Obstacles and opportunities in the Arab book markets.
By TheNewPublishingStandard.com and StreetLib.com, in conjunction with the International Publishers Association Amman Middle East Seminar.
MENA Publishing in the 2020s
Obstacles and opportunities in the Arab book markets
'a fresh perspective'
In conjunction with the International Publishers Association Amman Middle East Seminar
The International Publishers Association (IPA) and the Union of Jordanian
Publishers (UJP) are hosting the first of its kind Middle East publishers’
seminar in Amman.
The seminar will take a fresh look at the publishing industry in the region and
worldwide to answer the pivotal question — How can reading change the
course of history?
Introduction - Giacomo D'Angelo, CEO StreetLib
The IPA Middle East Publishing Seminar marks a pivotal moment in the evolution
of the global publishing market, as we say goodbye to a decade of disruption and
change and prepare for a new decade where disruption and change can only
accelerate still further, driven by digital.
For this reason we make no apology for the digital slant in this overview of the Arab
book markets as we take a fresh look at the region, with the intent not to rehash the
existing problems we all know about, but to identify the new opportunities as
publishers, authors and consumers adapt to the new paradigm where smartphone-
based digital consumption is no longer a novelty but a way of life.
Introduction - Mark Williams, Editor-in-Chief TNPS
While the IPA Seminar in Amman has a focus this year on the core Middle East
markets, we've addressed the wider Middle East North Africa Arabic-language market
for this overview, and have placed the Arab markets in a global context, looking at the
unprecedented opportunities a hybrid print and digital business model brings to the
region's publishers, authors and consumers.
We are witnesses to, and participants in, a Global New Renaissance, digitally driven
and quite unprecedented in human history, in which the Arab Renaissance is an
There's never been a more exciting time to be an author, publisher or booklover.
The Global Book Market was
worth $143 billion in 2016.
The good news?
71% of that was outside the USA.
Rest of the World
The Arab book market is valued at just $1bn-$2bn.
Only $1bn-$2bn? Well, we all know Arabs don't read, so maybe that's not so surprising.
But hold on.
If Arabs don't read, how is it many Arab countries have literacy rates well over 90%?
How is no less than three Arab cities have been UNESCO World Book Capitals this century?
How is it many of the world's biggest book fairs are in the Arab world?
We'll return to the nonsense that "Arabs don't read" shortly.
The bad news?
That $1bn-$2bn figure? The sad truth is we simply don't know for sure
how big the Arab book market is.
There is no effective collection of production and sales statistics
regionally, or even in most countries. And what we think we know is
But first back to the numbers
For example, the Sharjah Book Authority in 2016 estimated the entire Arab
book market to be worth $1bn. Yet in 2018 the Saudi Publishing Authority
claimed the Saudi publishing market alone to be worth $1.3bn.
Other estimates attribute a value of $184 million to the Egyptian market and
$234 million to the UAE market.
The bottom line is, we just don't know.
What we can be certain of, and should be excited by,
is that there is plenty of room to grow.
Especially if we set aside the nonsense that
"Arabs don't read" and instead start thinking
positively about the Arab book markets.
Here's a few thoughts to begin with.
Fact: three Arab nations have been elected UNESCO
World Book Capital this century:
Alexandria, Egypt 2002
Beirut, Lebanon 2009
Sharjah, UAE 2019
Fact: many of the largest book fairs in the world are in the Arab markets.
6 Arab book fairs attract over one million visitors each.
And while we may not know just how big the actual Arab book
market is, we do know how big the Arab market itself is.
With 447 million people, the Arab market encompasses
more than 20 countries and is just shy of
the population size of the European Union (460 million).
The Arab market has more people than
the USA, UK and Canada combined.
Such a large market begs the question why publishing is not already
flourishing across the MENA region.
Culture and politics play a part, of course. We cannot ignore the fact that many MENA
countries have strict censorship laws that, however well-intentioned, stifle creativity and
inhibit domestic and foreign investment.
Further, literacy rates vary wildly across the region. While some countries are among the
best in the world, others are not doing so well.
0% 25% 50% 75% 100%
Sample Arab nations literacy rates
But perhaps more importantly, the Arab MENA countries straddle
some of the most inhospitable terrain on the planet, making effective
and affordable production and distribution of books challenging.
No wonder the traditional paper & ink publishing model has
struggled to provide cost-effective solutions to growing the book
markets of the Arab lands.
But this is 2019, not 1999.
Digital publishing and digital reading has arrived,
and elsewhere around the globe is
transforming publishing industries.
And it will do so in the Arab markets too,
as Arab publishers embrace digital.
At which point many Arab publishers will be saying,
"Fair enough, but let's give it another ten years.
No-one in MENA knows what the internet is.
Egypt is still only at 49% internet penetration.
Iraq is only at 49% internet penetration.
Sudan is only at 31% internet penetration.
There's absolutely no point digitising our books any time soon."
Time for a reality check.
In Year 2000 Egypt had just 400,000 people
connecting to the internet.
In 2019 the number of internet users
in Egypt is 49.2 million, and the country is only at
49% internet penetration.
That's 49 million people in Egypt that could be downloading digital books.
In Year 2000 the United Arab Emirates had just
735,000 people connecting to the internet.
In 2019 the number of internet users
in UAE is 9.3 million, with 96.9%
That's 9 million people in UAE that could be downloading digital books.
In Year 2000 the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia
had just 200,000 people connecting to the
In 2019 in KSA there are 30.2 million
That's 30 million people that could be downloading digital books.
No space here to do a breakdown of
internet users for every MENA country.
Just to say that across MENA there are in
2019 over 220 million Arabs online.
That's 220 million Arabs using a device that
they could be consuming digital books on.
If the books were available digitally, that is. Population 2019 Internet users 2019
A key part of the 2019 IPA Middle East Seminar in Amman is how digital
can help transform the region not just by making more books available
for those who do read, but by boosting literacy across the MENA region
to bring the pleasures and rewards of reading to more people.
The Seminar has many excellent speakers who will be discussing the
potential of digital to transform education sector.
In doing so digital opens up potential sales and revenue streams
simply unimaginable even ten years ago.
Not least because it brings new consumer demographics into play.
Non-readers and reluctant readers, for example.
This study is to show the global potential of digital - its ability to
penetrate with ease where the traditional paper and ink,
bricks & mortar infrastructure struggles.
It's not true Arabs "don't read", but Arabs would read more if...
they were offered free books to get them started and hook them on reading.
they were offered a better choice of books.
they were offered affordable books.
they were offered books in the language they speak at home.
they were offered comics and graphic novels.
they were offered books they could listen to.
Under the traditional publishing model none of those are
viable options at scale across the MENA region.
But all those options are viable pretty much anywhere on the
planet with the digital model.
Digital changes everything.
Examples of digital already
transforming publishing markets.
Statista reports that in 2017 in the
USA the trade EBOOK market
alone saw 266 million unit sales
and was worth $1.02 billion.
Statista's 2019 forecast for the entire US
ebook market is a valuation of $5.487 billion.
At which point a reminder the Arab market is bigger than the
US, UK and Canada combined.
Digital library supplier Rakuten OverDrive delivers
ebooks and digital audiobooks to consumers in the
US and globally, including the UAE.
In 2018 OverDrive saw 277 million digital book
downloads. That's 750,000 every day.
185 million ebooks and 88 million audiobooks were
borrowed from OverDrive libraries in 2018.
Tiny Singapore - population 5.6 million - was
65 libraries worldwide that saw
over 1 million digital book downloads.
In Canada - population 33 million, less
than Saudi Arabia - 5.6 million digital books
were borrowed from the
Toronto library in 2018.
In 2019 Storytel operates in Sweden, Norway,
Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Netherlands, Poland,
Russia, Spain, India, United Arab Emirates, Turkey,
Italy, Mexico, Bulgaria, Singapore, Germany, Brazil
and Colombia. It will launch in South Korea shortly.
Storytel has over 1 million subscribers paying each month to
download ebooks and digital audio, despite not being in the US or
UK, considered the most advanced digital markets.
In China ebooks and online
literature are big business.
In 2017 the Chinese media giant Tencent spun off its digital
reading arm China Literature in an IPO worth $1 billion.
Today China Literature even has its own film studios.
There are countless more examples, but let's address
the BIG problem with all this.
We're talking about the whole world.
What's this got to do with Arab publishers?
Why should Arab publishers be excited by all this?
This map of submarine cables shows how the
world is internet-connected in a way
unimaginable at the start of this century.
This in turn enables telcos to build the infrastructure
to deliver mobile connectivity to all parts of the world.
It means much of the planet has simply leap-frogged the
era of landline and dial-up and gone from no landline
telephone service to smartphones and 4G almost
overnight. Not least across MENA.
Arab publishing, with some notable exceptions (Jamalon, Dhad,
Kitab Sawti, Booklava and Storytel Arabia spring to mind), has
yet to wake up to this opportunity.
For those still partying like it's 1999, here's the reality of
internet connectivity in 2019 that many in publishing are
Statista forecasts the New Zealand ebook market
will be worth $37 million in 2019.
New Zealand has an online population of just 4.1 million.
All these MENA nations have more people
online than New Zealand.
Statista forecasts the Australia ebook market will
be worth $89 million in 2019.
Australia has 21.7 million people online. Iraq is close behind,
while Morocco, Algeria, Saudi Arabia and Egypt all have more.
Today 56% of the world is online.
4.5 billion people.
Online Not yet connected
Smartphones are a key
component of the
global digital book
Taking smartphone growth, improved telecom
infrastructure and falling internet prices together it's
no surprise some forecasts suggest a total of 6 billion
people will be online by 2022.
7.5 billion by 2030.
Year 2000: 393.5 million people online
Year 2019: 4.5 billion people online.
Year 2030: 7.5 billion people online.
Year 2000: Year 2019: Year 2030:
Of course, it doesn't matter how many people are online
if nobody reads in these countries.
And if we rely on historic data based on a handful of sales outlets in a
handful of countries, and let urban myths about who does and does not
read inform our publishing strategies, little will change.
But what if we take a step back and look at the clear evidence that,
across the world, including across MENA, people love reading!
In a 2018 study of global reading habits
the USA came in at # 22.
The top five?
India Thailand China Philippines Egypt
And most of the others in the top twenty might raise eyebrows in the
international publishing community.
Aren't these publishing graveyards?
Algerians love reading!
We shouldn't be surprised.
In many of these nations, MENA included, the biggest cultural
event in the country is a book fair.
The Algiers International Book Fair attracted 2.2 million
visitors in 2018.
Sharjah pulled in 2.3 million.
Cairo beat them both - by a long way!
Across MENA upwards of 15 million people will attend book fairs this year.
This year Saudi Arabia's Riyadh International Book Fair drew a
crowd of 1 million visitors for the first time.
Iraq's Baghad International Book Fair crossed the 1 million mark
Oman's Muscat International Book Fair marked its second year
with over 1 million visitors.
And then there's
Big Bad Wolf.
Big Bad Wolf operates out of Malaysia.
It specialises in eleven day flash sales that run 24/7.
It buys remaindered English-language books from (mainly) US and UK
publishers and takes container-loads of them to sell at discount in
countries where English is not the first language.
Countries like the United Arab Emirates.
In October Big Bad Wolf will be taking 3 million books
to Dubai for the second year running.
People are devouring books the world over, including MENA.
Yet ebooks and digital audiobooks are widely unavailable.
This is publishing's biggest opportunity and also its biggest
The message here is clear.
Can we rely on the big ebook retailers to help us
embrace this global opportunity?
Apple has 51 global ebook stores, but many are just placeholders.
Apple's ebook expansion ground to a halt years ago. There are no
Apple Books stores in MENA.
There is no evidence Apple plans to re-ignite its
global ebook strategy.
Google Play has 75 global stores that include some MENA
countries, but again, many are just placeholders.
There is no evidence Google Play plans to re-ignite its
global ebook strategy.
Kobo is global, but not as global as it likes to think.
Most global readers are sent to the US international store where
books are territorially restricted and US-priced.
There are few localised payment options.
There is little evidence Rakuten is willing to fund Kobo's global ambitions further.
Rakuten OverDrive is cause for hope, but again Rakuten is not much interested
in the truly global ebook markets.
While OverDrive has grown its global reach (China, UAE, Singapore, Sweden,
Rwanda, and most recently Germany) it is mostly passive growth.
OverDrive content is too expensive for many emerging markets to engage with.
Yet as Storytel has shown, when audiobooks and
ebooks are made available in countries Amazon and co.
deems not worthwhile, and when content is offered at
affordable prices, consumers are eager to partake.
Storytel launched in the UAE in 2018.
With digital the international book market has the potential to
become truly global in a way quite unimaginable under the
print-only traditional model.
But publishers have to be adaptable.
And publishers need to be willing to explore new
pricing strategies and new delivery models, sometimes
on a market by market basis.
The subscription model, digital libraries and telco-enabled digital reading
are what will define the emerging markets in the next decade.
Storytel has shown that with the subscription model
less can be more.
Outdated analogue thinking about what a book is worth has no place in
the next stage of the evolution of global publishing.
Often the choice will be as simple as
x% of something against 100% of nothing.
Publishers need to embrace the gateway audio and translations
opportunity in the emerging markets, and especially short-form
audio and podcasts delivered via a subscription model.
International content delivered to emerging market consumers.
Locally-originated content produced by international publishers.
Indigenous language content.
Locally produced content with diaspora appeal that can be delivered globally.
Locally produced content repackaged for the international markets.
As we start the 2020s digital offers Arab publishers
opportunities to reach domestic, pan-MENA and global
consumers barely conceivable even ten years ago.
Not as an alternative to print, but as a complimentary
format to print.
It's not an either/or debate.
From content creators to librarians to educationalists to the
creative industries like film and television. Just look at the way
books are driving TV and film production globally.
Digital is an opportunity not just for publishers but for
a raft of industries that revolve around publishing.
Digital publishing will not just benefit Arab publishers, creators
and consumers but will power the global economy.
It was only possible to touch briefly on
these topics here.
We are more than happy to develop any of these
themes for further discussion.
CEO at StreetLib
Mark Williams Editor -in-Chief at TNPS
Director of Communication at StreetLib