Please tell us about how you ended up in the ebook business.
My first “accidental” ebook encounter was in 2003. Through experimenting, I wanted to replicate the creative ebook- turning effect that has been widely adopted today, and I became among the first developers to develop the algorithm for it using flash technology. That was the cornerstone, that made me start a website called flash-ebook.com which served clients by manually developing interactive ebooks for them, mainly in the marketing field. The flash-ebook technology I created had been used by a number of companies including a major cellphone company (non-disclosed) to display its online and offline user manuals. In 2008, I joined The Book Depository (acquired now by Amazon), to lead the flash development team into building an online interactive designer for a self-publishing system to create your books and cover designs on the fly. This consecutively led me to manage Media and User Experience for all book projects for the Egypt branches. That job set my foot into the book/publishing business, and establish BookBake – a memento of flash-ebook, but as a do-it-yourself (DIY) tool with an interesting set of features.
Did you notice a problem in the market that led you to create BookBake?
Although we are in a very competitive arena, we knew some problems existing with similar tools serving the market. The first problem mainly revolves around user experience with the end-product: the standalone ebook. It's undesirable to have the reader waiting too long for pages to load, or irritated with heavy processing on his browser or machine. The second problem is branding: most tools out there provide cookie-cutter solutions. Branding does not mean just throwing your logo in with a web link; it's much deeper than that.
BookBake gives the creator the flexibility to customize the entire user experience (layout, design, interaction) as he/she sees fit. Also, the user is not obliged to host on our servers, but is given a set of files that he may use as he wishes. He is given the choice to export his ebook as a web application, desktop application (windows & mac), or a native Android app. The third problem is the Arabic market, a primary interest for us since we are residing in Egypt. Most ebook technologies and tools out there do not support Arabic or right-to-left languages. It was among our motives to turn BookBake into a pioneer for Arabic interactive ebooks.
How does BookBake help with those involved in the ebook market and what kind of customers have you dealt with?
Authors continuously need exposure for their writings and launch small-scale events to promote those writings. Using BookBake, excerpts from their book are created in a beautiful interactive way, fully themed to their image, and distributed in these events on USBs or mini CDs. This has been one of the uses. Others prefer to show an excerpt of the book on their author or book website. The idea is accessibility, the book in an instant is there available for preview, either in the browser or launched on the desktop, without having the readers do any sophisticated preparations. Of course, authors of “free” books happen to convert the entire book and gift them to their followers. We've also been dealing with children story writers. Since children storybooks are commonly populated with rich and colorful pictures, portraying this story book digitally in a similarly rich and fun manner is engaging for the children. It can also be taken a step ahead of that and add audio effects and voice-over narrations for certain text parts of the storybook – this is supported in BookBake.
Among our important customers as well are marketing companies and departments, that want to display their brochures, reports, documents in a nice digital manner, portraying their company's image. Although this is considered to be outside the ebook market, the marketing sector is very concerned with company brand and image. Hence a solution like BookBake which can let them customize and theme the user experience as they see fit, goes hand in hand with their objectives. Luckily, the marketing sector has deep pockets!
What solutions were you hoping to offer by creating BookBake?
I believe we have reached our hopes of offering a tool to flexibly create your own ebook user experience. But among the solutions we hoped to offer was to provide full Arabic compatibility in the ebooks. There is approximately 200 million Arabic language speakers in the world today, where Arabic is ranked 5th top spoken language in the world, coming right after English, the 4th top spoken language. Nonetheless, we are still struggling as engineers to find adoption of this language in software. Arabic language is a challenge, no one can deny, especially its right-to-left navigation. This was our priority to solve, by removing any obstacles for the user, that can interfere with Arabic language, and we got there! We are planning for the next problems to solve, such as providing a reliable digital rights management (DRM) system for standalone ebooks (that do not rely on an ebook reading application), such that publishers can sell those ebooks while protect them from illegal copy.
Was there any specific problems you had to deal with, regarding the ebook market in your part of the world that the U.S. didn't have to?
Unfortunately, there is still lack of trust towards ebooks and ePublishing here in this part of the world. Mainstream publishers are already struggling to cover their expenses, for different reasons. Reading is not a very common habit in third world countries, since there are basic needs that come first on the list. This is relatively speaking of course. There are active readers, but incomparable to the large population of the country. Another important factor is the threat of copyright infringement; governments are doing a poor job in protecting copyrights, allowing books to be easily copied and shared. To the extent that books can even be published without having an ISBN. Major book publishers are still skeptic of the idea. The fear of change is more dominating. There is potential but is being held back because of those secondary reasons. So when we speak about ebooks here, you can imagine the amount of sweat it takes to convince someone.
How did you first hear about 1DollarScan?
I heard about 1DollarScan through an online magazine, Publishing Perspectives.
Why did you approach 1DollarScan?
I found what 1DollarScan is doing is an incredible idea, and was mind blown as to how they're able to cut their costs to sell 100 pages for just $1. Secrets of the trade, really! I wanted to introduce myself to the mastermind behind 1DollarScan, Hiroshi, and discover possibilities as to how such a business model can be jointly applied to the Arab market. Since we are in this business, we do get customers that only have hardcopy versions of their books/publications and need to scan them first. In such cases we would pass that task to a photocopy center, but the scanning price would be intermediate and the quality not best. We know that there is demand here for a service such as 1DollarScan.
What kind of future do you predict for the ebook market?
The ebook market is rising in the Arab region, but extremely slowly. Thanks to the rise of tablets, there is now greater awareness of ebooks and its market, than was seen two years ago. It is a matter of trust, and once major book publishers in the region start moving on to ebooks, the rest will follow. As for the international ebook market, it is unpredictable at the moment, but I do not see hardcopy books dying anytime soon; they will always have their audience, even among youngsters. But I may predict that rich in-page interaction is the hot topic that will be in the spotlight the coming decade.
In what ways do you feel that companies like BookBake and 1DollarScan can help self-publishers and authors as well as expand the ebook market?
BookBake and 1DollarScan are complimentary services. They sequentially come after each other in the self-publishing workflow, where 1DollarScan supersedes. Users who scan their hardcopy books via 1DollarScan, can then build a rich interactive user experience through BookBake, using the PDF received from 1DollarScan. There are many other services like us, and middle-tier agents. If those companies work as affiliates hand in hand to increase the accessibility of services to the user, this can no doubt expand the ebook market by encouraging and speeding up the ePublishing workflow.