How e-books and audiobooks are expanding options for consuming Arabic literature

Regional book-related events such as the Kuwait International Book Fair and the Riyadh International Book Fair continue to attract large crowds. (AFP)
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Updated 07 January 2023

How e-books and audiobooks are expanding options for consuming Arabic literature

  • While many Arab readers prefer the printed book, others say ebooks and audiobooks save time, space and money
  • Growth of digital-literature market evident in production of 8,000 Arabic-language audiobooks in 2022 alone

DUBAI: As technology advances, bookworms are finding more options to consume literature than just through the printed word. Though e-books in Arabic are far fewer in number than those in English, publishers and translators are working to bridge the gap.

In 2018, Amazon announced Arabic-language support for the Kindle e-reader, opening the door of literature to a much larger audience.

From novels to self-help books, biographies to poetry and more, an increasing number of Arabs are finding affordable means to gain knowledge in e-books and audiobooks. Yet, reading a printed book is still the most favored option for the vast majority.

“Honestly, I don’t think there is a problem of reading books in the Arab region as some might think, as much as there is a problem in selling books,” Salah Chebaro, CEO of Beirut-based Neelwafurat, told Arab News.

Neelwafurat, one of the biggest online bookstores in the Arab world, is a word merging the two Arabic names of the Nile and Euphrates rivers.

The bookstore sells printed books from Arab publishers to different cities around the world. It boasts a stock of 15,000 e-books for sale that can be read through the iKitab application, as well as 800,000 printed books.

While printed Arabic-language books continue to be far more popular than e-book equivalents, sales of the latter are slowly growing, in part as a result of the rising prices of printed volumes. (SPA)

“When you look at the number of the pirated books that were downloaded, they are in the millions,” Chebaro said in an online interview from the Lebanese capital. “People like to read, but they don’t like to pay to read.”  

However, “the predicament for publishers, distributors and bookshops in the Arab world … is in shipping (books) and other logistics related to the geography of the Arab region.”

For instance, the cost of shipping a consignment of printed books weighing a total of 2 kilograms from New York to Los Angeles in the US is roughly the same as, say, sending it from Cairo to Amman.

This is because of the geographical distribution of the Arab region, which makes transportation, shipping, exporting and importing more complicated and expensive, Chebaro said.

Saving on shipping costs is among the main factors behind the increasing popularity of e-books in the Arab region. Other factors include saving the space needed to store and carry around print books, as well as the speed of buying a book online, which can be finalized in the blink of an eye.

While some continue to maintain their preference for the printed word, reading on gadgets has many advantages. Yemeni-British Dhuha Awad, a creativity facilitator based in Dubai, says she likes the dictionary function in digital English books.

“I can type the word I am looking for, and the gadget will display all the lines that have that word (in the digital book). Also, I don’t need to carry the book I am reading with me all the time,” Awad told Arab News.

Her library consists of roughly equal numbers of digital and printed books, and she uses the e-book format to further save time and physical space. “If I like a certain book and want others to read it, I make sure I have it in paper. But if I am not sure, I will buy the digital format first,” she said.


• Global e-book revenues surpassed $16.1bn in 2021 and could reach $18.7bn by 2026. 

• The number of e-book readers worldwide is expected to breach 1.1bn by 2027.

• Sales of e-books constitute around 10% of overall book sales, according to publishers.

• In 2018, Amazon announced Arabic-language support for the Kindle e-reader.

The growth in the e-books market in the Arab region is led by Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Egypt, Ali Abdel Moneim Ahmed, digital publishing consultant with Liberty Education in the UK, Egypt, and UAE, said during a panel discussion at the Sharjah Publishers Conference on the sidelines of the 2022 edition of the UAE’s Sharjah International Book Fair, held every November.

More and more publishers are offering online platforms with their books having digital versions, Ahmed said. Publishers are also collaborating with audio-ready platforms, such as Storytel and Audible.

E-book sales of classic books in the markets of the three aforementioned Arab countries have “increased by 14 percent (in 2021),” Ahmed said. “This is apart from the online publications, which have increased by 50 percent.”

Despite the increasing sales of e-books, there is still room for even more growth. Sales of e-books constitute around 10 percent of overall book sales, according to publishers. 

“It is a promising (field) … and it is increasing every year. But we haven’t yet reached the percentages of Europe and the US, where nearly 30 percent of books sales are e-books,” Chebaro told Arab News.

Global e-books sales are massive, despite figures varying among different sources and websites.

According to WordsRated, a US-based non-commercial research organization, global e-book revenues in 2021 reached over $16.1 billion, and is expected to cross the $18.7 billion mark by 2026.

Statista, another US-based market and consumer data provider, expects the e-books segment to reach $13.6 billion in 2022, with an anticipated annual growth rate of 3.38 percent, reaching over $16 billion by 2027.

Saudi Arabia tops the list of buyers and readers for both digital and printed books in the Arab world. (SPA)

The number of e-book readers is expected to reach over 1.1 billion by 2027, with most of the revenues expected to be generated by the US. The country is the largest book market in the world, with its revenues estimated in billions of dollars.

Nearly one million books are being published yearly in the US, in addition to four million self-published books annually.

By comparison, the Arab book market’s revenue ranges between $100 and $150 million. Only a million books have been published in the Arab region in the past five decades, according to data shared by Chebaro with Arab News.

Figures on publishing in the Arab world are related to many socio-economic factors, chief among them individual income. 

“Today, (the rate of) pirated books in the Gulf region is less than other countries such as Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and Iraq. Pirated books are a big problem and (are) connected to an individual’s income,” Chebaro told Arab News. 

“We have a long way to go … (but) overall, sales of paper books are increasing, as well as the sales of e-books. None of them is taking the place of another. Each has a market and each has its customers and readers.”

Saudi Arabia tops the list of buyers and readers for both digital and printed books in the Arab world. It is followed by Kuwait, the UAE, Qatar, Bahrain, and Algeria, according to Chebaro.

Fiction, self-esteem and mental health, and biographies top the list of subjects of interest to Arab readers, Doha Al-Refai, publishing manager at the Rufoof digital bookstore, told Arab News from Amman in Jordan.

The store, which offers 25,000 Arabic titles for a monthly subscription fee, acts like a sort of online library — not selling digital or print copies of books, but rather allowing readers to read books on their website.

“We don’t distribute or sell books for readers. We distribute for the publisher,” Al-Refai told Arab News.

Rufoof has “solved a problem for a wide spectrum of readers, where people don’t have to buy books, whether paper or digital, but can read as much as they want throughout the whole month.”

Saudis, Emiratis and Egyptians are among Rufoof’s top clients. While Egyptians are among the most voracious readers, the number of subscribers in the Gulf states are also high, Al-Refai said, adding that the website has plans to expand into audiobooks. 

Audiobooks are a promising field with big potential, according to many publishers. Chebaro and Al-Refai said that the Arab region produced nearly 8,000 audiobooks in 2021, with Al-Refai adding that Rufoof accounted for 5,000 so far.

Egyptian author Amr Hussein says the digital format has helped increase access to literature for those who are unable to afford the increasing prices of books.

“Arabs living in different places, such as Australia, Europe, and other cities far from the Arab region, find it difficult to get Arabic books,” Hussein, who lives in Dubai, told Arab News.

“Distributing books through digital formats provides people anywhere in the world the chance to read books as they are published in the Arab region.”

He said, personally, he prefers audiobooks as he can listen to them while stuck in traffic or in a plane.

Many readers and writers will likely agree with Purva Grover, a Dubai-based writer from India with three e-books under her belt, who told Arab News via email: “The more books we have (in any format) in the world, be it e-books or print, the brighter the future.

“Reading is more about sharing now — I read a good paragraph and I want to instantly screenshot it and send it to my friends, put it up on my social accounts or tag friends — so e-books help us do it all, and hence encourage and spread the word of reading in this tech-friendly era.”

Lebanese security forces detain man suspected of shooting outside US embassy

Updated 26 September 2023

Lebanese security forces detain man suspected of shooting outside US embassy

BEIRUT: Lebanese security forces on Monday said they arrested a suspected gunman who fired a dozen bullets at the American embassy in Beirut, according to security sources in the country.

A source named the suspect as 26-year-old Lebanese national Muhammad Mahdi Hussein Khalil, who had worked for a delivery company. The source added Khalil had a criminal record for previously opening fired on a Lebanese Public Security center.

According to the source, Khalil confesed to shooting at the embassy compound in the Awkar suburb of Beirut and the weapon used in the attack had been seized.

Surveillance cameras showed a lone gunman dressed in black firing a Kalashnikov rifle before fleeing the scene on a motorcycle.

“The shooter carried out his act after previous disputes between him and embassy security over food deliveries,” the source told Arab News.

There were no injuries in the shooting late on Wednesday when 15 shots were fired at the embassy complex.

Israel says US to announce it has joined Visa Waiver Program

Updated 26 September 2023

Israel says US to announce it has joined Visa Waiver Program

  • Some Palestinians have protested at Israel’s entry into the VWP, citing what they say are decades of discriminatory treatment of Arab Americans and harassment at Israel’s borders

JERUSALEM: Israel’s Foreign Ministry said on Monday it expects the United States to announce this week that it will be admitted to the Visa Waiver Program (VWP), which would allow Israeli citizens visa-free entry to America as of November.
The deadline for Israel to show compliance with the US conditions is Sept. 30. If successful, it would offer a win for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s religious-nationalist government, whose relations with Washington have been strained over its plans to overhaul the judiciary as well as over its policies toward the Palestinians.
“Israel joining the Visa Waiver Program is a diplomatic achievement and good news for all Israeli citizens,” said Foreign Minister Eli Cohen.
A US State Department spokesperson said on Monday that a final decision on Israel’s candidacy had not been made.
“The Secretary of Homeland Security, in consultation with the Secretary of State, will make a determination in the coming days,” the spokesperson said.
For admission to the program, Washington requires countries to treat all US travelers equally, regardless of whatever other passports they may hold. In Israel’s case, that would mean free passage for Palestinian Americans at its airports and when traveling into and out of the occupied Palestinian territories.
Some Palestinians have protested at Israel’s entry into the VWP, citing what they say are decades of discriminatory treatment of Arab Americans and harassment at Israel’s borders.
In a pilot period that has been running since July 20, Israel has loosened access for Palestinian Americans through its borders and in and out of the Israeli-occupied West Bank.
Between 45,000 and 60,000 Palestinian Americans live in the West Bank, a US official estimated. An Israeli official gave lower figures, saying that of 70,000 to 90,000 Palestinian Americans worldwide, 15,000 to 20,000 are West Bank residents.
There are currently 40 countries in the VWP. Countries are not added frequently, with Croatia being the latest to join in 2021. 


Hundreds dead from dengue fever in Sudan

Updated 25 September 2023

Hundreds dead from dengue fever in Sudan

  • Sudanese doctors’ union said health situation ‘is deteriorating at a horrific rate’

PORT SUDAN: Outbreaks of dengue fever and acute watery diarrhea have “killed hundreds” in war-torn Sudan, medics reported Monday, warning of “catastrophic spreads” that could overwhelm the country’s decimated health system.

In a statement, the Sudanese doctors’ union warned that the health situation in the southeastern state of Gedaref, on the border with Ethiopia, “is deteriorating at a horrific rate,” with thousands infected with dengue fever.

Though Gedaref has been spared the direct effects of the brutal war between the regular army and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces, it has nonetheless been impacted by mass displacement and other humanitarian crises.

Over five months into the war, 80 percent of the country’s hospitals are out of service, according to the UN. Even before the war, Sudan’s fragile healthcare system struggled to contain the annual disease outbreaks that accompany the country’s rainy season starting in June, including malaria — endemic in Sudan — and dengue fever.

This year, with Gedaref hosting over 250,000 internally displaced people according to the UN, the situation is much worse.

“The hospital’s beds are all full but the cases keep coming in, particularly children,” a medical source said from Gedaref Hospital.

US-backed Kurdish forces impose curfew in eastern Syria after new clashes with rival militia

Updated 25 September 2023

US-backed Kurdish forces impose curfew in eastern Syria after new clashes with rival militia

BEIRUT: US-backed Kurdish-led forces imposed a curfew after clashes erupted again on Monday in eastern Syria, where their fighters had battled for weeks with rival militiamen, Syrian media and activists reported.

The fighting in a region where hundreds of American troops are deployed has pointed to dangerous seams in a coalition that has kept on a lid on the defeated Daesh for years.

The reports say the Syrian Democratic Forces imposed the open-ended measure in several towns in Deir Ezzor province, including the town of Ziban, close to the Iraqi border where the Americans are based. 

Hundreds of US troops have been there since 2015 to help in the fight against Daesh. 

The province is home to Syria’s largest oil fields.

Al Mayadeen, a pan-Arab TV station, said several fighters from the Kurdish-led forces were killed after gunmen took over several parts of Ziban on Monday. 

Britain-based opposition war monitor the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said some of the fighters had crossed from regime-held areas.

Local media in the province reported that some Kurdish fighters had fled the area as the clashes intensified. There were no further details.

The Kurdish-led forces have accused the Syrian regime of inciting the violence by allowing the rival militiamen to cross the Euphrates River. 

The clashes first erupted in late August when two weeks of fighting killed 25 Kurdish fighters, 29 members of tribal groups and gunmen, as well as nine civilians, according to the Syrian Democratic Forces .

Israel strikes Hamas post after violent protest in Gaza: army

Updated 26 September 2023

Israel strikes Hamas post after violent protest in Gaza: army

  • Israel has imposed an air, land and sea blockade on the impoverished Palestinian enclave ever since the Islamist group Hamas seized control in 2007

GAZA CITY, Palestinian Territories: The Israeli army said it hit on Monday a Hamas military post, in the latest in a series of drone strikes on Gaza, after its troops were shot at during a violent protest.
The latest strike comes amid daily demonstrations at the border by Palestinians after Israel closed the Erez crossing from Gaza.
Two protesters were wounded by “Israeli bullets” in the clashes on Monday, the Hamas-controlled health ministry in Gaza said in a statement.
The army meanwhile said a drone “struck a military post belonging to the Hamas terrorist organization.”
The post was located near an area from which assailants shot at soldiers “during a violent protest,” an army statement said.
The “soldiers responded with live fire toward an assailant... and hit him.”
Gaza has been rocked by daily protests since Israeli authorities closed the Erez crossing, the only gateway for pedestrians entering Israel from the coastal enclave.
The closure has prevented thousands of workers from the impoverished enclave from entering Israel.
On Monday, protesters burned tires and threw rocks at soldiers who responded with tear gas, an AFP journalist reported.
Since September 13, seven Palestinians have been killed and dozens wounded in violence at the border, according to figures from the health ministry in Gaza.
Israel has imposed an air, land and sea blockade on the Palestinian enclave ever since the Islamist group Hamas seized control in 2007.
Armed conflict sporadically erupts between Israel and militants in the Gaza Strip.
In May, an exchange of Israeli air strikes and Gaza rocket fire resulted in the deaths of 34 Palestinians and one Israeli.