Enticed by the low cost of e-books, education technologist Preetam Rai buys at least four a month from Amazon's Kindle store.
Mr Rai, 40, a frequent traveller and avid reader, loads his Kindle e-book reader with several titles before a trip. Some of his e-books cost less than half of the print versions.
"But if the price difference between printed books and e-books is not much, I would buy the physical book," he said.
"Physical books offer a sense of serendipity, and allow people to stumble upon interesting reads, say, at a library or a backpackers' inn."
That said, the charm of discovering new reads at a library and the tactile experience of flipping printed pages have not stemmed the demand for e-books globally.
According to a research note by Morgan Stanley Internet and e-commerce analyst Scott Devitt, global unit sales of e-books reached 859million last year, up from a previous estimate of 567 million.
Leading e-book retailer Amazon did not reveal how many e-books it sold last year, but its chief executive Jeff Bezos said in an earnings statement in January that Amazon's e-book sales grew about 70 per cent last year.
"In contrast, our physical book sales experienced the lowest December growth rate in our 17years as a bookseller, up just 5 per cent," he noted.
New market to tap
The size of the e-book market in Singapore is unknown, but industry watchers see growing interest in e-books among consumers here.
In November 2011, SingTel unveiled Skoob, the first e-book service here. It was hailed as the first of its kind to offer works by Singapore writers, and study guides and educational books for primary and secondary school students.
Meanwhile, the number of e-book downloads from the library rose from 3.9million in the financial year ended March 2011 to 4.9 million in the financial year ended March 2012.
To meet the surging demand for e-books, the National Library Board (NLB) will add 820,000 more e-books to its virtual shelves, bringing the size of its e-book collection to more than three million by year-end.
"I do believe there is a fair amount of e-reading going on that is hard to see or measure," said MrPeter Schoppert, director at NUS Press.
"Amazon, Apple and Kobo are doing some business here, operating offshore. It's hard to know how much, but I would bet that their combined sales here are in the millions," he added.
But not everyone has benefited from the switch to paperless books. MediaCorp's year-old service, ilovebooks.com, which stocked more than 700,000 local and international titles at its launch last May, was shut down yesterday.
Mr Philip Koh, managing director of MediaCorp's convergent media division, told The Straits Times recently that the business was not commercially viable because of tough market conditions.
That, however, did not stop StarHub from taking a stab at the fledgling market. In late March, the telco launched Booktique, the first local e-book service with a social networking element which allows readers to share their book lists with others.
Like a Kindle e-book, a Booktique e-book can be annotated with comments, which are then shared with those reading the same e-book.
Mr Stephen Lee, StarHub's head of innovation, investment and incubation, said the telco is seeing better-than- expected response to the launch of Booktique, with many book fans exploring its new e-bookstore offerings.
IT manager Wong Boon Hong, 39, an avid reader, welcomed StarHub's foray into e-books, but reckoned that the lack of a universal e-book format and digital rights management (DRM) issues will plague the e-book industry.
Most e-book retailers require readers to use proprietary e-reader apps or devices with DRM technology to prevent the copying and sharing of e-books. For example, books bought on SingTel's Skoob service cannot be used on StarHub's Booktique's e-book app.
"If a store's DRM server goes down, I may not be able to re-download my e-books. Also, e-books with DRM may not be available if I upgrade my device or change devices," he said.
Indeed, MediaCorp advised customers to back up and download their e-books about a month before ilovebooks.com's closure. They will not be able to open their e-books if they upgrade the operating system on their devices or switch devices.
But the biggest barrier for consumers is that they may not be aware of the major e-book formats currently used in the market.
For instance, e-books published in the Kindle format can be read only on Kindle e-readers and apps.
NLB's e-books from Overdrive, which supplies e-books to libraries, however, can be transferred to e-reader devices such as the Nook.
The good news: Major e-book services, such as Kobo and Amazon, offer apps for Android and iOS devices that let users read e-books on tablets and smartphones.
More than a website needed
Mr Schoppert said the e-book market here has not taken off, as no one has invested enough in it.
"The kind of explosion in e-book reading we've seen in the US and Britain, and increasingly now in Australia, represents quite a big change in reading habits. That's not something that's achieved by just launching a website."
The big players in those markets, he said, launched their stores with e-readers and had a strong presence in the big bookshops and a well-developed system for self-publishing for readers who want to be authors.
All these different elements, he said, work together to help create the buzz and the word-of-mouth around e-reading that is necessary to create a change in reading habits.
Mr Schoppert said: "With smartphone and tablet penetration being so high in Singapore, I totally understand why none of the local players invested in launching an e-reader, which most tech industry players see as a transitional device.
"But in other markets, e-readers helped to create the buzz and proved popular with older and non-tech- focused readers.
"My 80-year-old mother is not interested in an Android phone, but she loves her Nook, from Barnes & Noble, and she's a heavy e-reader."
Another bugbear is the different cost of e-books across the many services out there.
Apple co-founder Steve Jobs' self-titled biography, published by Simon & Schuster, for instance, costs US$9.99 (S$12.30) at the Amazon Kindle store, while SingTel's Skoob charges $25.83 for the same e-book.
Mr Rai said: "Why would anyone pay so much for an e-book?"
Higher e-book prices here will continue to motivate e-book fans to find ways to circumvent geographical restrictions imposed by sellers such as Amazon, which does not sell e-books to Singapore customers.
StarHub's Mr Lee said publishers generally determine the selling price of their e-books and retailers do not have direct control over pricing.
"Nonetheless, we are actively negotiating with our partners and publishers so as to offer competitively priced e-book titles to Singapore consumers."
This story was first published in The Straits Times on May 4, 2013
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