How this Saudi female entrepreneur is driving forth book culture

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The average Arab citizen reads approximately 35 hours and 17 books every year. Research showed that on average, an Arab reads 11 books in Arabic and six foreign-language books every year.  The need for promoting reading in the Arab world as a habit for young people is as clear as ever.

The UAE government declared 2016 ‘The Year of Reading’ and created the Arab Reading Challenge in 2016: 3.5 million Arab youth read and summarized at least 50 books. Over 150 million books were read in total.

Books for your ears

Jeddah-based Saudi entrepreneur Manar Saud Alomayri used to listen to English books online, and felt there is a gap when it comes to Arabic audiobooks. She thought that a modern style of reading books needs to be provided for the mobile-first young generation of the Arab world that she belongs to. This drove the IT professional to leave her well-paid job within the insurance industry to launch Dhad Audiobooks in June 2014, offering online Arabic audiobooks. Books prices range from 6 to 22 Saudi Riyals per book (US$ 1.6 - 5.8). Some are even offered for free, such as إنما نحن جوقة  العميان, which discusses blind people and society.

Books belong to various categories including novels, literature, poetry, kids and teenagers, in addition to Islamic and science fiction. She said that philosophy books are the most popular.

The story begins
During the past few years, Alomayri developed her startup within the KSA’s incubators and accelerators: KAUST’s entrepreneurship program, KACST’s Badir Program for Technology Incubators, and the second cohort of the nonprofit 9/10ths accelerator. She also won an international award in 2016 as well as exhibited and pitched in a competition in Dubai at STEP Conference 2017. Alomayri said that the support of these programs over the course of her team’s journey “opened doors in many ways.”

Turning the page
Reading is growing more popular in the region, which accentuates the audiobooks trend. Lebanon ranked first out of 22 countries on the Arab Reading Index, reading 59 hours a year on average. Saudi Arabia ranked eighth out of the 22 countries, with a score of 63 out of 100 on the Arab Reading Index. Saudis read on average during 43 hours per year and read around 19 books read per year.

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Manar Saud Alomayri. (Image via Manar Saud Alomayri)

Dhad has been one of the first startups that convinced people in the Kingdom to invest in a new way of consuming literature.
"The impact and disruption Dhad created is clear: we have at least seven new competitors in the market. As a first mover, we know how hard it is to achieve a half-year milestone of selling 5,000 copies of audiobooks relying on word of mouth marketing only,” she said, explaining that  Dhad managed to reach the half-year target before June 2017 and has also welcomed new sales channels created via initiatives such as partnership with bookstores.
 

“Our first accomplished milestone was raising awareness about the importance of audiobooks and reading via audio in the community. We were also able to make the publishing sector aware that audiobooks are another new channel of revenue for the books and great new exposure medium for the book, the writer and the publisher. All that was achieved before 2017,” said Alomayri.

Some of the ingredients of Dhad’s success story include books narrated by individuals with renowned voices such as Dr. Ali Abo Alhasan, levering digital platforms like Intercom (a livechat platform available on the Dhad.sa website), Google Analytics and Twitter. In regards to the latter, Dhad has a verified account and a hashtag #اصدقاء_ض (friends of Dhad) where promotions and news are shared, including those by fans.

 

“Another milestone we set was having 15 publishing houses from all around the MENA region exclusively signed with Dhad by June 2017, and we managed to actually have 18 of them,” said Alomayri.

Competitors in this space include the Dubai-based Arabic audiobook startup Booklava App (A play on words between ‘books’ and Mediterranean dessert Baklava) and the Amman-based Jamalon, an online bookstore startup that started offering Arabic audiobooks in April 2017.

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Dhad’s Ramadan 2017 promotional image on Twitter, featuring the first words revealed in the Quran: اقرأ  (Read). (Image via Manar Saud Alomayri)

The vast majority of Dhad users are based in Saudi Arabia. The rest are scattered throughout the MENA region and the world, including Malaysia, Indonesia, Germany, Sweden, USA, Canada, UK and even Argentina. Most of them are Arab expats seeking Arabic books which are not frequently available in their countries of residence.  

Refund policy

Alomayri was very certain about her customers’ loyalty and about the good experience her platform provides. This has driven her to create a refund policy in early May 2017, to allow users get their money back within 24 hours of their purchase if they were not satisfied. 

 

She explained that they have a 24 hours ‘no question asked’ refund policy, so they have no measures taken to prevent refunds. However, this has never occurred so far, which accentuates Dhad’s strong relationship with its clients and the quality of their books, she stressed.

The next chapter

Besides the website, Dhad has been available for iOS users (iPhone and iPad) since January 2017. An Android version is underway and will be launched this summer. The website will also witness additional changes and updates: think the complementary, community-building features of Goodreads that have made it a hit in the US.“Dhad is not just a player app for audiobooks, it’s actually an app that builds relationships between the reader and books. Our goal is to make reading easier for whoever wants to access high-quality and entertaining books,” said Alomayri. The app has many functions like the ‘levelling up’ concept where readers can know their reading level depending on the time they spent listening to books. They can later on compete with friends based on these reports, share their achievements on social media, or just keep up with them (on a personal level).”

Feature image via Dhad website.

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