Sales of academic books and other learning materials make up a multibillion dollar global industry. The field is diverse, spanning course books and reference material, peer-reviewed journals and electronic publishing.

A 2008 report in the Electronic Journal of Academic and Special Librarianship calculated that sales of scientific literature alone topped $19bn worldwide, with US companies commanding a 60 per cent share of global sales. The figure excludes sales of material covering social sciences and humanities.

In recent years, globalisation in education publishing has seen international publishing houses push beyond the mature markets of the West into emerging Asian markets. Sales to the region are dominated by those to the most populous markets such as India or China.

Middle East academic book sales

Industry sources estimate that the Middle East accounts for 2.5 per cent of all international sales by US publishers of academic, professional and reference materials. It also contributes to 7 per cent of international sales by publishers in the UK, a figure artificially inflated by onward exports of US learning and professional materials.

Arab schools rely heavily on imported material. Arabic publishing began to expand in the 1980s, but has struggled to compete against imported titles on their production quality, choice of material and their ability to build reliable distribution channels.

Strong historic ties gave British and French publishers an early advantage in selling educational material to the Middle East and North Africa (Mena). But the past two decades have seen US publishers gain ground in markets previously dominated by European publishers.

It’s critical not to treat 22 Gulf countries as a fixed bloc. There are differences of religious practice and culture

Ian Grant, Encyclopaedia Britannica

This is due to strengthening economic and political links, particularly in Mena countries where English is the second language. France now competes with Canada for sales to the countries of the Levant and Maghreb. Although cities such as Jerusalem, Cairo and Beirut are long-established centres of learning, global publishers are focusing their energies on the oil-producing GCC countries, including Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the UAE, which are increasing spending in all levels of education.

Both state and private education providers are investing heavily in academic materials. Bader Aloliwi, chief executive officer of Al-Rowad Educational Company, which runs private schools in Saudi Arabia, says his company alone spends SR1.5m ($400,000) a year on academic books and e-learning support. 

The Middle East is not an easy market to conquer, however. “Every country in the region is seeing a shift in its requirements,” says Ian Grant, managing director of education at the UK’s Encyclopaedia Britannica. “It’s critical not to treat 22 very different countries as a fixed bloc. There are significant differences of religious practice, language and culture.”

Over the past decade, international universities have set up branch campuses at Qatar Education City, Dubai Knowledge Village and Dubai International Finance Centre. Publishing companies often benefit from relationships between the international branches and the home campus – particularly from those that operate common curriculums, extending demand for books, journals and e-learning products into a new market.

“US publishers in particular have benefited from strong links between home-grown universities and new ventures in the Middle East,” says Bill Kennedy, director of the UK’s book marketing company Avicenna Partnership. “Most of the procurement will be done in the US, by the western partner.”

Price-sensitive markets in the West

Cuts to library and university budgets in the West have encouraged publishing companies to pursue emerging markets like the Middle East, where many niches are untapped.

“In the future, another growth area will be procurement of books and materials for Middle East libraries,” says Kennedy. “The region’s libraries have growing budgets to buy materials, but do not have staff resources to make the materials shelf-ready and fit film sleeves and security codes. Customers want to buy shelf-ready materials, but no one in the Middle East provides that shelf-ready service. So they still buy shelf-ready items direct from Europe or North America.”

Mena markets are also highly price-sensitive. Buyers expect to pay significantly less than the prices set in the home market.

“Publishers must be careful to price their products at a point that the market can afford,” says Kennedy. “You cannot charge Gulf countries the kinds of prices that you would charge in the US. The region supports a thriving cross-border trade in illegally imported educational materials. If you are selling at a cheaper price-point in Egypt than in the Gulf, that material may well be sold on to Saudi Arabia or the UAE.”

GCC countries are very active in introducing educational materials that [adapt] Western learning materials

Bader Aloliwi, Al-Rowad Educational Company

Publishing companies also expect new demand to come from electronic publishing tools and internet-based subscriptions. Electronic material is subject to less censorship and customs controls, but education experts say that schools and publishers must ensure that products are appropriate.

“If a school or college wants [a product], there’ll always be someone willing to sell it to them,” says Natasha Ridge, executive director of the UAE’s Al-Qasimi Foundation. “It does not matter how appropriate the product is to meeting practical education needs.

“But studies show that technology in itself does not improve education quality anywhere in the world. There is no relationship between student use of technology in the classroom and academic achievement.

“Without good quality teaching, e-learning and other technologies are a gimmick. We are training teachers to use technology to engage with the students. Technology is useful as part of a student-centred approach.”

Electronic classroom training in the UAE

Al-Qasimi runs an open course for public and private school teachers, showing them how to use technology to make classes more interesting. It aims to familiarise teachers with the technologies that students use.

Encyclopaedia Britannica takes a similar approach, focusing on how best to deliver electronic learning materials into regional schools, colleges and homes. “We offer delivery training within the market on ways to develop the electronic classroom,” says Grant. “When we complete that training, we see an improvement in our usage statistics.

“Distance and online learning works in part, but not as well as teaching with a personal touch that comes from training a group of teachers or a classroom of students. That’s when the benefits of electronic learning become clear. Language skills are important too. We find it’s necessary to have both English and Arabic visible in the material.”

Historically, the flow of published academic material has been West to East, in a market dominated by the US, Canada and Europe. But that may soon change. A 2010 study by Canadian research body Science-Metrix shows that since the 1980s, Asian countries have generated a growing proportion of the world’s scientific output.

Science-Metrix reports that Asia’s share of scientific material has increased 155 per cent over the past 30 years. In 2009, Asia generated more new scientific material than North America for the first time. This growth was concentrated in China, whose scientific output grew five times faster than that of the US. China will match the US’ output by 2015.

After three decades of investment in primary, secondary and tertiary education, governments across the Middle East see research and development as their next target. Qatar and Abu Dhabi in particular plan to develop home-grown centres of research excellence at Qatar Education City, HEC Qatar and at the UAE branch of the Sorbonne university.

Home-grown research and development will help Arabic countries emulate the successes of neighbouring Iran and Turkey. Driven by these two countries, the Middle East has increased its scientific output nearly four times faster than the world average, reports Science-Metrix. It singles out the Middle East as a region to watch.

In 1980, the world’s scientists produced 450,000 papers. This increased to 1.5 million papers in 2009. Today, Europe produces more than a third of the world’s scientific material, followed by Asia at 29 per cent and North America at 28 per cent.

Iran increased its scientific output 11 times faster than the world average and Turkey 5.5 times faster in the past 30 years. Science-Metrix attributes Iran’s growth to research programmes that support the country’s nuclear ambitions. However, it concedes that the country has also become a centre of excellence in public health research.

Other regional countries achieving strong growth in scientific output included the UAE and Oman. However, Science-Metrix found that Saudi Arabia and Iraq increased their output more slowly than the world average over the past three decades, and that research was “at a standstill” in Bahrain, Kuwait and Egypt.

Continued education materials imports

The immaturity of the region’s education sector means that Arab countries will continue to import learning materials for schools and colleges, at least in the near term. Encyclopaedia Britannica increased its regional sales by 40 per cent last year. While the UAE is the firm’s largest market, Grant says that Saudi Arabia is generating the most new demand.

The GCC may be a small market in global terms, but it offers continued growth and healthy profits for global academic publishers, particularly now as regional governments are reforming school curriculums.

“GCC countries are very active in introducing learning materials,” says Aloliwi. “However, the most noticeable efforts are those that [adapt] Western learning materials.”

The Arab uprisings could shape future demand too, according to Grant.

“Demand is driven by countries’ efforts to build quality and capacity in education, and by the desire to grow and improve,” he says. “Many are opening up to the outside world. This process may accelerate due to the huge political gales that have blown across the Arabic-speaking countries this year.

“Political change may well affect the timbre of educational activity in the future. New political awareness and the desire for economic independence will affect the way that we need to approach the region’s teaching and learning needs over time.”