NOT SO LONG AGO, the myriad upstairs bookshops of Sai Yeung Choi Street in Mongkok would creak under the weight of Taiwanese publications. In those days, most lovers of Chinese literature in Hong Kong would make do with books that had either been produced on the island or published locally. But as visitors to the Hong Kong Book Fair might learn today, a new chapter has begun with the appearance of an equally wide variety of mainland reading on stands and store shelves. As simplified Chinese characters become more acceptable in Hong Kong, many readers are now turning to mainland publications that booksellers say tend to be cheaper and offer a wider variety of subjects. Tang Ching-kin, a buyer for Causeway Bay bookshop Mackie Study, says the more affordable mainland books have an advantage over Hong Kong and Taiwanese publications. In classic literature and popular titles, such as those by Taiwanese author and artist Jimmy Liao Fu-bin, many readers prefer the mainland versions. 'The Taiwanese version of Liao's latest release, Beautiful Solitude, costs $78, but the mainland version costs about $30,' Tang says. 'Content, printing and paper quality is the same. Of course, some people who can read simplified characters will turn to mainland copies, as well.' He says there's an overwhelming choice of translated literature and philosophy from the mainland. 'Recently, I found a mainland translation of a book by philosopher Immanuel Kant that I'd never seen in a Chinese version of before,' Tang says. 'For any of the classics, you name it, there's a mainland version of it. This is really tempting to readers like me.' This trend is partly due to the opening in 2000 of a mainland computer book store, Skynet, in Mongkok's Sim City, by computer-science enthusiasts Calvin Li Hon-ming and Joe Ha Wing-hing, who have a stand at the fair, in the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre. Li says only Taiwanese computer books were available in Hong Kong at the time and most were either out of date or insufficiently advanced. 'There are lots of interesting books on the mainland that are worth reading and we'd recommend to Hong Kong readers,' he says. 'But there hadn't been anyone providing that service.' Li and Ha sought more specific and complex computer publications in Shenzhen Book City and returned with armfuls of books that weren't available in Hong Kong. Discovering a niche, they opened their first store. When it proved a success, the pair opened a second outlet, Sino-Books, in Central, where they sold general literature. Within two years, Li and Ha opened another store in Mongkok, and outlets in Causeway Bay and Sha Tin. Last month, the pair opened their sixth outlet, in Wan Chai. Li says the popularity of mainland books has been boosted by the more common use of simplified characters in Hong Kong. 'Compared with five to six years ago, it's a totally different world now,' he says. 'At that time, people were really surprised to see a book with simplified characters. They just didn't seem to exist in Hong Kong. Now, you don't see much reaction when people are shown a mainland book, maybe due to the increased interchange between Hong Kong and the mainland.' Other Hong Kong bookshops offer an increasing range of mainland titles. Elm - which opened in Sai Yeung Choi Street, selling Taiwan books, in 1997 - introduced mainland publications to its store more than a year ago, and has opened two new outlets in Mongkok over the past six months. It also has a stand at the Book Fair. 'We thought mainland books were just for a tiny minority of people,' says shop manager Fan Lap-kee. 'But with more shops selling them we realised there was a demand.' Fan says readers are attracted by the greater variety of publications available from the mainland. 'The quality of mainland books is getting better, and the genres more diverse,' he says. 'Their quality is very close to Hong Kong and Taiwanese books, and some of them are even better.' Photographer Cheung Chi-wai, an avid reader of mainland books for more than 10 years, says the publications' print quality and editing has improved greatly in the past few years. 'They have made good use of illustrations, which has made the books easier to understand and more interesting,' he says. Citing books by American photographer Diane Arbus, Cheung says the mainland versions have more illustrations than the English editions. Mainland art books tend to offer wider perspectives of the art world, he says. 'While photography books in Hong Kong mainly focus on technical aspects, in Taiwan they're getting more localised. The mainland ones have a stronger international vision. This doesn't apply just to photography, but to books on fashion and design as well. This is very useful for our creativity.' But the simplified characters can be a stumbling block. Daniel Lai Moon-sang, a freelance designer, finds the characters too hard to read. 'If I read Chinese books, I prefer reading the traditional characters,' he says, even though some books cost more than double those of their mainland counterparts. 'To me, quality is much more important than price. The printing quality of mainland books isn't that good,' he says. 'And I've heard that in some translated versions, content has been taken out for political reasons.' But with more people in Hong Kong learning to read simplified characters, the market for mainland books seems assured. 'Definitely, more people will read mainland books when simplified characters are no longer a hindrance,' says Tang. Hong Kong Book Fair, starts today and runs until Monday, Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre, Wan Chai, $20 for adults, $10 for children. 9am-10pm, today; 10am-10pm, Thu-Sun; 10am-6pm, Mon.