Not playing around: Jordanian startup Yaqut pursuing Arabic ebook market with gamified app

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After years of explosive growth, ebooks in English-language markets finally appear to be leveling off and stabilizing as an integral part of the publishing world.

But in Arabic-language markets, it’s a different story. Industry heavyweights like Amazon and Apple Inc., have ignored the market, either featuring very few Arabic ebooks, or none at all.

And yet, having left the door open to a market consisting of upwards of 220 million people, in a region with rising internet usage and mobile saturation, the industry appears to be stagnant—leaving authors, publishers, and readers without a consistent outlet for ebooks.

But it’s not for a lack of trying by entrepreneurs: Nooon Books, Obeikan, Rufoof, Ertiqa and Sibawayh are all Arabic focused eReaders that have entered the market in recent years, but a variety of reasons have kept growth in-check.

A recent entrant to the field, the eBookstore Yaqut, a Jordanian startup headed by Ammar Mardawi, is looking to change that. Since launching as an app on the Google Play Store in March, 2014, Yaqut has grown to attract 150,000 active monthly users; and with that established, Mardawi is in the midst of implementing a “gamified” plan he hopes will creatively monetize Yaqut and open up the ebook market.

A gamified ebook app is a curious idea—but that’s because in established markets no one has needed to resort to gamification in order sell ebooks. But people are intrigued, evidenced by Oasis500 providing seed money this past January.

And when compared MENA’s complex publishing industry, a gamified app may not seem all that strange—there’s the technical aspect of creating a right-to-left interface, ambiguous copyright laws, publishing houses that don’t digitize content, a lack of print distribution that has led to widespread piracy, publisher royalty disputes, and a list that goes on and on.

But in Mardawi’s eyes, a main reason Arabic ebooks have yet to claw out a market stems from incorrect payment methods.

“We saw how others failed, and that’s why we’re trying something different than the classical model,” says Mardawi.

He thinks most Arabic-ebook stores have attempted to follow the “classic” ebook model where revenue is generated through basic in-app purchases for books. But this model was originally formulated by companies like Amazon, for use in markets with high penetration of online credit card use. Although online purchasing is growing, it isn’t commonplace enough in the MENA region to make a viable product based around in-app purchases.

And with that in mind, Yaqut’s six members set about first creating an app that would attract users—a crucial component not to be forgotten—and establishing market acceptance; once this was accomplished, Mardawi began the process of monetizing Yaqut’s user base by setting up an in-app system of virtual currency that it will soon introduce to users.

Upon registering, users will be given a set amount of virtual currency that will allow them to purchase their first book; embedded within the pages of ebooks will be native advertising that will earn readers more currency as they “flip” through the e-pages.

“So the more you read, the more virtual currency you get, the more ebooks you can buy for free,” says Mardawi.

There will also be a system in place to purchase more virtual currency to augment existing currency and a premium subscription that gives a set amount of currency each month or year.

Mardawi’s hopes this will solve the issue of monetizing digital items because it allows Yaqut to offer free content while incentivizing more reading and lead to advertising revenue and a select group of paying customers.

“We can monetize people who don’t have access to the payment methods or people unwilling to pay for digital items,” says Mardawi. “And it still allows us to monetize people who are still willing to pay.”

To incentive the “game” aspect of the app, Mardawi is also considering adding social features like scoreboards and badges.

But Yaqut is not alone in trying to work around regional consumer habits to create a viable ebook business. Only a month before the launch of Yaqut, in February 2014, Kobati.com launched at the Cairo International Book Fair with a plan to monetize readers by focusing on mobile payments instead of online credit card payments.

And with financial backing from Vodafone, Kobati is attempting corner the sizable Egyptian market, pairing it opposite Yaqut as two young startups in the region with big ideas—and a sign that despite the uncertainty, ebooks are still very much a fertile market for startups to explore.

“We’re still trying it out, we have no idea if it will work or not,” says Mardawi. “But the important thing is that we know what doesn’t work—the ibooks and Kindle model, we know that doesn’t work.”

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Samuel Wendel is a freelance journalist currently based in Amman, Jordan, where he covers entrepreneurship. You can reach him at sam.wendel [at] yahoo.com.

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