Egyptian e-books search engine Al Kutub ready to face the competition

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We could soon be witnessing some fierce regional competition in the field of digital books. Jordanian website Abjjad managed to raise $161,000 USD from 43 people on Eureeca last month, having attracted 33,000 subscribers in just a year and a half. Also, early last month, Vodafone launched a mobile phone application in Egypt named KOTOBI (my books) that allows users to download and read e-books on mobile devices, paying with phone credit. The latest of these is Al Kutub, which has seen over 10,000 people subscribe over the last 12 days.

Mohammed Nemat Allah, an e-marketer specialized in SEO, has worked on the Al Kutub online platform for the past three years with the vision of making it the largest regional database of digital books. Eventually, over 120,000 books will be uploaded for users’ perusal, he says. The platform also offers audio books for the visually impaired, the elderly, and others. 

According to Nemat Allah, the books will be displayed using iframe technology, a technique used to collect all online Arabic content in PDF format. This way, Al Kutub will not host this content, but would just be a search engine that assembles publications available online through hundreds of sources, namely forums, websites, and Facebook pages. It will not show the user the source where the book was published or the link as usually happens with search engines. The aim is for users to access content while staying on the Al Kutub website. “The only thing I host and own as Al Kutub is the main information about the book: title, name of the author, publisher, and number of downloads,” Nemat Allah said.

The thirtysomething Nemat Allah seems to believe in spreading knowledge and is confident of his legal stance, according to statements from his counselor. Whoever objects to the presence of any content, the statements say, should remove it from the source where it was originally posted. 

Nemat Allah got his idea from Free Ebooks, which was launched in 2008 and managed to attract 1.5 million users. The platform allowed users to download books through the website after agreeing with publishers to host their content. It later limited free services and allowed users to read only five free books per month; anything beyond this would cost a nominal fee.

There is no doubt that the e-book buying culture is widespread internationally; however, it is still limited in Egypt despite heavy traffic (up to 80,000 on one of the websites, according to Nemat Allah). This culture is limited to young people, both publishers and authors. According to figures provided by Nemat Allah based on a digital knowledge specialized source, e-versions of books contribute to 30% a sale increase of paper books. 

The website will offer four usage levels: 

  • First: Reading and downloading scanned books for free.

  • Second: Reading and downloading books for a periodic subscription, providing the user with the original copy from the publisher for which they pay with phone credit.

  • Third: Requesting a paper copy of the book directly from the publisher via Al Kutub.

  • Fourth: Requesting a paper copy from Sour Al Uzbakiya, a region that has a number of small libraries and is a hub for reading lovers in Egypt where they can find old or rare books. There’s no catalogue for the books here; a visit is necessary to determine whether something is available. 

Al Kutub will also provide a social network with its own notification center and messaging service, enabling subscribers to showcase the books they have in their libraries. Each user can read, borrow online, load, and control their content, allowing access either for friends only or for everyone. The lending function may evolve in the future to allow for paper book lending, like the Hatwkhod website, the first lending library in Egypt to use the internet to build its community and take requests.

The Al Kutub application will be available on iPhone and Android a few weeks after the official launch of the site (it's currently available in beta). 

Nemat Allah showed me some site features that he wants to test with subscribed users before the official launch. As a user, you can register on Al Kutub via your email, Facebook, or Twitter account, allowing you to share your Al Kutub activity. The site will also feature reading groups to read and discuss books. 

Nemat Allah seeks to further develop the e-version of the book where users can add comments to their personal copies, highlight, and customize them. He hopes for the Arab model to succeed so he can begin to localize it in English, Chinese, German, and Spanish.

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