This year’s Cairo International Book Fair saw the launch of Kotobi, the new Vodafone-powered E-Book store for the Arab world. Our friends at Arabic Literature (in English) spoke with the man behind the project, Ashraf Maklad.

ashraf-makladArabLit: 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.

AM: Yes.

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. 

kotobi-com-2-510x217AM: 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.

Continue reading here.

Marcia Lynx Qualey conducted the interview. She has also written a very interesting piece on kotobi and the general situation of the Arabic book market.