Dubai: When they launched the business, the promoters of Kitab Sawti weren’t only focused on scripting a success story. They had to convince enough Arabs out there to take up reading as a hobby … or by extension, start listening to audio books in their language.
Now, the Gulf and Middle East are not exactly known for a flourishing publishing industry where new titles hit the shelves consistently. At best, these markets see about 700-odd new books getting released. Not just that, reading — or in this case, listening to audio — books isn’t exactly a top hobby among the target audience.
But three years and a claimed one million registered users later, Kitab Sawti and its app could be turning the page to a new chapter in its own performance. It raised $6 million (Dh22.02 million) via a Series A round last month.
“It was early 2017 we went live with the app and launched in the UAE and Saudi Arabia last year,” said Hamzeh Al Fuqha, Regional Manager and Chief Content Officer. “Yes, audio books are not as mainstream as music of the web streaming kind. It’s a fact.
“What we hope to do is help Arabic users build that habit as they go. But once they are hooked onto the content, that’s it. We have started to see high retention rates among our core users.”
For any audio book company anywhere, the touchstone remains Audible, which is now part of the Amazon family. But Al Fuqha insists that Kitab Sawti’s business model isn’t a replica of Audible.
“We do subscriptions like them, but we offer them even on weekly and monthly basis,” he added. “And we will be rolling out daily subscriptions as well. Unlike Audible, a user gets to access and hear the entire library during the subscription period unlike the one-book per credit model Audible operates on.
“Uses need to a chance to explore what they like first. We opted to do it this way is because the reading habit is not fully formed. An evolution needs to happen and even with the business model itself. We could change it, but that’s not happening right now.” (A weekly subscription comes to $5, and $80 would fetch one for a year.) As is to be expected, the Kitab Sawti doesn’t just rely on Arabic language books published in the region for its library. Listener tastes can be quite eclectic, which is why you will find translations of best-selling authors such as Dan Brown and Stephen Covey in it, as is Mark Manson of “The Subtle Art…”. Another author doing well is the Nobel winner, Kazuo Ishiguro, and author of the poignant “Never Let Me Go” and “Remains of the Day”.
But aren’t daily subscriptions stretching things too far? “I don’t think so … on just about every service, there are daily subscriptions available,” said Al Fuqha. “In a market like Egypt, it is definitely the way to go.”
As the user base builds up for audio books in Arabic, the publishing industry and authors from within the region could provide more exclusive content for these platforms. This is the case with Audible, with some writers exclusively releasing an audio-only version.
“Even here, publishers will be incentivised to produce more, and authors have more ways to monetise their content than they had before,” he added. “For now, we are producing more “originals”, based on trends we see and user behaviour.”
That meant bringing out a short form “horror-thriller” by the Egyptian author Hassan Al Jundi, as well as summaries from best-selling self-help titles and business themed books from around the world. There is also a non-fiction series taking up “taboo” issues women discuss anonymously in Facebook groups.
On plans for the longer term, Al Fuqha makes one point clear enough — “We are not building this business with the aim to exit or merge. In the short term, we are exploring possibilities to list Arabic magazines to the library. There are gaps that we could end up filling.”
Hitting the right notes
One wouldn’t be faulted for thinking that Kitab Sawti’s core listener base would be made up of an older demographic. Certainly not 18 and 38 year olds.
But Hamzeh Al Fuqha confirms that twenty- and thirty somethings represent the biggest chunk. “It’s also more difficult to create content for them, because they prefer the short form,” he said.