People still love print, says e-book startup Kotobna

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Egyptian e-book platform Kotobna is breaking the stranglehold of traditional book publishers, but they are also finding that people still love print, too.

Kotobna (which means ‘our books’ in Arabic), launched a print-on-demand feature in March this year.

“Printing is expensive because of distribution to bookstores. On average the distributor takes around 70 percent of the book’s [sale] price while each bookstore demands at least 40 percent as well. A book might need $1 to print but ends up at $5 at the store because of all these hidden costs,” said founder and CEO Mohammed Gamal.

Mohammad Gamal. (Image via Kotobna)

In November last year the American Publishers Association released a statement showing that in the first half of 2016 versus the same period in 2015, US sales of paperbacks grew 8.8 percent to $1.01 billion and of hardbacks grew 0.9 percent to $989.7 million.

E-book sales, however, sank 20 percent to $579.5 million.

Gamal said this was true in Egypt, as well, which is what led to the print-on-demand offer. It allows users to request a one-off print copy of any book on the platform and it reaches them within 48 hours. The average price will be 40 Egyptian pounds (US$2), depending on the number of pages.

While traditional printing required a run of at least 1,000 copies to be economically viable for a printer, Gamal said one-off copies of e-books could be much less expensive for authors because the author pays a one-time fee of $99 and Kotobna does the rest. “It is the same if you print 10,000 copies on demand or if you only print one copy, $99 at the beginning and that is it.”

“This isn’t a sign digital is failing, it is a sign the Arab market and the worldwide market isn’t mature enough to forego print,” he said.  “Kotobna wants to create a product that solves some of the market’s main issues which include zero respect to intellectual property and widespread piracy.”

To do this, Kotobna investigates every book submitted to make sure it’s not fully or partially stolen, and doesn’t allow downloads in terms of giving users a separate copy on their device - they can only read the e-book within the app.

Making e-books work

Gamal always had a fondness for writing despite doing a computer science major. When he quit a job in technology business development in 2014, he knew creating a platform for first time authors was the next step.

“I had some writings done and my friends pushed me to meet publishers. Because I was a first-time author, the publishers I spoke to in Egypt and Lebanon both demanded I was responsible financially and operation-wise for printing and distribution of at least 500 copies.” He said.

Traditional book publishers in Egypt are accused of having too-long waiting lists for authors to be published, of marketing best-sellers only, and demanding too much money for too little actual publishing.

Further, major publishing houses weren’t willing to take a risks on a first-time author, while smaller ones (Gamal said Cairo alone hosted over 300 small publishing houses) would publish anything if the author paid for the whole print run as well as a 10-15 percent management fee to the publishing house.

Kotobna (Gamal is center) won the ideas track at the MIT Pan Arab Startup Competition 2015. (Image via Kotobna)

Egyptian e-publishing emerges

Kotobna runs along similar lines to Western versions: you write your book, create an account and upload it to the platform. It’s available for reading via a smartphone and tablet application. The first 25 copies downloaded are for free then the next 50 copies cost five Egyptian pounds ($0.28) then the rest cost 10 Egyptian pounds ($0.55) thereafter.

Gamal and his team of five freelancers also manages proofreading, applies for an International Standard Book Number (ISBN), and runs the marketing for a book.

In Egypt, other digital publishers include Koshk Comics, which is a mobile-first platform where regional comic book artists can publish their work. Kotobna is in direct competition, aiming for comics to make up 25 percent of their range.

The platform was released on World Book Day in April 2015 and later that year won the ideas track of the MIT Enterprise Forum Arab Startup Competition.

Since then they’ve published 440 books, registered 17,000 users, and had 27,000 book downloads. The main users of Kotobna are men (55 percent) between the ages of 25 and 35, all demanding lighter content.

“No one wants to read an academic book online,” Gamal said.

Investors aren’t interested

Gamal has bootstrapped the whole business, taking in-kind assistance and 120,000 Egyptian pounds (US$6,500) of funding from government incubator the Technology Innovation and Entrepreneurship Center (TIEC) in 2015.

He’s entered into investment talks, such as with Cairo Angels in 2015, but found VCs to be less interested in content-based startups, particularly Arabic language ones.

Instead of using his know-how to become a more ‘traditional’ publishing house, he opted to fund the business himself while fine-tuning the product-market fit.

Feature image via Kotobna.

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