Age of digital reading

PUBLISHED : Monday, 25 July, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 25 July, 2011, 12:00am


Jessie Kung used to buy books at airport bookshops, but that was last year. The 32-year-old still visits those stores - but only to check out the titles of books that interest her. Then she takes out her iPad, taps its touch screen for a while and nails down her target. She pays a fraction of the regular price or sometimes nothing at all and her book is ready to read in seconds.

'I may still go to libraries,' said Kung. But to buy physical books? 'No, I don't think so.'

With the increasing popularity of mobile devices such as smartphones and tablets, reading habits today are being transformed to become more digitally oriented. This year, the Hong Kong Book Fair features two theme zones on e-publishing with 32 exhibitors, a 60 per cent increase on last year. Smaller seminars on the e-publishing segment are now a regular feature within the publishing industry. Sales of online e-book applications are booming. All these seem to indicate that the age of digital reading is coming.

Yet the market is far from mature. In the past year, more than 1,000 local e-books were published in Hong Kong, less than 2 per cent of the total book market share, according to an estimate derived by sales of major publications in the city. Globally, the figure is 10 to 15 per cent, according to Publishing Perspectives, an authoritative online voice of the global publishing industry. The US is by far the most advanced. It is estimated to be six months to a year ahead of Europe, two years ahead of the world, where 80 per cent of its publications are only in digital format.

'It's only within the last two years worldwide that publishers have got comfortable with e-publishing,' said Edward Nawotka, editor-in-chief of Publishing Perspectives.

'The transition to digital is inevitable,' Nawotka said. 'It's like petrol and cars. We are going to drive the electrical cars, the question is when.'

Hong Kong is following the world trend, although the pace is slower. Terence Leung Wing-chung, general manager for business development of Sino United Publishing, a leading local publication giant which owns prestigious publications such as Commercial Press, Joint Publishing and Chung Hwa Book Company, was the one who carried out the local calculations.

'The Hong Kong e-book market is in its infancy,' Leung said. 'Everyone in the industry is still testing the water.'

Commercial Press is launching four online educational platforms for children during this year's book fair. Developed in-house, this type of interactive e-publishing product is what the publication house is famous for.

But more are trying to give their paper books a digital life with the help of tech-savvy agencies, or professional e-book distributor websites. Under this 'agency model', the publishing houses provide the content and let their e-book publishing co-operators handle the rest.

From content injection to launching the book onto public platforms such as Apple's iTunes store, it usually takes no longer than five hours, according to Bonnie Chan Woo, chief of Handheld Culture, one of the largest online Chinese-language e-book stores in Hong Kong.

Within a year of being established, downloads for Handheld's e-book apps have reached half a million.

'Now publishers are more willing to open up more copyright contents,' Chan said. 'They realise e-books and paper books are actually complementary. It boosts their sales instead of vice versa.'

Another local e-book integrator, 24Reader, has seen a steady growth of 10 to 20 per cent in its mobile e-book apps business since last year.

It was reported last year that half of Hong Kong's people were already using smartphones. That number is increasing by the day, which means more people have access to e-book applications.

'For the first year, people who read from mobile devices were somewhat labelled as edgy. But now we feel this phase has passed,' said Carlos Cheng, head of 24Reader. 'With more people having mobile devices we will target a wider-range market, from youth to senior.'

In terms of sales growth, the e-book market is flourishing. But only a tiny portion of the revenue from these sales trickles down to publishers' pockets, an important reason that prevents the traditional industry moving forward. The current business model of Hong Kong's e-book publishing is different from the Kindle model, the most popular one internationally, which has integrated hardware devices (Kindle reader), a selling platform (, and content (Kindle says it has more than 450,000 titles).

In Hong Kong's case, however, e-ink readers are not popular. The e-books mostly come out in the form of apps that are readable on smartphones or tables.

Thus the revenue has to be split with two more sides: an e-book apps platform like Apple store and sales agents such as Handheld Culture and 24Reader, who help traditional publishing companies to market their e-books on their integrated e-book stores.

Apple takes 30 per cent of the revenue as they provide the platform to place e-book apps. The e-book distribution channels take another 35 per cent as their fee and then there is the matter of authors' royalties. Ultimately less than 25 per cent of the revenue from the sales of e-books reach publishers.

Thomas Tang, a member of Hong Kong SME Publications, an advocate group for small to medium-sized publications' benefits, said the cost performance of e-book publishing did not look good. 'We don't have a uniform platform as Amazon. Taking care of different platforms at the same time has cost too much,' Tang said.

Besides the separation between platforms and content providers, constant piracy has been a long-time headache, especially for small-scale book publishers. Small publishers are struggling to stay afloat as a vast pool of free, pirated publications from the mainland reduces the scope for a profitable e-book market in Hong Kong.

'Somehow the more the tablet market flourishes, the more we seem to suffer,' Tang said. Sales of paper version fiction and comics have dropped about 20 per cent due to rampant piracy, he said. And many of the industry insiders interviewed share the same concern.

To steer away from the threat of piracy and low-profit model, local publishing houses are exploring any possible forms of the e-book to differentiate it from its paper counterparts.

The interactive reading experience is especially highlighted in digital publishing. This year's book fair, for example, features a Future Bookstore where readers can customise their personal books by selecting chapters from various books on a touch screen at a kiosk.

Multimedia is another added value that publishers are keen to use in their e-products. A cookbook published by Forms Publication recently embeds six videos in its paper book to enhance reading experiences. Readers can use their smartphone to watch the video simultaneously when reading print contents, through a simple scan of the quick response code on the page. Besides video, some e-book apps also include games and music, making the dividing line blurry between book and software.

Publishers are also looking for new profit growth by mixing the idea of social networking and reading. MultiMedia Global, a tech company set up with Wan Li Book company, is providing most of their e-map and e-book apps free to attract group readers.

'We have to admit that charging for e-books hardly makes a fortune since in Hong Kong we don't have a mega content integrator like Amazon,' said Ian Chan Yin.

'The idea is not subscription-oriented but advertisement-based, just like Google,' Chan said, in what he calls a 'freemium economy' in the company's e-publishing strategy.

Leung said: 'Technology-wise, Hong Kong is not the most advanced in the world's e-publishing industry, but we can always make our own value with creativity.'


The number of titles offered at this year's World eBook Fair which runs until August 4. The first fair had 300,000 books available