In a previous post, I wrote about some driving trends in the Arabic speaking media world and I wrote about a cloud-based publishing platform. This post moves closer to the end-user by focusing on new e-reader technologies as well as online retail.
Last month at the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair, I met Anish Chandran, the operations leader for the WINK (“without ink”) e-reader and associated publishing ecosystem. Anish and the WINK team were demonstrating the WINK e-reader, the WINKstore iPad app, and other digital publishing solutions. While WINK’s applications launched in the Indian market, the team was exhibiting in the e-zone as part of a larger effort at wider distribution in the Middle East and North Africa.
Bangalore, India based EC Media International launched WINK in 2009 to deliver “a cost effective electronic book reader plus digital content in English and all Indian languages.” Since launch, the WINK digital media ecosystem has expanded beyond the e-reader to include both iPad and Android apps and the WINKstore. The WINKstore is anelectronic book site, which currently counts over 350,000 titles in English and the 15 official Indian languages. The latest WINK initiative is MagsOnWINK, a digital magazine publishing platform and client-side application for e-readers and tablets. MagsOnWINK will integrate over 150 Indian newspapers and magazines by the middle of this year. The MagsOnWINK application is one of several free downloads from the WINKstore. MagsOnWink also distributes via Apple’s App Store.
According to Chandra, approximately 70% WINKstore titles are in English. One reason for the high percentage of English language works is that many English literature classics are in the public domain. Another significant reason involves technical formatting for electronic books in general. Chandra explained that if the WINKstore receives an English work in PDF, DOC, or SGML form, the source copy can be converted to the main e-reader standard (ePub) without a lot of customization. Conversely, if the source material is in Hindi, Gujurati, Punjabi, Tamil, or Urdu, it’s important to have a native speaker do the ePub conversion to preserve the semantic meaning and structure of the original text.
While WINK attempts to set up a new market in North Africa and the Middle East, one of the Middle East’s first native online retailers looks to expand its offering beyond media. Based in Beirut, NeeWaFarut (www.nwf.com) is the Arab speaking world’s largest online media retailer.
Salah Chebaro started NeeWaFarut (“Nile and Euphrates”) in 1999 not long after receiving a Computer Science degree. Merging technical expertise with his family’s publishing and printing business seemed like a natural fit. At thetime, Beirut offered more than just good regional access: “There was the freedom to publish”, he explained. “Beirut was a beacon of freedom where you could publish almost anything without being monitored or banned. So it had both good infrastructure plus a good reputation for publishing.”
Despite Beirut’s benefits, NeeWaFarut still had to manage the intellectual and technical conversion of Arab publishers to online distribution of books and magazines. Beyond the culture and policy struggles, there were more practical issues such as making Arabic titles search-able online. According to Salah, many publishers weren’t organized to furnish metadata to track their books. Sensing an opportunity, NeeWaFarut began to frequent book publishing events in order to borrow titles from other stands, enter metadata information and then return them. At the start of the decade, most books by Arab publishers didn’t use international codes such as ISBN to identify titles. Recently the situation has improved but challenges still exist.
NeeWaFarut augmented its digital missionary work with some shrewd marketing. “We told the publishers that they could list their titles for free on our website in return for printing the name and URL of our store on the back cover of their books,” Salah said. For both the customer and the publisher, this meant a path to return business.
Those early outreach efforts have paid off in terms of name recognition across the Arabic publishing world. NeeWaFarut is also involved in developing anti-piracy measures for digital publishers as well as fleshing out online intellectual property concepts for the Arab market. Physically, NWF is branching out through a second warehouse in Cairo plus new offices in Syria, Jordan and Saudi Arabia.
Over time, NeeWaFarut has deepened its ties to Arabic language publishers through initiatives like iMagalah, which is an Arabic e-reader for magazines and books for the iPad. Taking a somewhat different approach from WINK, Salah believes that there isn’t yet a market for a dedicated Arabic e-reader. Instead, NWF continues to rely on the block-and-tackle approach, which has served it well for over a decade.
Both WINK and NWF are moving quickly to secure a position in rapidly developing markets for Arabic native digital content. An exploding population of young consumers eager to access digital books and magazines using far more advanced smartphones and tablets means there is a little time to lose.
John du Pre Gauntt focuses on cloud computing and the media industry. He is also a recent addition to the MCDM faculty. You can read more from John at media-dojo.com.