Digital Library Offers Access to Armenian Ebooks and Audiobooks
Digital Library Offers Free and Subscription Based Access to Armenian Ebooks and Audiobooks
By Sosy Mishoyan Dabbaghaian
Mardig Tcholakian is the co-founder of VLUME, a digital library that offers free and subscription based access to ebooks and audiobooks. He is also on the board of TechnoLinguistics, an Armenia-based Non-profit focused on publishing Armenian ebooks and audiobooks.
- VLUME is already two-year old, and I know that significant work has been done to digitize Armenian literature. Readers are able to read and listen to Armenian ebooks and audiobooks on their phones and tablets. How did you conceive the idea of such an initiative and what did it take to bring it to life?
VLUME is a response to a dire need we Armenians have had for decades now. While the world has been living through an age of rapid innovations and disruptions like never before and generally enjoying the benefits of technology and information, groups that didn’t invest enough to keep pace with innovation have suffered and lost significant audience to major shifts across social, cultural and educational norms. In the publishing sector, for example, online platforms such as Amazon, Apple and Google promote millions of titles readily available worldwide. This dramatic shift granted global readers, including Armenians, the privilege of access to vast amounts of information and entertainment. In comparison to that, access to Armenian titles remains inherently difficult: I can speak for the diaspora where our books are out of circulation, our bookstores are in extinction, we are unaware of any upcoming authors or best sellers, and if we are writing our next novel, it is not in Armenian.
Armenian literature, and the ability to read in Armenian, is an important part of our identity. I was fortunate to meet like-minded professionals in the Diaspora, who understood the graveness of the risk ahead and what it meant for generations to come. While we had a strong passion to make a difference, we were also keen on staying objective. We started our journey by doing market research to learn from similar undertakings, conducting surveys to probe the status quo globally and understand the needs of the readers. We built new partnerships that would bring distinct capabilities into the new ecosystem we were developing. Our strategy is to create a single hub for exchanging quality literature by bringing together Armenian readers (of both branches: eastern and western) with authors and publishers, and offer each of these parties tools for better experience, further innovation and scale. This allows us to switch quickly from a survival mode into a space where everyone thrives.
- The platform is unique in the sense that it is custom-made to host Armenian books and allows the readers to easily find and read new titles. How does the selection of books take place? And how well does the existing catalog satisfy the needs of the reader?
VLUME is a technology company that innovates using the cloud and information sciences to inspire generations through reading and storytelling. To achieve this impact we need digital content, i.e. ebooks and audiobooks. As it was rare to find established Armenian publishers experienced in digital publication in both branched of Armenian (eastern and western), a separate publishing entity was established.
TechnoLinguistics based in Yerevan is dedicated to adopting best practices in digital publication to create Armenian audiobooks and ebooks in scale. Organization’s main focus has been digitizing public domain titles and packaging them with newly designed covers that would attract a new generation of readers. With no market intelligence on what titles are most popular, we initially aimed at developing a representative library of titles offered in schools across age groups and language branches. With the release of VLUME, each participating publisher, including TechnoLinguistics, will have access to readership trends in terms of most read genres and styles, and this intelligence will hopefully become a significant tool for making future informed selections.
- How many books on average are published in a year, and what kind of feedback does the platform receive from the public?
Since VLUME is a literature distribution platform and not a publishing house, our goal from the start was to work with all publishers to drive large number of quality content on VLUME and offer publishers an alternative market. To achieve this goal, we spent a lot of time and resources to define a solid and scalable engagement model with publishers that was first tested with TechnoLinguistics. Today we are happy to announce that we have signed up 6 major publishers, 4 of them from Armenia. Starting from March 2019, we will start announcing these partnerships and their titles.
Our user base is increasing every day, and it is very exciting to watch the traffic coming from all regions, including Armenia, Middle East, Americas and Europe. Since some of our books require the users to buy a monthly membership ($6/month on Android and $8/month on iOS), there has been feedback on making all the books available for free. I will take the opportunity here and clarify that TechnoLinguistics has made hundreds of its published ebooks available for free. I’m certain that other publishers will follow suit with some of their content as well. Having said that, it will be expected from us as the platform and the readers to create economic value for participating authors, narrators and publishers for them to continue innovating and producing valuable content. This is why some of the books will require membership payments. Separately we are also working on creating partnerships with schools and institutions to offer free access to their students and members.
- What challenges did you face in the process?
Given the transformational nature of the project, challenges were inevitable and complex. Quality user experience and the use of information sciences being at the core of our strategy, VLUME had to make significant upfront multi-year investments in building scalable solution and developing technology partnerships. Today, we manage a multi-cloud globally available media-distribution system that enables modern reading experience and give us a significant advantage to respond to market needs quickly with new and exciting features.
On the publication front, TechnoLinguistics has an ambitious roadmap to make every book ever published available in digital format. Given organization’s unique systematic approach and aggressive timelines, some of these key projects have enjoyed sponsorships from Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation and The BRIDGE for CSOs implemented by Armenian General Benevolent Union and financed by the European Union. Today, TechnoLinguistics enjoys one of the largest and growing networks of professionals who contribute independently and remotely through technology-backed platforms to publish hundreds of ebooks and audiobooks every year.
Needless to say, key challenges remain. For decades, this sector has survived mainly through grants, benevolence, and due to the selfless devotion of publishing houses and authors. Given the new challenges introduced by globalization and technology, these efforts won’t be sufficient to promote a growing Armenian readership. Having said that, lately we have been observing a few healthy trends – mainly in Armenia – such as expansion of bookstores and skilled social marketing. There has also been some attempts to create ebooks and audiobooks, but unfortunately valuable content doesn’t often find its way to the Armenian reader. We believe this is because of a lack of a single, secure, unbiased hub that would promote these titles and amplify readership. VLUME has a significant role to play in this space and is equipped with a solid infrastructure, talent and strategy to serve this goal. Nevertheless, the goal to create a true marketplace for Armenian literature remains a daunting task, as it requires us to invest in our partners, raise awareness in Armenia and across diasporan regions, and constantly compete with new waves of innovative offerings. This is about true partnerships and a shared responsibility.
- What do you think about the future of the paper publishing: will it coexist with the digital publishing or vanish over time? What are the benefits of digital books?
This has been a key question for this industry for some time, and I believe we are seeing a convergence in the past few years in mature markets such as the US. Historically, the launch of the internet and lately the rise of the personal electronics have had a major role in the progress made in the digital books industry. Project Gutenberg that was launched in 1971 to digitize cultural works arguably set the course for the era of the ebooks. In the 1990’s we saw Adobe create PDF self-contained format to allow reading ebooks on any device, and later Sony launched the first personal ereader device with Data Discman in 1992. The digital publication market didn’t realize its full potential until end of 2000s with the introduction of the first Kindle and the adoption of Epub as an industry-standard for ebook distribution. In 2013, PwC estimated that by 2017 the total sales of ebooks would surpass the total sales of print books. At the time, this made sense. An ebook publication was far cheaper than the print, majority of emerging (indie) authors were self-publishing strictly digital and getting rewarded with profits. Readers on the other hand were fascinated by personal electronics, including ereaders, tablets and smartphones. However, the reality defied all market forecasts… Growth rate for the sector stalled for a period, pointing to evidence that consumers may be tired of digital media texts and that many continue to consume printed material. Having said that, publishing sector is in decline as a whole with the rise of other digital entertainment channels such as social media, games and video/music content. Given the educational and social benefits of reading, many schools and educational institutions (and governments), are becoming more and more focused on adopting digital content and developing new techniques to raise awareness and engage readers. In the Armenian reality, the non-existence of digital literature is unexplainable. Printed books will not lose their charm for readers. But given the global diaspora, a new digital generation, and the two-branch dilemma of our language we need a solid digital strategy to promote Armenian literature and complement the printed book sales by creating a healthy alternative market. As we like to say at VLUME, we need to thrive, not merely survive! And we intend to do just that.
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