Arabic audiobooks are taking the market by storm

The Arabic audiobook industry is clearly in its early stages and what might make its format popular is additional investment in production and marketing.
Sunday 21/04/2019
Big potential. A mobile phone displaying an Arabic audiobook played in the Egyptian Iqraaly reading app.   (Iqraaly.com)
Big potential. A mobile phone displaying an Arabic audiobook played in the Egyptian Iqraaly reading app. (Iqraaly.com)

Whether it is the dearly held Hakawati culture or the Egyptian 1980s radio programming reading books to the public, Arabic-speaking audiences have always been keen for audio experiences and Arabic content. No wonder, technology start-ups are taking the market of Arabic audiobooks by storm.

“Audiobooks are the natural evolution of books. The immense traffic across Arab cities make audiobooks an amazing format for people seeking to read more books on the go,” said Ahmed El Malky, CEO of Iqraaly, an app that has been downloaded more than 1 million times.

There are few established audiobooks companies, either regional or European, providing professional voice recording of the regional and international literature in Arabic.

“We are only starting to scratch the surface of a sizeable 75 million user market. We estimate the current market to $5 million with 12-month rolling revenue being around the $500,000 mark,” said Tarek Bolbol, CEO of Booklava in Dubai.

With production costs of $1,600-$5,000 for a 200-page book, margins can become very appealing because production of audiobook needs to be done only once and it can be profitable through multiple subscribers. With easy access to online payments, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are the focus markets of these start-ups.

Solely relying on print book sales, many publishing houses were reluctant in the beginning. Yet, for the market to reach inflection point, more awareness needed to be created on the publishers’ side.

“Very few Arabic book publishers are investing in creating audiobook editions of their publications. For the market to reach its full potential, publishers should actively participate by producing audiobooks and distributing them through available online platforms,” said Ammar Mardawi, country manager for Sweden-based start-up Storytel Arabia.

Publishing houses are reacting to regional authors’ excitement and demands for their works to reach wider audiences.

As demand for larger book catalogues grows, particularly from digital millennials, the industry is carefully setting up its processes for choosing book titles and hiring voice-over artists.

“Classical books, modern novels, self-help and personal development are the most popular,” said Bolbol. “We make sure there is enough balance between evergreen titles such as classics and the latest best-sellers. We take book reviews, awards and our editors’ recommendation very seriously before we go onto audio production.”

To guarantee high-quality voice recordings, audio companies are creating jobs in an unexpected artistic market: professional voice over actors, radio anchors and sometimes collaborating with celebrity artists.

“Beyond having a clear narrating voice and good acting skills, the most important part is to give the right emotions and narrate with a lot of grammar accuracy. Arabs care a lot about the language,” said Palestinian Alaa Ahmed, a professional voice-over actor who developed her talent through online courses.

The language requirement is another issue because 95% of Arabic books come without parsing and many need localised relevance, including dialects used in the story. For example, a poetry book from the United Arab Emirates would need a dialectal voice from the Emirates.

To address those needs, Jordanian start-up Masmoo3 developed a one-on-one course to nurture the skills such as Arabic grammar and voice acting. It aims to provide more professional narrators with the help of sound engineers in professional recording studios.

“We do believe that there are not enough professional voice-overs to cover the whole market. Our course makes it accessible to any person working in media or art to become great voice actors,” said Ala’a Suleiman, co-founder of Masmoo3.

Start-ups are clearly trying to make a mark. “We want to make knowledge more accessible for Arabs all over the world and offer people with visual impairment an access to books,” said Bolbol.

Competition is filling up very quickly in this market with Saudi-based Dhad and the fast-paced growing Swedish Kitab Sawti.

The Arabic audiobook industry is clearly in its early stages and what might make its format popular is additional investment in production and marketing.

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