An Arabic reading app based in Jordan, Abjjad has 1.5 million registered users and works with publishers in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, and other markets.
“Some Still Need To Be Reassured About Ebooks”
For several years, publishers in the Middle East have been praising the Jordanian company Abjjad, an Amman-based Arabic reading application that provides ebooks for them.
Publishing Perspectives spoke with Eman Hylooz, founder and CEO of the company, while she was at last week’s Cairo International Book Fair. Egypt is a major market for Abjjad, and Hylooz says she likes to spend time with her publishing clients to build relationships and contacts.
“They have things to say, they need to brainstorm,” she says. “They want to have an open relationship. Some are still quite traditional and need to be reassured about ebooks.”
Hylooz is a computer scientist with a master’s degree in business administration. She worked in software development for six years before launching Abjjad in 2012 with seed funding from the Jordanian start-up investment company Oasis500. Over the years, Hylooz has crowdfunded, and in 2020 she raised a $1 million investment round led by three Jordanian companies.
She’s also an avid reader, particularly of Arabic literature. She named her company after the original order of the Arabic alphabet, called Abjadiyah, which refers to its first four letters. What started out as an Arabic social network for booklovers has become a literary platform with more than 1.5 million registered readers and writers. On the platform, for the equivalent of US$6 per month, subscribers have access to more than 15,000 Arabic ebooks.
The 13-person team at Abjjad works with 124 publishers, most of them in Egypt and Lebanon. Some are also in Saudi Arabia and Iraq, where Hylooz says the market is developing. Publishers from the United Arab Emirates, Jordan, Palestine, Syria, Morocco, and Algeria are also part of the Abjjad network.
In Egypt, Hylooz works with publishing companies such as Dar Al-Shorouk, Al Arabi Publishing, Al Kotob Khan, and Dar Al Tanweer—which is also in Lebanon and Tunisia. In Lebanon, clients include Dar Al Adab and Dar Al Saqi.
Although Egypt and Lebanon are in the throes of severe economic crises, Hylooz says, “They’re very resilient, despite the economic situation.”
‘We’re Coming Into a Good Place’
Hylooz was recently at the Arabic-language book fair in Beirut, where she says publishers still are printing books, but “You can’t target the readers now because they don’t have credit cards to make payments.”
Egyptian readers are still subscribing, Hylooz says, because they’ve integrated digital wallets with phone operators. Digital wallets are better than paying with your phone, as is often the case on the African continent, “because phone operators many times take a commission.” Hylooz also mentions Fawry, an Egyptian payment gateway used by some subscribers.
“We’re coming into a good place,” she says, “even if Lebanon and Egypt are in trouble. We still have other markets. We’ve barely scratched the surface of potential markets.”
Because making a payment isn’t a challenge for subscribers in the Gulf region, Saudi Arabia has become an important market for Abjjad, but it’s a challenging one, she says. “Even if in Saudi Arabia the population has more buying power, it’s a very competitive market, and we need to focus on doing more marketing there.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly, during the brunt of the COVID-19 pandemic, Abjjad gained a 30-percent increase in readers and, equally significantly, a 50- to 60-percent increase in publishers signing on as clients. “Everyone was complaining because they weren’t working,” Hylooz says, “and we were working 16 hours a day.”
Arab readers living outside the Southwest Asian and North African region are becoming an important market for Abjjad as well, Hylooz says, speculating that they hear about Abjjad via word of mouth or social media, which is the company’s main channel of communication with readers.
Algeria and Morocco are two markets that Hylooz says she’d like to develop, but payment systems are complicated when it comes to telecoms or credit cards. “It’s very difficult in Algeria,” Hylooz says. “It’s a little better in Morocco, where people have French Visa cards—often because they have family living there or something—but we can’t depend on this for scalability.”
Iraq is a big market in which there are numerous readers, “But their purchasing power isn’t there,” Hylooz says. Perhaps because there’s such an appetite for reading in Iraq, it’s also where Abjjad has the biggest problems with piracy for digital PDFs. “Everyone is working on enhancing security. We have lots of hackers trying to steal content and security is one of our main focuses.”
As with printed books, piracy is a major headache in the Arabic ebook market. “Ebooks are growing fast and are going to become 10- to 20-percent of book market revenue” Hylooz says. “Now, it’s 2- to 3-percent in the Arab world because of piracy. If there were no piracy, it would have reached 20 to 30 percent.”
What Are People in the Arab World Reading? And Where?
“Literature is always number one,” Hylooz says. “We see self-help and business books getting very trendy.
“I’m also noticing that philosophy and psychology books are doing well. In Saudi Arabia, readers are into philosophy, self-help, and psychology. In Egypt, they love good literature. In the Emirates, they love translated literature from Russian, Turkish, and Japanese. Elif Shafak is a top seller all over the Arab world, as is Haruki Murakami.”
Today, Hylooz’s greatest challenge, she says, is that “every Arab country is a different world. We need to localize the pricing, the currency, the payment gateway, and the content. It’s much tougher in some countries, for example, in North Africa, where we have the content, but the payment methods are not in place yet. In Saudi Arabia, we have payment gateways and the content but it’s a very competitive market.
“For social media, it’s just as different. In Saudi Arabia, people are on Snapchat, TikTok, and Twitter. In Egypt, people are on Facebook and Instagram, and you have to talk to them differently and work with influencers.
“It’s one language but 22 different worlds.”