“We still call it a ‘book’ fair…”, said the representative of the Frankfurt Book Fair to a recent meeting of publishers in the region. Digital technology and pervasive data networks are changing the structure and possibly even the nature of the book publishing industry, in Singapore as in the rest of the world. But this is by no means something happening “to” publishers: Singapore’s entrepreneurial publishers are shaping the digital transition as much or even more than they are shaped by it, and have been doing so far at least the last 20 years.
Singapore’s publishers have been operating digital businesses for decades. Professional, academic and science, technology and medicine (STM) publishers were the first to take the plunge into digital, and have been providing book and journal content electronically to libraries and institutions around the world for at least the last 15 years. For all intents and purposes, the academic journal market is now an electronic one, with print copies a minor supplement to digital distribution. Educational publishers are moving beyond a long period of digital experimentation to now build sustainable businesses by delivering textbook and assessment content online. The trade or general consumer market is the last to be “going digital”, but even here those Singapore publishers who sell to export markets are finding digital to be a useful channel. Singapore’s domestic market for trade e-books, novels or narrative non-fiction for example, remains quite small, probably around 3 to 5% of the local print market.
Singapore’s publishing industry benefitted from the wave of digital technologies that started to become important in publishing in the 1980s, including desktop publishing, database publishing, digital scanning and colour separation, and computer-to-plate printing. Singapore suppliers leveraged the new technologies to great comparative price advantage, and some Singapore publishers worked closely with them to establish global franchises.
Japanese publishers may not be too familiar to English-speaking readers (except for manga fans of course!), but Japanese bookseller Kinokuniya has done a very good job of entering new English-language markets with its multilingual bookshops over the last 20+ years. The importance and relevance of this effort to the Japanese publishing industry was brought home to me in the attendance at the party for Kinokuniya's 30th anniversary in Singapore hosted by Masashi Takai, President of Kinokuniya. CEOs of the biggest Japanese publishers and media companies turned up in force.
«In the kingdom of MySpace, the eHarmony Band used to think themselves more than a match for the E-Street Band with their new folksonomy and flash algorithms, but their Rick Roll Skyrock was so raucous the soundpedia citizendium of Wikicity spread the Google buzz that soon roused the princes of the realm, Habbo, Bebo, senile Weibo and the twins Badoo and Bahu, to decide there and then that the lead Orkut Xing who fancied himself a latter day Bing Dogsby (not Crosby; nor Stills or Nash) was a foursquare odd no-class niki trying to yahoo his way into the charts!
How big is Singapore's book market? What are the trends driving developments? One of the most interesting projects I took on over the last six months was writing a report that analyzes the trade, educational and professional markets to better understand the future of books and publishing in Singapore.
The result is this report for the The Publishers Association (PA), who produce a series of such reports on different countries around the world. The PA is the leading trade organisation serving book, journal, audio and electronic publishers in the UK.
Working on the project was fascinating, and I need to thank the many book industry people who spoke to me at some length about their own businesses and their view of the industry and Singapore's market. Among the more interesting exercises was an attempt to size the education and trade book markets. (We found it very hard to really size the professional market, as it has shifted so much in recent years, but I was able to provide some sanity check and data points to compare against the Price Waterhouse media market numbers.) I didn't uncover any secrets, but we did establish a few key points:
overseas online booksellers--Amazon, Book Depository--take around 20% of the local trade book market, a bigger chunk than most people had estimated
the floor area available for selling books in Singapore has shrunk by around 30% in the last 18 months; sales have not collapsed accordingly, but everyone is nervous
the lack of investment is the main factor holding back the ebooks market in Singapore - once investment meets pent-up demand, we could see a rapid shift to e-books
Singapore education publishing is doing well, and growing its export markets in some key areas, where the Singapore brand name for education can be leveraged. This is despite the decline in the size of the cohorts of students entering the system. There remain some acquisition targets in the market.
Of course things are changing quickly, and ebook sales, for example, are now just starting to move in Singapore, literally over the last couple of months. Also the purchase of Times Publishing/Marshall Cavendish by Khun Charoen of Thailand could lead to some interesting changes in Singapore's biggest player. While PS Media is now dormant, now that I've taken on new challenges, I hope to continue to post information of relevance to the Singapore book industry on this blog from time to time.
Was accredited to the Cannes Film Festival this year - my first time. I didn't really have much work to do, it was a courtesy accreditation from Martin Scorcese's World Cinema Foundation.
Cannes combines three events in one. The biggest event is 1) the film market, which brings together buyers and sellers of films (and services like film finance and location support). This is the part most directly comparable across media to the Frankfurt Bookfair. The market attendees don't really have time to actually see films, certainly not in the main programme. Attached to the market is 2) the film festival, which puts the focus on film excellence, includes awards and prizes, and is all about selection and curation. This part of Cannes is of interest to directors and producers, and to film programmers from all over the world who come to see the films in competition and to meet other film programmers, critics and promoters. And 3) Cannes is a film marketing event non-pareil, a chance for stars and celebrities to profile themselves, their new films and their new clothes, to strut on the red carpet and make news as they can (viz Sacha Baron Cohen's walking a camel on the Croisette and Sean Penn's delivering a general scolding re the world's fading support for Haitian reconstruction).
One of my most interesting PS Media projects is writing a report for the UK Publishers Association on Singapore's book markets and publishing industry. The report will be available via the Publishers Association soon (very soon!). Here is my current draft of one section, on regulation of the industry, and I am posting it here to invite comments and input from the public and industry players. Please leave your thoughts here, or email me directly. Your help is most appreciated!
As in other countries, the circulation of published material is regulated in Singapore, though the standards for limiting circulation are more restrictive than in many other Asian countries, mostly regarding issues of “public order or morality”. In practice, regulation is done in a mostly nuanced way, and as the regulator's website puts it “leeway is given for books”. That being said, Singapore's defamation laws are not favourable to publishers, and a few political hot-button subjects have attracted heavy reactions from government or political figures in the recent past.
Welcome to the Mauritius Book Fair (now in its 10th year), held out-of-doors on the Port Louis waterfront? Have e-books arrived on this tropical island in the sun? Was any book fair opened by a nation's President with a more mellifluous name than Mrs. Monique Agnes Ohsan Bellepeau? How do you say Red Rackham's Treasure in Créole, and why was Shenaz Patel so keen to translate the adventures of M Tintin? What sort of bookseller leads with that old chestnut Mao Zedong: Man, Not God? All these questions (and many more) were answered during a quick visit to this quirky but wonderful gathering of book people.
At last, at last, the US/UK e-book conversation is getting around to questions of the basic architecture of how we sell, buy, share and keep our e-books. First Charles Stross pointed out on how publishers' insistence on DRM has put them at the mercy of Amazon. Joe Wickert launched a manifesto calling for a "unified ebook market" avoiding the vendor lock-in that is one of the main problems with today's e-book reality. Eric Hellman's latest post shows how needless is the publishers' acquiescence to that lock-in, the real core of Amazon's monopolistic (but not collusive!) power. And he very usefully reminds us that e-book "portability can be implemented without eliminating DRM".
So what are the alternatives to the existing Amazon/Apple/Adobe system? One alternative that has some real-world traction is the idea that books should be read from the web, in browsers. The second alternative, not yet realized, would be to create an interoperable standard for digital certificates for encrypted epub files.
Combining brilliant photos by some of Singapore's top and up-and-coming photojournalists, with interactive features, music and videos, this app forms an appealing record of this unique year of elections in Singapore's recent history.