authors, this is a hassle. And it’s taking time. We’re almost adding 70 to 80 books a week and that’s as fast as I could get it going for now.
AM: No, all their books. But the challenge is that their intention in creating books was to print them. So the need to hold assets from when they first came from the author all the way to print was not there. So most of them just have the final image PDFs that they used to print. Going back and collecting the covers from the designers and collecting the Word files from the authors, this is a hassle. And it’s taking time. We’re almost adding 70 to 80 books a week and that’s as fast as I could get it going for now.
AL: What kind of devices can people read these on?
AM: Right now, android and IOS, and they will able to read them on their desktops very soon.
AM: Two months.
And it’s not just books that I’m looking at. I’m looking at magazines and newspapers as well. I believe that there’s a big market of Egyptians and Arabs abroad. We have a big diaspora in Europe and in America, and they have no access to Arabic content.
There is a challenge. They have no issues with using a credit, but the publishers don’t see an incentive of going into digital and they’re still scared of piracy. So being able to crack that locally and then opening it up to the diaspora is a challenge. So these are the steps I’m taking — first breaking in locally, and then opening it up.
AL: How are you going to market Kotobi.Com?
AM: Online, first, it’s early adopters, they’re the easiest to reach. You can target their devices by device operating system, you can target them through SMS shots, using different channels, online and mobile. Going forward, the Egyptians abroad is a little more tricky. So you’d have to target their profile and the sites that they would visit.
AL: I went to buy a book, and I took one of the free ones. That seems like a particularly great idea, because it allows people to try it out.
AM: Having a free collection is essential. And there’s a lot of public-domain content in the Arab world. A lot.
AL: How much public-domain content is there in Arabic?
AM: About 300 books. And classics that do sell. I haven’t targeted just any old public-domain books, I’ve got the top-selling public domain books.
AL: How many downloads have you seen so far?
AM: Eighteen thousand three hundred and something. And it’s only been nine days.
AL: And you’re also seeing people purchasing as well?
AM: Yes. Thank God.
AL: Are you going to release any sales data, bestsellers, anything like that?
AM: I’ve thought of bestsellers, I’ve thought of even an award, but not right now. I ned to reach a critical mass in these two months of content and complete the library. So right now I focus on the bestsellers, because I think that’s what’s going to create the hype. But I need a complete library, I need to complete the entire bookshop before I go too strong on the marketing.
AL: How many people are working on this?
AM: We are a team of four people, but we are utilizing all the power of Vodafone. Around sixty employees inside Vodafone have helped us in one way or another.
Somehow we’ve managed to create his little startup within a giant.
AL: And this really can potentially get around the huge problems of distribution in Arabic books which makes it so difficult to pick up a Lebanese book in Morocco or an Egyptian book in Saudi Arabia.
So what they end up doing is printing for only popular famous authors. And the young talent don’t get a chance to have their books to have their books sold across the region.
AM: I would go even as far as to pick up an Egyptian book in Upper Egypt. The way the print business model works is that stores take books on consignment. So the publishers print and have to distribute to all the stores, and they find out whether they’ve sold or not three months later. So to get it all the way across the country and across the Arab world, that would be very costly. So what they end up doing is printing for only popular famous authors. And the young talent don’t get a chance to have their books to have their books sold across the region.
And they’re heavily dependent on the book fairs to get their books across. And I find that…not efficient.
AL: Can you tell whether there are people from smaller cities around Egypt going on the site?
AM: I’ll just pull up the graph now. From across the country, from Giza, Baheira, Dakhliya, Sharqiya, Menoufiya, Sohag, Assiut, Minya, Qaliyubia, Ismailia, Qena, Dumyiat [continues]…
AL: That’s great. Because I don’t know what sort of bookstores they have in Minya—
AM: Probably one.
Every time I sit with a publisher, they say they get people from Minya and Luxor and Assiut and Aswan asking them to mail the book to them. The cost of sending a book is more than the book. And the same for the Egyptians living abroad. The cost of shipping the book is three times the cost of the book.
AL: So do you think this benefits emerging and “midlist” authors and allows them to develop their audience?
I think that a lot of publishers have already told me that they can sign up more authors and publish their books through this platform and see how they do.
AM: Definitely. I think that a lot of publishers have already told me that they can sign up more authors and publish their books through this platform and see how they do. This will be their guide to print them or not. We have examples in the West of that happening.
AL: It gives more flexibility to try out new authors?
AM: For sure.
AL: What else do readers need to know to understand the big picture?
AM: I think the challenges are massive. Or at least they felt massive until I launched it. Maybe that they don’t sound that dramatic. But the trust issues with the entities that are selling their books. And the trust issues of an entity like Vodafone entering into an unknown like publishing and ebook distribution. It was very difficult to convince everyone involved that this will work. But now without a lot of marketing spent, we’re seeing it pick up, and we’re seeing it pick up very nicely.
And there’s a gap between the publishers and the authors as well. The authors are obviously, or from what I can tell, extremely tech-savvy. The publishers are not.
Two of the best-selling authors in Egypt, the guy who wrote Roba’a Gram [Essam Youssef] and the other one that made al-Feel al-Azraq [Ahmed Mourad]. Both of them took the link on my site, made their own little banner, and shared it on Facebook. And they’re very elaborate banners.
AL: Certainly, Egyptian authors have had to find ways to market themselves.
AM: But it’s a learning curve for the publishers. They’re picking up. They’re very excited, although it was a painstaking process to get them on board. Now, after launch, they are all: How do we convert, we want to do this, can we try this. Now that they’ve seen numbers… Also offering them live reporting was key to the success. So they can actually see the numbers day by day as soon as someone buys. And that was something that many telcos are willing to offer.
AL: That’s amazing, vs. knowing three months later what sold in a bookstore.
AM: And knowing that you posted this on Facebook, or the author tweeted it, and the sales jumped. Which is actually what happened…
AL: Are you going to take on more publishers?
…our objective as a company is not to dominate or control this at all. We have not signed a single exclusive agreement. We have not tried to buy rights from anyone. Our objective is to really open it up.
AM: Yes. A lot of publishers outside of Egypt will be like, OK, we’re waiting, we’ll see, and then we’ll talk to you. Getting these key big publishers on board before the launch was important to encourage more publishers to get on board. And that’s what I’m doing now. I want everyone on this. And our objective as a company is not to dominate or control this at all. We have not signed a single exclusive agreement. We have not tried to buy rights from anyone. Our objective is to really open it up.
AL: You’re excited about other companies doing the same thing?
AM: Yes, yes. And Western companies coming on board to. We’re also trying to get English content here. Because we have a big segment of the Arab world who are bilingual and do read English books. A lot of the downloads on the site are of the English public-domain books, and I think that there is a market here for them to read English books as well.
AL: Can you tell me more about what’s missing from the landscape?
The landscape is missing those professional digital creators. …. That has to appear in the market.
AM: The landscape is missing those professional digital creators. Digitization is a challenge for every publisher and, as I explained to you, the files are all over place. So organizing that and creating proper epubs and interactive epubs, working on that is the next challenge. That has to appear in the market. I have been working on trying to trigger it, but I think this is a key element. The other element is we have a thousand five hundred publishers in Egypt now? Some publishers have five books in their list. There needs to be an aggregator, someone who can aggregate these ebooks for the smaller publishers, across the region. So these are the two missing elements of the landscape.
AL: And when you talk about digitization, you’re also talking about interactive elements?
AM: Yes, enhanced digitization, so enhancing the content to be digital. I would call that enhancement, because you can do things with digital that you can’t do with. So exploiting that. But mainly digitizing what already exists. In print.
AL: And right now you’re doing that?
AM: But I don’t see it as this project’s role, to digitize the content. Because what I try to do is to limit the project to what we can do and what we know. What we know is marketing and what we have is payment and reach. And that’s what we should focus on. We should not go into the publishing industry, we should not go into deciding who’s a good author and who’s not, we have nothing to do with that. Nothing to do with the digitization.
I have had to jumpstart it, and I think this is one of the traps I’ve seen a lot of attempts fall into. Trying to do everything. You have a bottleneck somewhere, so you step in and you find yourself turning into a digitization company, which is something that I don’t want to end up doing.
Right now, I have done for some publishers, but I have transferred the know-how to a lot of them. The big publishers are doing it themselves, digitizing their own books.
AL: And this is something they should do themselves or find a company to do for them.
AM: Because the asset belongs to them, they need to own that asset. So when a new player comes into the market, they can put their asset in that market and sell it. The asset should not belong to me.