The 17th Amman International Book Fair kicks off next week (October 4) with a ten day event in the Jordanian capital.
Nineteen countries will be represented (up from fifteen last year), reflecting not a lack of interest but a lack of space – many applications were turned down, Jordanian Publishers Union Chairman Fathi Al Biss explained.
In any case Jordan’s efforts will be overshadowed by the far bigger Sharjah International Book Fair in the United Arab Emirates just a month later. Not that the Jordanians are resentful. The UAE will be guest of honour at Amman this year.
The list of countries that were picked is instructive.
Canada, UK, China, India, UAE, Turkey, Tunisia, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, China, Italy, Palestine, Algeria, Morocco, Lebanon,  Kuwait and Syria.
How can a small event like this last ten days? The key is in the focus – getting children interested in books. There’s a common misconception that “Arabs don’t read,” but the reality is rather that there is inadequate infrastructure in place to make books available, accessible and affordable across MENA (Middle East North Africa).
The digital transition is slowly rectifying that problem, with both ebooks and POD gradually expanding publishers’ reach across the region. As yet only Google and Kobo, among the big western ebook retailers, are taking the Middle East seriously. Unlike the iBooks and Kindle stores, Kobo is available across the region through the international Kobo store, while Google Play has localised ebook stores in Bahrain, Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
But Google Play, along with the local ebook operators like Kotobi and Yaqut, struggle to find digital content suited to localised demand. As yet Arabic-language publishers have bee slow to digitalise, precisely because there are so few retail outlets to make it worthwhile.
Egypt-based Kotobi, launched by Vodafone, solved one of the biggest problems for ebook retail in the region – being able to pay. The big problem for global readers wanting to buy ebooks from the western giants like Amazon and Apple, where they allow downloads at all, is the need for a bank card. By allowing readers to pay with their mobile phone credit Vodafone’s Kotobi instantly opened up the store to previously disenfranchised readers.
As the fifth most widely-spoken language on the planet Arabic offers plenty of opportunities for publishers as digital advances close the reading gap.