Abu Dhabi hosts virtual roundtable discussion on the future of e-books

The Department of Culture and Tourism – Abu Dhabi’s (DCT Abu Dhabi) hosted a virtual roundtable discussion yesterday evening on the future of e-books. The discussion featured notable industry professionals and international experts.

Session participants included Seham Abdulla Al Hosani, e-Publishing Manager at DCT Abu Dhabi; Octavio Kulesz, an Argentinian publisher and UNESCO expert in digital creativity and artificial intelligence; Steven Rosato, Manager of OverDrive Professional, the largest electronic resource distribution company worldwide; Giacomo D’Angelo, CEO of StreetLib,  a global gateway distribution platform for e-publishing; and Julia Balogh, Head of Foreign Rights at Austrian publishing house Ueberreuter Verlag GmbH. The discussion was moderated by Salah Chebaro, General Director of Thaqafa and Founder and CEO of Neelwafurat, one of the largest online sales platforms for Arabic books.

Saeed Hamdan Al Tunaiji, Publishing Director, at the Department of Culture and Tourism – Abu Dhabi said: “E-books has witnessed tremendous growth even before the spread of Coronavirus, especially among young people, because it is the easiest way to reach the public around the world. The Department of Culture and Tourism – Abu Dhabi is especially focused digitalisation and artificial intelligence because of the great role they play in the process of exploring the future of knowledge. They also enable us to develop the frameworks for creativity and innovation, by focusing on traditional print publishing and also e-publishing, including audio books. “

Seham Abdulla Al Hosani kicked off the conversation with a recap of the impact of the pandemic on e-readership, noting the 10% increase in sales of e-books around the world due to lockdown measures. She added that DCT Abu Dhabi is playing an important role in supporting students across the UAE during the current period of distance learning, by providing free access to educational content on its platforms. This is in addition to establishing partnerships to increase access to its published content on other online platforms.

Octavio Kulesz said that the publishing sector has witnessed many acts of global support for bookstores, which are currently struggling. He explained that through his work with UNESCO, he came to realise the dual nature of the book industry: that books have economic aspects, as well as the better known cultural, educational, and human values. He stressed the importance of ensuring the survival of bookstores by maintaining a healthy ecosystem within the publishing industry, while expanding the production of high-value electronic content in parallel – a dual ‘protect and promote’ strategy.

Steven Rosato explained that the Abu Dhabi and Sharjah public libraries are using the OverDrive platform, a service allowing members to borrow digital content from anywhere and at any time, and that these institutions are having to work hard to keep up with the sudden increase in demand for digital books. Rosato confirmed the sense of global solidarity within the industry that Kulesz touched on, as many publishers have made popular book titles available for free over the past few months. He remarked that sales of e-books through platforms managed by OverDrive increased by 30% during the first week of lockdown, while the sales of children’s books soared by 65% during the same period.

Julia Balogh flagged that publishing houses around the world deliberately set the pricing of e-books very close to the pricing of printed books, so that they do not compete on cost. Other considerations such as flexibility, ability to download and share among various devices, and interactive features become the determining factors for choosing one over the other.

All participants agreed that this spike in demand for e-books is here to stay, and that this phenomenon can be dealt with as a new reality, as the lockdown period has initiated changes in reading habits that are not easily reversed. If anything, technological breakthroughs such as the applications of artificial intelligence and 5G technology are all factors that support the expansion of the e-publishing sector in the future. One potential downside is the likely dominance of major publishing houses in the global market, which may negatively affect the diversity of content available online.

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