Tarek El Bolbol is used to being the lone voice in a crowd.
The Lebanese-Canadian entrepreneur was at the world’s largest publishing industry gathering at the weekend, the Frankfurt Book Fair, to discuss the steady growth of his Dubai-based online audiobook platform Booklava, and the commercial potential of audiobooks in the region.
Speaking exclusively to The National after his address – part of the fair's in-house conference dedicated to audiobooks – Bolbol says he has mixed feelings.He is elated to have been invited to speak at such a prestigious event, but he also laments the lack of regional publishers taking part in the audiobook conference.
“Not one Arabic publisher was there, and we are talking about the next big thing in the publishing world. The sales of audiobooks are increasing around the world and we are not part of that conversation,” he says.
“But I am glad I was there to say that there is a growing appetite for audiobooks in the Arab world and we are servicing that.”
Audio versions of works by Khalil Jibran and Ibrahim Nasrallah
Since its online launch more than a year ago, and with a mobile app, Booklava has steadily progressed as a producer of a growing choice of Arabic audiobooks, both from regional authors and translations of international works.
Scan through the Booklava app, after signing in with your email address, Facebook or LinkedIn accounts, and you will find more than 200 Arabic audiobooks professionally produced by the company through its main recording studios in Lebanon. Titles are released regularly, some read by professional voice actors and others by the authors themselves.
Titles include classic works such of The Prophet and Broken Wings by Khalil Gibran, as well as a self-narrated poetry collection by Palestinian writer Ibrahim Nasrallah. There are also a few audio translations of foreign works by esteemed sci-fi authors such as Isaac Asimov (Youth) and Stanley Weinbaum's A Martian Odyssey.
Expect more movement on the latter, Bolbol says, as Booklava recently reached agreements with a group of United States publishers, including the heavyweight HarperCollins, to distribute its English audiobooks on the platform. Abu Dhabi company, Haykal Media has also partnered with Booklava for audio editions of Arab versions of the Harvard Business Review, MIT Technology Review and Popular Science.
Wading into untested waters
It is these kinds of strides that are making Booklava such a trailblazing enterprise in the region, in addition to earning Bolbol plaudits in the UAE and abroad.
Booklava was involved in the Arab Conference at Harvard University last year, earmarked as one of 10 promising start-ups founded by Arab entrepreneurs. It was also shortlisted by the Arabian Business Start-up Awards, while Bolbol was selected as an Arab Youth Pioneer by the Prime Minister’s office of the UAE and the Arab Youth Centre.
But the progress came with its own challenges, the biggest of which was entering such an untested field. At present, there are a small number of online companies engaged in Arabic audiobook production and distribution, including the Dubai's Masmoou.com, launched by the Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum Knowledge Foundation (which was also present at the Frankfurt Book Fair) and Swedish companies Kitab Sawti and Storytel.
Bolbol wasn't motivated by financial reward. The small company at the In5 start-up incubator in Dubai Media City has fewer than 20 full-time and part-time employees and is earning a far cry from his comfortable salary as a globetrotting tech expert for a range of international companies. While he enjoyed the exciting lifestyle, Bolbol admits he was unsatisfied with the direction of his working life. "I think a lot of people go through this, where they get to a stage in life where they ask what their purpose is," he says.
“I remember when I first came to Dubai nearly four years ago. I started a business and that didn’t work out and I was asking myself that question. I realised that, ultimately, I wanted to spread knowledge and I can use technology for that.”
That insight was also laced with the angst of a frustrated reader.
Ironically, it was all the time he spent flying to meetings that triggered his love for audiobooks. He recalls it being a better alternative to the entertainment provided by some of the major airlines.
"Look, not everyone is Etihad or Emirates," he says with a laugh. "I remembered my friend introducing me to the audiobooks of Stephen Covey's The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People and Dale Carnegie's How to Win Friends and Influence People about seven years ago, and they were so well produced I was totally engrossed by them on the flight. It made me realise that we can do this for an Arabic market."
Inspired by finding an idea that finally aligned with his personal mission, Bolbol spent the next few months studying the regional market. "That was an interesting experience. I spoke to a lot of Arabic publishers. They tell me that they are struggling with the printed version of books. Forget the lack of people reading in the region, but what these publishers face is this issue of borders and each country has its own of set of laws. Yes, we are one big region but in reality we are fragmented," he says. "So in that sense, the online world is a natural player. On top of that you also have 50 million Arabs living in a diaspora that we can easily reach through online."
While audiobook sales rose by 22.7 per cent last year, to an estimated US$2.5 billion (Dh9.18) in sales according to the Audio Publishers Association, Bolbol is optimistic that wave will eventually wash over the region.
Audio books are perfect for Arab lifestyles
He says the communal nature of Arab societies means that less time is being spent on reading, and audiobooks could help those pressed for time. “Our lifestyles are different and we place a lot of value in relationships,” he says. “When I was living in Lausanne in Switzerland, a lot more people were reading books because they actually had free time. My European colleagues told me how they envied the fact that we, as Arabs, can go outside and meet friends in the middle of the week because that concept was foreign to them. I then realised how we value that bonding time and how it was important to us to maintain ties and not feel lonely.
“That’s why it is hard to tell an Arab person, in my opinion, that you should replace two hours of your day from spending time with family or friends with reading. That’s an uphill struggle. But if you can give them that content while they are on the go, then they have no excuse.”
And judging by the steady sales of Arabic audiobooks, Bolbol’s hunch is becoming increasingly correct. “You know, I had a customer tell me that he listens to audiobooks while he has his shisha,” he says, with a laugh. “At least he is listening to a book, that’s what I am happy about.”
Another aspect that's extremely gratifying is the response to Booklava from the Arab diaspora. A large proportion of them are similar to Bolbol in that their Arabic reading skills are not as strong as their conversational skills. "This is something that I have encountered a lot from many people who live abroad," he says. "They find reading Arabic is not as enjoyable as listening to it.
“At least now they can also get access to all these great works from our culture and enjoy and be proud of it. That is ultimately one of my main personal and professional goals.”