Unbinding the books

Online ascent leaves publishers scraping the bottom of the ink pot

A modest two-story residential apartment building in the city of Saida houses a Lebanese publisher far more optimistic than others in the industry these days; that the company is also a software firm and owns no printing presses is indicative of the fundamental transformation underway.

Sitting in his quiet office, surrounded by bound tomes published by some of Lebanon’s most prominent publishing houses, Nabih Barakat, a software engineer at Byblos Microsystems, which operates arabicebook.com (AEB), says that many of the paper volumes around him have already completed their digitalization into PDF files, after receiving the consent of respective publishing establishments. These books are now a part of the company’s growing database that currently holds 2,500 electronic books on offer, a process that began in 2001.

“A large part of our work consists of producing [academic] software, and sales of electronic books make up less than 50 percent of our total sales,” Barakat says, adding that there is a rosy outlook for sales growth of electronic books, given the increasing popularity of electronic reading devices, and online purchases in general. Sales in Arab countries other than Lebanon are still the main market for e-books sold through AEB, says Barakat, explaining that Lebanon accounts for 20 percent, while Saudi Arabia is the main market for AEB’s products.

The perspective of many of Lebanon’s 669 other publishers, (a number provided by the Ministry of Information), is markedly different. The quantity of printed books in Lebanon fell as much as 35 percent last year, according to Nabil Abdel Haq, vice president of the Lebanese Publishers Union (LPU), while Lebanese customs figures showed the total value of printed books, brochures, leaflets and other similar material exported fell from $83 million to $51 million between 2010 and 2011, marking a decrease of some 40 percent.

The unread uprisings

“The problems that are ongoing in Iraq, Syria and Egypt hit our exports to the Arab world,” says Abdel Haq.

Nizar al-Laz, a sales executive from the publishing house All Prints Distribution and Publishing (APDP), notes that: “Every year we participate in 15 book fairs, but [in 2011] we could not participate in book fairs that took place in Egypt, Tunisia or Bahrain… The shipment we sent to be displayed at the Cairo book fair was returned and we didn’t even understand why, so eventually we didn’t participate.”

The Arab uprisings also turned the public’s attention away from reading as they followed televised news coverage, according to Bassam Shbaro, owner of Arab Scientific Publishers (ASP). “People were preoccupied with these events because they felt that they affect their lives,” he says.

Long-term threat online

While publishers currently face difficulties due to their decreasing ability to market their products in an Arab world in turmoil, in the long term the adoption of online and digital means to access information — rather than paper mediums — is a trend that looks to permanently change the publishing landscape.

Shbaro did not hesitate to point the finger at online piracy as the main threat to his business, complaining specifically about the illegal trafficking of the Arabic translation of the “Da Vinci Code,” which is the copyright of ASP.

“The availability of pirated books in Arabic through websites such as Google is the real problem,” Shbaro complained. “If you search for Arabic books online you will find [thousands] of pirated electronic copies that are available for free, including our own. These websites don’t do anything about it because they benefit from advertising, and readers of course will not hesitate to download a free a copy if it is made available to them,” says Shbaro, adding that he has discussed this point several times with representatives from Google. Google failed to comment on Shbaro’s allegations despite promises to follow up on the matter from Maha Abouelenein, Google’s head of communications for the Middle East and North Africa.

Illegal physical reproductions of novels are also chipping away at sales. “We have sued several publishers in Lebanon, Syria and Egypt over piracy-related charges but [the legal framework] to prevent piracy in the Arab world is useless and there’s nothing much we can do about it,” Laz says cynically. “At the end of the day, all readers care about is getting a copy of the book for the cheapest price possible.”

The e-challenge

The online challenges facing traditional Lebanese publishing can only grow with increasing Internet access across the region. Along with piracy, competition will likely be felt from the increase of options available for readers of online Arabic that result from a cooperation plan, started in October 2011, between the Qatar Computing Research Institute (QCRI), part of the Qatar Foundation, and Wikimedia Foundation.

The cooperation aims to increase the number of articles in Arabic while guaranteeing high quality translations by using actual translators provided by QCRI, rather than relying on translation software, according to Barry Newstead, chief global development officer of Wikimedia Foundation, which manages the popular online user generated reference Wikipedia. While any improvement in the quality and accessibility of information will ideally benefit readers, publishers realize that sooner or later they have to play according to the rules set by electronic media.

One form of adaptation to this new reality is offering readers electronic books. While AEB in Saida may be among the forerunners, several Lebanese publishers Executive interviewed declared they have also started digitizing their publications, or are seriously considering the option — lest tomorrow see them turn the last page on their businesses.