Home > Book trade > Book Trade; eBook debate – a view from Singapore

Book Trade; eBook debate – a view from Singapore

Next week the global book trade will gather in London for the annual London Book Fair. Once again, the ongoing eBook debate will dominate both the trade agenda and the fair programme.

The burning question continues to be, amongst all the hype and speculation, what will happen to physical book sales in the light of the widely predicted digital onslaught? Opinions range wildly from ‘Do nothing; we’ve seen this kind of thing before’ to ‘Get out quickly whilst you are still able to salvage something of value’. Is this truly a ‘Caxton’ moment or will life carry on much as it has before?

 As I write this, I’m in Singapore, probably one of the most wired societies on the planet. The answer to the question here seems to be that there is no discernable impact yet on sales, which to my mind is mildly surprising. Even the mighty Amazon has only a limited Asian presence (although there is an Amazon Japanese site). Singaporeans, if they use Amazon, log on via the UK or American sites.

I met with a significant general market distributor and they reported seeing no real impact on their business. Even Borders troubles here are put down to poor chain management rather than sales being siphoned away through digital stealth. I therefore conclude that, as in the rest of the world, no-one really knows quite what is going on although it seems clear to most in the wider trade that something pretty significant is beginning to stir in the undergrowth!

What is abundantly clear, however, is that all sections of the trade have their own particular fears and are watching the developing situation incredibly closely, leading to some sharply divergent views; 

  • Retailers – seeing their business disappearing online and wonder where it’s all going to end
  • Publishers – scrambling to find a viable rights and pricing model as authors potentially disappear from view hand-in-hand with online retailers
  • Distributors – wondering if they will be cut out of the action all together
  • Authors – either upset by inferior internet royalties or sensing new opportunities to cut out the publisher and self-publish via the big internet players such as Amazon

Back in February, the International Publishers Association (IPA) asked its various members for their views on their own embryonic eBook markets. These findings, widely reported at the time in the trade press, are worth summarising;

  •  The proliferation of smart phones and tablet computers (such as the iPad) is radically fuelling the eBook market as millions of these devices cry out for content
  • Amazon.com’s eBook sales were recently reported as surpassing their print unit sales
  • Most reference and academic journal publishing has already largely migrated online
  • USA newspapers have started to incorporate eBook sales into their regular bestseller lists
  • The UK e-market is around 18 months behind the USA – but the gap is fast shrinking
  • Amazon, Apple and Google exhibit every sign of becoming ePublishing competitors!
  • The existing copyright and territorial rights are not always relevant to the digital environment
  • The new model significantly challenges territorial marketing as eBooks are effectively global in reach
  • The proliferation and ease of digital piracy and file sharing is a major worry particularly in certain emerging markets
  • Price remains contentious as consumers expect digital texts to cost less than the printed work
  • Savings in print and distribution are largely offset by technology costs, new services and VAT
  • Surprise, surprise! French publishers are lobbying to extend fixed retail print prices to all eBooks sold in France!

The overall conclusion to all this seems to be that, yes, this market is changing faster than we realise but, in the words of IPA, ‘the day eBooks will outsell print is not imminent’.

No doubt the debate – and the opinions – will continue for a while yet.

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  1. April 7, 2011 at 6:50 am

    As always, Eddie, a good roundup of the current situation: thank you. Interesting that Singaporeans don’t seem concerned about the ebook challenge.

    As for Amazon – I wonder how long ebook ‘sales’ would continue to outstrip print if they adopted the same approach and gave thousands of titles away…

  2. April 7, 2011 at 3:01 pm

    Melanie wrote on Facebook; ‘Thanks Eddie, insightful and thoughtful as ever – indeed there are as many questions as answers still out there! I find it most interesting that Singapore see no change, perhaps in it’s own way that says something about the ‘fad & gadget’ mentality that can sometimes drive some of us – and whole countries as well?

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