Sunday, January 24, 2010

A new way of reading

The Star Online

Readers are excited about what digital books can do for them, but publishers are being rocked by the changes they are bringing to the industry.

IF you’re a bookworm, carting around hundreds of books in one slim, book-sized electronic device would be the closest thing to Nirvana.

For Zarina Abu Bakar, it certainly is.

“You know how you can get caught unexpectedly, having to wait? Waiting for people to show up, for dinner to arrive or for the cars in front of you to move? With the eBook, I am assured of a variety of titles to keep me occupied during these unwanted and unexpected waits,” says Zarina, 37, who reads eBooks with her US$279.99 (about RM957) Sony Reader, a gift she received two years ago from a friend.

Zarina, whose Reader is loaded with the Quran and works by Jane Austen, Shakespeare and Leo Tolstoy, feels that eBooks are better than physical books because they’re more convenient, portable and one doesn’t have to drive to a bookstore to get them.

“Additional pluses are the automatic bookmarks – no more losing your place in the book – and the (Reader’s) variable font sizes. It also helps to know that you’re saving the environment,” says this general manager of a Putrajaya-based NGO via e-mail.

Although eBook devices have been selling in many Western countries for a decade, they have yet to become readily available in Malaysia (until recently). For various reasons – including market size and piracy, which we will get into later – Malaysians can’t even buy any of the more popular eBook devices online and have them shipped to a local address; we have to actually go to countries such as Australia, Britain, Japan and the United States to get one, or get friends or relatives living there to buy one.

Of course, we can also use other devices, like the Blackberry, iPod Touch or iPhone, to read with. But these communication and media player devices don’t have the large screens that eBook devices have and cannot really provide the same convenience an eBook reader does if you want to read entire books electronically.

Finally, though, Malaysia got its very own eBook device last month when MPH began selling China-made reader Hanlin in its stores here. Priced at RM1,299 (RM1,249 from, the device marks MPH’s ambitious first step into the world of digital bookselling. The local retailer hopes to bring in more devices from different brands this year.

It is only logical for the company to embrace digital books, says MPH senior business development manager Rodney Toh, an eBook enthusiast who owns two Hanlin devices: “It’s an investment in the future. If we delay or ignore all this, it’ll catch up and we’ll be left behind,” he says.

In the beginning

MPH, together with every publisher worldwide, is cruising through wild and rocky waters right now.

As the music industry did in the past and the film industry did more recently, the publishing industry is experiencing a digital shakeup. And it’s such a severe one that industry players – the publishers, booksellers, literary agents and the authors that they represent – are having a migraine trying to deal with changes that are potentially dangerous to profit margins.

Although eBook devices began life around 1999 with the introduction of the (now no longer available) Rocket eBook, the publishing industry didn’t take this new fangled way of reading books very seriously. Many industry insiders believed that the devices would remain on the fringes and would never wholly be embraced by a mass market that still seemed loyal to physical books at that time.

Then introduced the Kindle in 2007.

Kindle makes buying books dead easy. With just a click of a button, you can buy a book from via the device’s wireless integrated service. Better still, the eBooks are priced very attractively: new best-sellers can be priced as low as US$9.99 (RM33.80) instead of the usual US$26 (RM88) and above hard cover books command.

Though it doesn’t have a brick and mortar presence (or perhaps because it doesn’t), is one of the world’s biggest bookstores, so it’s not surprising that its Kindle has already captured the lion’s share of the eBook market in the United States; and since the website now ships the device to more than 100 countries around the world (no, not to Malaysia), we assume world domination will soon follow....

Avid readers will love the fact that hundreds of books can be carried around in one little electronic book reader. – KEVIN TAN / The Star

According to a Jan 15 report from the American book industry association’s Book Industry Study, 20% of American readers have stopped buying physical books and have switched to buying digital books in the last 12 months.

Device makers are taking note. Late last year, a slew of eBook devices were released, and even more were unveiled at the Jan 7-10 Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas (one of the world’s biggest electronics shows where the very latest products are launched). And it’s said that Apple – always a player to watch – will release a game-changing computer tablet that will function both as a computer and an eBook reader on Wednesday.

Birthing pains

Retailers like and manufacturers of eBook readers are forcing the publishing industry to change the way it does business – and that in turn will affect how you and I consume books.

EBooks certainly seem like a good thing for readers. Since publishers wouldn’t have to bear printing, warehousing and distribution costs when producing a digital book, surely they could sell eBooks at a much cheaper rate than physical books?

The problem is, publishers are still also selling physical books so they cannot afford to allow the digital version of a book to compete with its physical version.

“Imagine selling a digital eBook version of a new release at a lower price than the hard cover version – of course everyone would buy the digital book. As a result, the sales of hard cover books would be affected. Therefore, it is much easier, for the moment, for publishers to price eBooks the same as physical books,” explains Toh.

Or, like Simon & Schuster, they could delay the release of digital versions by a few months to protect the revenue of print versions, particularly the expensive hard covers.

Consumers, of course, do not like this practice, to put it mildly.

Two weeks ago, when HarperCollins decided to delay by a month the release of the eBook version of a much-anticipated book on the 2008 US elections, Game Change by John Heilemann and Mark Halperin, hundreds of readers recorded one-star reviews for the book at in retaliation (the average rating of a book is known to influence buyers at the website).

“I will never buy a book I am forced to wait to buy. How’s that HarperCollins?” fumes Gary R. “Rustang” Gordon from Nashville, Tennessee, at the website.

“Seriously ... we want to read topical books like this one right away. Not wait a month for the ebook version to be available. I’m afraid I won’t be buying this book after all and will have to subsist on the excerpts published in newspapers,” writes another irate customer, Mugdha Bendre, from California.

As a result of this protest, Game Change earned a dismal average rating of 2.5 at (at the time of writing).

What of books that don’t have a physical version, then? Surely a book released only in digital format would be cheaper than your average paperback? And publishers wouldn’t have to worry about the book competing with its own print version. But, no; currently, such books are also the same price as physical books.

Again, consumers are obviously not happy about this, as they feel that they shouldn’t pay as much for a book that is not physical.

“That’s the consumer’s argument, but the publishers’ arguments is: ‘If I sell a new book at a very low price, where’s my profit?” argues Toh.

Industry indigestion

Then there are the nuts and bolts problems that also affect how much consumers will have to pay for books in the end, such as, how much, if anything, should authors be paid for digital versions of their work.

Last month, Random House – the world’s largest English language book publisher – sent a letter to literary agents declaring that it holds exclusive rights to the digital editions of the “vast majority” of its back catalogue (older titles that they still publish). This means that the authors of those works won’t get paid anything more if Random House sells digital versions of their works.

Why should consumers care? Well, in the long run, this might not be healthy for the publishing industry as a whole; to put it really (really) simply, if authors don’t get paid enough, if they feel they cannot make an adequate living from writing, they could stop writing – and we readers might run out of books to read!

We won’t come to that, of course. For one thing, authors might just decide to cut out the middle man and sell to us directly. Stephen Covey rocked the publishing world by selling exclusive digital rights to two of his best-selling books, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People and Principle-Centred Leadership, to He bypassed his print publisher, Simon & Schuster, to sell his books directly to a retailer,

This means that authors who hold the rights to their works could deny their publishers the chance to earn more money by re-releasing print books in digital format.

Or authors could even get into self-publishing – a frightening prospect for publishers! For consumers? Not so much, since we would still be getting books, only directly from authors. Of course, that might mean badly-written, unedited books, as it is the publisher who usually edits books. So perhaps we shouldn’t write off the publishers just yet.

Pirates, ahoy

Apart from all these pricing and profit problems, the other big – huge! – deterrent to publishers entering the digital world is, of course, piracy. Digitising anything and putting it online makes it vulnerable to online piracy.

(Tellingly, countries like China and Malaysia, where the piracy of digital products is rampant, cannot buy Kindle online or download’s eBooks. Malaysia is not on’s “Live outside the US” list of countries to which the new Kindle 2 can be shipped. Angolans can buy the Kindle 2 but not Malaysias or Singaporeans.)

Not even sophisticated Digital Rights Management software, designed to prevent digital products from being copied and shared, is a deterrent: Last month, hackers claimed to have cracked Kindle’s protection software and enabled non-Kindle users to read’s eBooks without having to buy the device.

The market in Malaysia

It isn’t clear yet how the Malaysian bookselling industry will be affected by eBooks, but MPH’s Toh isn’t worried.

“It’s another avenue to sell books. We want as many devices in the market as possible, and we want to sell eBooks,” he says emphatically.

But one thing’s for sure: sooner or later, the Malaysian book-selling and publishing industry will have to grapple with the same issues the Western industry is struggling with now.

“Hopefully we’ll learn from what they’re going through,” says Toh.

Kinokuniya Bookstores Malaysia is also studying eBook developments closely. Its Japanese and Singaporean stores are already selling eBook devices (Singapore’s Kino sells the iRiver Story, a South Korean eBook device), though the Singapore store does not provide eBooks through its website.

According to Seto Kit Sau, the assistant merchandising manager at the Suria KLCC store, “We’re waiting to see what Apple is coming out with (the much-buzzed-about iSlate) and also waiting to see what publishers are doing for books here. If we provide an eBook device, we must be able to provide the eBooks as well.

“At Kinokuniya Bookstores, we see our role essentially as an information provider. If in the future information comes in a different form instead of the traditional ink and paper, we would still strive to provide as much of it as possible,” she says.

When asked how she thinks eBooks will affect the Malaysian bookselling industry, she says: “There is much buzz in the industry worldwide cause by various issues, such as the pricing and delivery of eBooks. When eBooks do reach us, booksellers need to be prepared for the technology and for change.

“On the bright side, it may be a good thing for small press publishers who may want to try this platform to reach readers as it may well be more cost effective,” she points out.

Is an eBook industry even viable here? Because, from just asking around casually, it seems that not many Malaysian readers are convinced about the appeal of eBooks.

“Call me old fashioned, but, honestly, eBooks can’t beat the aesthetics of the real deal,” says copywriter Randy Khoo, 27, via e-mail.

“Personally, I read a lot, and my books are everywhere in my house. Each one reminds me of a different time and the things I’ve gone through in my life. I don’t think an eBook can give me that,” he says.

Still, Khoo sometimes does read eBooks on his iPod Touch, although he complains that the screen is too small. Even with the bigger screens on eBook devices, “Screen reading for hours is not exactly appealing to me,” he says.

Others are deterred by the high price tag for eBook devices.

Shaqyl Shamsudheen, who reads eBooks on her mobile phone, says that she’s just not interested in the devices right now: “I’m just a student, I can’t afford them,” says the 22-year-old Mass Communication student.

Bernice Alvins, owner of My Book Place, a rent-a-bookstore in Amcorp Mall, Petaling Jaya, thinks it’s an interesting way of reading books but isn’t sure whether she needs an eBook reader as she’s surrounded by physical books most of the time anyway.

“I might pick one up as I haven’t experienced one before. It’s just that I’ve been brought up to hold a book, to feel it and touch it,” she says with a shrug, adding that she would only consider an eBook reader if the price is right – “Preferably below RM1,000,” she says.

Alvins believes that young people will be quicker to adopt the technology, as they’re more tech savvy but eBooks could be a stumbling block for the older generation.

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