Surprising as you might find it, despite the high percentage of readers and the great popularity of books among Hebrew speakers, there are no e-Books in Hebrew (He-Books). At least there were none until recently. It is rather incredible with Israelis known as gadget lovers and technology early adopters but that’s how it is.
You can see a few Sony e-readers here and there, with people reading English and Russian. I personally know about two or three Kindles that immigrated to the holy land. A group of MA graduates started to import the eSlick Reader and the Ukrainian PocketBook Reader is popular among Russian speakers. But content in Hebrew – nada! There are a few exceptions like some religious content as iPhone applications and even for Palm and Windows Mobile. However, nothing like commercially available fiction novels, non-fiction, poetry, best sellers or long tail. Free e-Books, highly priced or low priced ones, price wars, format wars, intentions to dominate the market? Nothing of the sort. The market is yet to be created.
But now all this belongs to the past. Our store and project, named “Mendele Mocher-Sfarim Bareshet” (Hebrew for “Mendele the Book-Seller on the Net”) after the pseudonym of Sholem Yakov Abramovich, one of the founders of modern Hebrew literature, is on the air for a couple of months now and provides, for the first time ever, Hebrew e-Books (He-Books) , strictly compliant with the IDPF ePub standard.
There are several free He-Books. Others, priced by the publishers, range from $6 to $9 approximately and one can download a free sample that includes a few chapters of each and every one of the He-Books.
Now don’t think it was easy. None of the ways you are familiar with to covert PDF to ePub works for Hebrew. What’s more, given no Hebrew ePub books in existence, no device or software vendor even pretended to support them. What comes first than? The chicken or the egg?
All PDF to ePub and PDF to HTML converters we could find gave terrible results. From outputting gibberish to showing LTR instead of RTL in various creative mixtures. Even InDesign’s results are not acceptable.
On the other hand, as a team, we have significant experience working with international standards. We were involved in digitizing the printing and publishing industry for many years including in the creation and improvement of the JDF and AdSML standards. So, we dived into the information available and started building our own procedure. It took us about a year to be able to produce high quality ePub files from ready to print PDFs (the most common input we currently get) within a repetitive predictable commercially viable procedure.
Of course we created standard compliant Hebrew ePub files long before that and looked for a manner to read them. How disappointed we were to learn that when a device or software manufacturer declares that they “support ePub” it does not necessarily mean that they fully support every aspect of the standard. ADE – Adobe Digital Editions does not even access Hebrew fonts present in the OS (be it OS X or Windows). As a result, all you see are question marks. If a Hebrew font is embedded in the ePub file, ADE shows the text but ignores RTL direction and right alignment so the text appears unreadable. The letters within the words are the other way around. And when we asked, Adobe replied that RTL is not on their road map and they have no knowledge of when it will be. With Sony reader the phenomena is similar (only that we did not get this reply). And these are two of the greatest ePub supporters.
Salvation came from the best reading software in the world. Although Lexcycle specify clearly “no RTL support”, Stanza for iPhone does read Hebrew ePub files and it does it beautifully. We still had to improve our files for that, but hey, that is what we are here for. One slight problem did exist at the time. The iPhone was not sold officially in Israel. Estimations mentioned up to 100,000 jail-broken unlocked devices but that is really a very small number to find a whole market of a reading public in. We however, proceeded and still do with the idea that as ePub is by now the declared and the De-Facto standard, we will see more and more devices supporting ePub to a fuller extent.
Meanwhile, by the time we launched our site, Apple signed with the three major cellular providers in Israel. The information published about those deals indicates that we can expect close to a million iPhones sold within the next three years. In Israeli terms this is a huge number. Some of those iPhone buyers, I hope, will be book lovers.
Right now our Hebrew ePub He-Books have been tested successfully with:
Apple iPhone and iPod Touch using Stanza
PocketBook 360, 301, 302
Windows using FBReader, Azardi, Calibre
Mac OS X using Calibre
Linux using FBReader
Windows, Mac OS X and Linux using Firefox with EPUBReader Add-On.
Expected soon on:
Apple iPad using Stanza
Android devices using Aldiko
Android devices using EPUBReader for Firefox Mobile
Windows Mobile devices using EPUBReader for Firefox Mobile
Maemo devices (N810, N900) using EPUBReader for Firefox Mobile
We use Social-DRM with our He-Books. Every He-Book is personally created for the specific buyer, on the fly, once the payment transaction is approved (including if the purchase sum is 0$ for free He-Books). A nice personal Ex-Libris stamp is added to the He-Book along with some hidden data. While we do take care to get the buyer’s awareness and consent for the publisher’s peace of mind, we really see the Ex-Libris stamp more as an attractive personalization feature which will grow even more personal in the future. We all know that there is no DRM which is not breakable. The real intellectual property protection is and always was composed of three factors: ease of purchase; ease of use; a fair price. We believe we are within range with these factors and we are constantly working to improve them.
We are still advancing slowly in getting books in. Digital publishing rights are an issue. Everyone is just learning how to handle this and while there is some buzz around e-books, there is still a long way to go.
Perhaps the best sign that we are on the right track is that competition is coming along. We expect a new major player to rock the local He-Books market soon. Don’t ask me how soon is soon. I hear that for several months already. I guess we’ll have kind of our own little ‘Amazon’ to compete with… the He-Books market is finally becoming very interesting. 2010, it is about time it would… and by the way, investors are welcome. Growth potential is huge. Some growth directions are obvious. Others, are obviously not for this space.