Children’s literature constitutes a very vibrant segment of the global book market. For technical and commercial reasons, publishing houses working in this field must make a big effort to keep up with the digital transition. One interesting example is Kalimat, founded in 2007 in Sharjah by Sheikha Bodour Al Qasimi. Here is our conversation with Lina Said – Software Developer at this company – and Tamer Said – Business Development Manager.
What is Kalimat?
Tamer: Kalimat Group is a young publishing Group with two imprints. We started seven years ago with the main imprint, called Kalimat, aiming to provide the Arabic children’s book market with the best books in terms of content, illustration, lay-out, design production, and a special focus on presenting the Arabic children with digital and Arabic courses. In these 7 years we achieved a lot; we have been shortlisted twice for the best publisher of the year by Bologna International Book Fair, we were also shortlisted for the best publisher by the London Book Fair this year, and we received a mention for one of our books from the Bologna Ragazzi Award. We also received many awards from the Arab World – most of our publications are included in the recommended reading list of the main organisations that focus on Children’s literature.
Four years ago, we found there was a lack of good educational supplementary materials in the Arab world, especially for the Arabic language or studying in Arabic. So we took the initiative of developing new content that can be used in schools and classrooms. We started with a project implemented in 34 schools for a couple of months and then we did an evaluation programme with sessions with the teachers and the students, we conducted surveys and more evaluations, until we decided to launch Horouf: a new imprint aimed at educational material in the Arabic language.
Because digital technology allows us to add more features to books at more cost-effective prices and with no limitation in terms of logistics, we chose to invest in technology for Horouf. We decided to offer in digital what we can’t offer in paper: we didn’t create a competition between both formats. We are aiming more at giving a big variety, a wider range of activities and practice to everyone.
And how did you envisage those first explorations within the digital world? Did you have any previous experience?
Tamer: Yes, we had our own experience with Kalimat. One third of our publications in Kalimat as an imprint were developed in e-books and apps. So we had a background in digital publishing. We also started looking for talents; people from the digital field that understand the technology. We knew what the requirements were, especially thanks to the support of my colleague Lina who joined us. After that we started looking for developers who can work with us and help us in providing truly unique materials, since we – as a publishing company – can’t do everything in-house, especially with graphics, animations, conversion and developing technology, the backing system, monitoring tools for the students and the teachers, and so on… But as for the guidelines, everything came from the in-house team.
Horouf would work as an application to produce new e-books?
Lina: Actually it’s a different thing. The application is the end product, it contains all the production that we have, but those books were produced by an authoring tool that the team developed for us – a tool to produce interactive stories. For the content of Horouf and the way that we wanted to produce it for educational use, we could not really find a solution. We implemented samples and studied which was the best option from different companies. And we ended up realizing that we needed a write-on format because it’s not really only for entertainment, we don’t believe in producing interactive books for kids just to have fun without any educational purpose.
We were facing two problems that the authoring tool finally solved: 1) text, because the text for Arabic had difficulties in EPUB at that time; and 2) graphics, because a children’s book has illustrations, colours, etc., and each illustrator has their own style of drawing, so it was difficult actually to animate them. Maybe in EPUB3 you can add video, but I think this is more for linear books: for example books about geography that have a video about geography… For children’s books it’s different: in our book fairs stands we show the tablets with Horouf application for the people to experience it, and the feedback that we get from adults is different than the feedback from children. Children look at the application in their own way. In general, some adults have a certain uncomfortable feeling when using technology; they are very systematic, and maybe it’s that accumulative experience dealing with “ah, this button should go here”. But kids easily feel comfortable in using the application, and with no effort they start clicking the buttons, and in less than one minute they find their way and understand how it is designed, how it is structured, what they want to do…
And who do you think makes the decision to get the app, is it the father or the mother or the child in the end?
Tamer: That’s a very difficult question because of how we market it: as it’s for educational purposes, we target classroom teachers and ministries of education. With the individual consumers, yes, it’s still the father and mother because ultimately they will be the ones who pay for the license. But I think we convince them by showing how their children interact with the content.
From your experience, what changes should happen in terms of technology, means of payments, marketing, etc., for the local digital publishing industry to get a boost?
Lina: Payment is one of the main issues. I think for example, Telecom companies could cooperate; and make it easier to sell books through the operators. More options would always be welcomed, because sometimes it’s hard for the parents, for the customers to get the product. We need to offer our customers all the payment options and make it easy and affordable for everyone.