Book lovers, watch this space
Eslite, the Taiwanese bookshop chain famous for its extensive collection as well as its shops and galleries, is expected to make a splash when it opens what will be Hong Kong's biggest bookshop in Causeway Bay on Saturday next week.
Taking up three floors of the new Hysan Place mall, Eslite's local outlet, its first outside Taiwan, will occupy 41,000 square feet. The previous biggest bookstore, the 32,000 sq ft Xinhua Book City on Leighton Road, closed in 2008.
Eslite will attract not only book lovers. Trendy youngsters and tourists are also drawn to its 50 outlets in Taiwan, which are renowned for their exquisite souvenirs and stationery. Its flagship Taipei outlet, a popular stop for Hong Kong tourists, attracts 10 million visitors every year.
Never has a Taiwanese chain as big as Eslite joined the Hong Kong book scene. Members of the local book trade are wondering whether it will boost or hurt the more than 100 bookshops already in the city. Even veterans of the profession are divided in their expectations, as it has been more than two decades since the arrival of a new competitor in the Chinese-language book market.
English-language booksellers will not be spared either, as mainly Chinese-language booksellers plan to improve their presently small English-language offerings to expand their customer base.
'No one can stay away from change when a mega player enters the market,' said Steven Luk Kwok-sun, the director, general manager and chief editor of the city's biggest bookseller, Commercial Press.
Over the past century, the mainstream book market has been dominated by three players - Commercial Press, Chung Hwa Books and Joint Publishing. Together, they run 43 bookshops and have been on friendly terms. They are the core members of Sino United Publishing, an alliance of local publishers and retailers.
Commercial Press and Chung Hwa started business on the mainland in 1897 and 1912 respectively, adding a Hong Kong branch a decade later. Joint Publishing, founded in Hong Kong and the youngest of the three, is 64 years old. It moved its base to the mainland in 1949.
The trio's supremacy was challenged in the 1980s when Singapore's Popular bookshop chain joined the fray. By incorporating stationery sales and offering lighter choices of books instead of hardcore academic ones, Popular found its niche and has since opened 18 outlets.
Another change at that time was the proliferation of 'second-floor' bookshops, which are smaller businesses located in commercial buildings. The small shops tended to be more liberal and specialised in their book collection than the big three. They also imported many books from Taiwan, the freest Chinese-language publication hub at that time, as formal channels to import books from the mainland had yet to be established.
More overseas and cross-border chains have tapped into the local market since the 1990s, but they stayed away from direct competition. For instance, Singaporean Page One, Australian Dymocks and the Philippines' Metrobooks focus on English works. Mainland player Xinhua focused on the market for books in simplified Chinese, but its Leighton Road outlet closed after encountering Hongkongers' aversion to simplified Chinese characters.
However, the entry of a strong competitor could change the equilibrium in the book market. The obvious change will be an increase in the volume and variety of book collections, brought to market by Eslite and its local rivals. With its large floor space in Hysan Place, strong financial backing and close ties with Taiwanese publishers, Eslite will be able to bring a large number of cross-strait publications to Hong Kong, including rarer titles that have not been seen, trade veterans say.
Lam Pik-fun, general manager of Luck-Win Book Store, says Eslite has been strong in introducing readers to new authors.
'It organises 'author weeks' during which a specific writer is introduced to shoppers. There are also promotions for specific genres, with each book accompanied by detailed recommendations written by staff,' Lam said.
Such promotional activities would help broaden readers' interests and build up demand for a diversified book collection. Small, upper-floor bookshops had made similar attempts, but the scale was much smaller, usually restricted to one or two authors at a time, she says.
More overseas classics, including those from the English world and beyond, would make their way into the local market in the form of translated works, said Ms Cheng, the manager of Causeway Bay Book Shop, who has spent 18 years in the trade.
'Taiwan has excelled in the field of translated classics. Mainland publishers are catching up in speed and variety, but still lag when it comes to the standard of translations,' she said.
Young readers, especially activists who are involved in social movements, might have the chance to see more translations of classic texts on political theory, says Jimmy Pang Chi-ming of publisher Subculture.
The city's three oldest book chains are Beijing-friendly, as their mainland bases and local outlets maintain strong links despite their separate ownership. They refrain from publishing or marketing politically sensitive books, Pang says.
'Unlike Hong Kong's big three, Eslite from Taiwan will not face any political pressure for its book selection,' Pang said. 'The leftist camp is quite nervous that Eslite will bring in the Taiwanese mentality. What if they sell books by the Dalai Lama which talk not about religion but independence [for Tibet]?' he said.
It remains unclear if Eslite will offer any controversial books, but the firm has been in touch with Pang and the manager of Greenfield, a bookshop known for publishing and selling books banned on the mainland. Eslite also plans to open outlets on the mainland in two years' time.
Facing competition from Eslite, mainstream bookshops are now seeking to review their strengths and weaknesses.
Chung Hwa has made a five-year plan to target different audiences with a professional and specific book collection, starting with a comic shop in Mong Kok to draw young readers.
Commercial Press, strong in academic books, has reopened its long-standing four-storey outlet in Causeway Bay. The renovated shop has a bigger English-language section which occupies the entire basement - ready to compete with Eslite and Page One. It opened another outlet across the street, selling only educational books, earlier this year.
Commercial Press director Luk says that local readers are diverse and demand both Chinese and English texts. Although Eslite excels in translated works, it has less experience with English-language books, which have never been its focus in Taiwan, Luk says.
'Taiwan publishers do translations for even Polish or Czech works. But is there a demand for them in Hong Kong?' Luk said, adding he doubted there was.
He also disputes claims that Commercial Press stayed away from politically sensitive books.
'As a publisher, our focus is on language and educational books. On the retail level, however, managers make individual decisions on the local book collection. They are free to choose any book that sells well.'
Chan Man-hung, vice-chairman of Sino United Publishing, says the number of bookshops in Hong Kong has risen by a third over the past decade. He is confident that local big names will be able to maintain their market share, thanks to their professional judgments of the books on offer and quick response to market trends.
The biggest competitor for local operators is not Eslite, but shops selling all types of tourist merchandise.
Every two or three years, property owners will raise the rent for shops, Chan says. Or they will demand that bookshops move to quieter areas, increasing the burden on operators who frequently pay for renovations. 'One fourth of Commercial Press's outlets has to move every year,' he said.
Small bookshops operating in Eslite's vicinity expect intensive promotional and joint-marketing activities by various chains. Whether they can be sustainable remains to be seen.
A Sun Hung Kai Properties study which polled 800 people in June found that 41.8 per cent of respondents did not have a reading habit, being too busy with work, study or other distractions. Respondents each read an average of 1.9 books in the six months prior to the survey.
Lam of Luck-Win, who saw the number of upper-floor bookshops growing from a handful in the 1990s to about 10 recently, says Eslite could draw more readers to Causeway Bay. They may spill over to neighbouring shops when they search for deeper discounts, she says.
Eslite's trendy image and cultural activities might prompt youngsters to start reading mainstream books. Once they form the habit of reading, they might eventually look for more specific works in upper-floor shops.
'Middle-class professionals used to form our customer base. Many of them left before the handover ... much time is needed before another group of readers are nurtured,' Lam said.
Cheng of Causeway Bay Books, which operates on Lockhart Road, is less optimistic: 'Youngsters are more interested in playing games on iPhone than reading... secondary school students just aren't willing to pay for books not mandatory in the curriculum.'
Efforts by Eslite will hardly reverse the trend, she says. Furthermore, the government has been unhelpful in fostering a reading culture.
'It is meaningless for the government to appoint someone who is not experienced in books or performing arts to head the Cultural Bureau [a new bureau that has yet to be approved by the Legislative Council],' Cheng said.
The area in square feet of Eslite's store on three storeys of a Causeway Bay mall. It beats the 32,000 sq ft of the former Xinhua Book City