The delicate art of the swipe and the pinch was demonstrated again—and again—as 25 publishers from all over the Arab world (and beyond) fingered iPads and also got acquainted with the Kindle, Nook, Sony Reader and the new Kobo eReader. Peter Balis, director of digital content sales for John Wiley and Sons, had hauled his stash of digital toys half way around the world to demonstrate the latest technology to his 24 students assembled in the brand new, high-tech classroom on the campus of NYU Abu Dhabi.
It was day three of the four-day executive training sessions for Arab-region publishers co-sponsored by The Center for Publishing at NYU-SCPS and KITAB, the joint venture company formed by the Frankfurt International Book Fair and the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair. Today’s subject was digital publishing: the what, the why and—for some in the room—the when.“How many of you have any experience with digital publishing?” Balis asked, and a handful of arms shot up. “Okay, not a majority,” he conceded, but looked unconcerned. When we planned this segment of the executive training sessions, Peter and I had debated extensively about the relevance of teaching digital media to this audience. In the Arab world, 3G doesn’t exist in some countries; iPads are nearly twice as expensive as in the US (or non-existent); smart phone penetration is low; online bookstores are struggling; and most books are still sold through regional fairs. Nevertheless, we had concluded that it was important to prepare publishers for the eventual transformation to digital media–to give them the tools and the mindset. As Balis told the publishers: “If you don’t embrace the revolution, you will be left behind. The dawn of the next generation is now!”
At first, there was a hint of skepticism in the room. “I think for reading to children, print is much better,” said Manju Mathew from Kalimat, a children’s publishing house in Sharjah, one of the seven Emirates. “Actually,” countered Balis, “some of our strongest digital sellers are ‘Curious George’ and Disney. We’re seeing some of the biggest changes from print to digital in children’s books.” He then likened the video and other enhancements used in children’s books to the magic of the old pop ups; heads nodded in agreement. They got it. As Balis whipped through slides about EPUB, reflowable text, Mobipocket and much more, his audience sat largely mesmerized, taking copious notes and trying to absorb the new language and vision of the future.
When it came time for a break-out session, students eagerly formed into two groups to create an hypothetical mobile app for an Arab publishing company. “Think out of the box,” Balis urged them, and the students began shouting out ideas that would have been unimaginable a few hours before.
One group decided to create an app for a travel book. “Think about the functionality special to mobile. Think about what you cannot do with a print book,” urged Emile Khoury, managing director of Ciel, a Lebanon-based company that distributes books in English, French and Arabic all over the Middle East. “Suppose I want to make a reservation at the new Cipriani in Abu Dhabi. I should be able to press a button and do that!” he said. “What about a currency converter? That’s very important,” said Norhayati Razali from Malaysia, where she is assistant director of the National Book Council of Malaysia. Razali had come to Abu Dhabi to learn more about book publishing so that she could better help the growth of literature and literacy in her country. “And don’t forget a way to buy train and other transportation tickets,” said Walid Soliman, manager of Walidoff International in Tunisia. “I want to have some key phrases built in to the app,” insisted Mathew
. “You know, things like ‘how much does it cost?’ and ‘can you give me a discount’?”
The second group decided to select a title from All Prints Distributors, a Lebanese company whose publishing manager was part of the team. They selected a book on Arab calligraphy that sold in print for $65 dollars and created an app named Alif, the first letter of the Arabic alphabet. With how-to videos and a special write-your-name in Arabic function, the sophisticated app would sell for $4.99 or $14.99 for the more enhanced version. “In my opinion, the write-your-name idea won’t work,” said Ibrahim al-Rajab , vice president and director of business development for Al-Muthanna Library in Iraq. “That’s okay! Let your programmers try it,” said Balis, who added that the Arabic names could then be saved and printed on T-shirts and business cards. “Live out your greatest fantasy,” he told his students. “With digital media, you never know when it just might work.”
By the time the digital session ended, students were relative experts in subjects like apps and social media. “One of the things about social media is that it’s hard for the censors,” said Sulaiman Adebowale from Senegal. “You can make people aware of things in ways you cannot on your website.”
As I listened to this comment, I pondered the many challenges of running a vibrant, forward-thinking publishing company in a region of censorship and distribution challenges across multiple borders. There was hope for the future, thanks to a new generation of publishers like those attending our program. They were interested enough in change to trek hundreds or thousands of miles from home to learn new ways of doing business. “We have to be positive,” said Omar Chebaro, marketing and sales coordinator for Arab Scientific Publishers in Lebanon. “Exactly!” shouted Balis. “Be positive and share your knowledge.”
And that night, at the farewell dinner, over platters of fattoush (a tomato and toasted pita bread salad), kibbi (ground meat and bulghur rice) and shish kebab, the group shared advice, memories and promises to return to the next publishing training session in June. Of course, they tempered that with the usual refrain: if Allah wills, or “Insh’Allah.”
Andrea L. Chambers
For more about the executive training sessions for publishers in Abu Dhabi, read the following: