On-line books offer variety if not big savings

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 31 August, 1997, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 31 August, 1997, 12:00am

THE sky-high price of books has long been a sore point among Hong Kong's English-speaking bibliophiles. Hardbacks regularly go for upwards of HK$350, and the mark-up on paperbacks often means they cost 50 per cent more than in their country of origin.

Publishers' arguments for jacking up prices are well-trodden, and they have some foundation. Yes, Hong Kong's rents are high. Yes, the cost of importing a book will push up its cost. And, yes, the readership here is comparatively small.

But, to take Jonathan Dimbleby's The Last Governor as an example, a HK$100 premium on a book that costs GBP22.50 (about HK$280) in Britain is not just steep, it is extortionate.

Until recently, we have had little choice but to stump up or do without. But the Internet has come to the rescue, again. The information superhighway already has been held up by compact-disk and video-tape buyers as a way around Hong Kong's new, misguided parallel-import rules - which are delaying local releases and limiting local choices - but the Net also brings down costs of book-buying.

Most on-line book services are in the United States or Britain. The biggest of all is Amazon (www.

amazon.com) and, without even a single storefront to its name, it is certainly committed to on-line book-selling. It claims to offer savings of 20 per cent to 40 per cent.

So the Crusader went shopping. The Partner by John Grisham - a hardback that has been riding high on sales charts in the US, Britain and Hong Kong for months - is sold locally by Bookazine for HK$199. Amazon sells the book for US$18.87 (about HK$145).

Shipping costs push Amazon's total book price to US$24.82 (about HK$192).

But you will have to be patient because delivery takes from two to 10 weeks - for a saving of just HK$7. If you can't wait that long, air-mail delivery will set you back a total of US$31.82, HK$47 more than you would have to pay in the bookshop. The choice appears to be between weeks of waiting to save the cost of a can of Coke or quicker service but a bigger bill than you would face buying the book in Central.

There is another option: buying in bulk. Transport costs push up the price of a book from Amazon, but these fall - proportionately - the more you buy. So if you buy your books in threes, the savings mount up.

Along with The Partner, try The Fall of Hong Kong: China's Triumph and Britain's Betrayal, a damning account of the joint-declaration negotiations by former Asiaweek correspondent Mark Roberti.

That costs US$13.56 (about HK$105) from Amazon and HK$170 from Jumbo Grade in Quarry Bay.

Then add The Hong Kong Advantage, Michael Enright et al's verdict on the corporate future of post-handover Hong Kong, to your list. From Amazon, it is US$20.97 (about HK$162), and from Swindon Books, it is HK$210.

Ship all three from Amazon, and it will cost you US$63.25, or about HK$490. Buy all three from local bookstores, and you are looking at HK$579 - nearly HK$90 more.

Shipping the books will always save you money. Air-mailing them almost always will cost more than buying them locally, unless you plan to replenish your whole library.

Perhaps the biggest advantage is choice. Amazon claims to offer 2.5 million titles.

So if your tastes are slightly more eclectic than Hong Kong-related books and the latest Grisham, on-line book-buying will come as more than a virtual relief.