Re-read the e-books chapter

This story was first published in The Straits Times on Sept 24, 2013

First, physical bookstores fell like dominoes and now, owners are pulling the plug on e-bookstores. SingTel's skoob stops book sales today, only a few months after MediaCorp's threw in the towel.

Why are e-bookstores failing in one of the most wired cities in the world, where residents sport multiple smart devices?

According to Singapore-based publishers and retailers, the problem is acceptance. Book buyers here have yet to migrate en masse to paying for words on a tablet or e-Reader screen, preferring the solidity of a printed book in exchange for their dollars.

Local publishers say that e-books make up 5 per cent of total sales at best, with the other 95 per cent accounted for by printed books.

To me, a greater hurdle is pricing. In Singapore stores, many e-books cost almost the same as the printed book. The lack of discount immediately discounts the main reasons why e-books are so popular with readers in other countries.

It is obvious that e-books can and should cost less than printed books. Publishers do not have to factor in the cost of paper, warehouse space or shipping, and retailers do not even need a physical space to sell the books from, saving on rental and personnel costs.

E-books are at least half the price of hardcovers in international e-bookstores such as Amazon's Kindle store or Rakuten's Kobo.

At print time, Margaret Atwood's newest dystopian novel, MaddAddam, retails at $25.68 at the physical bookstore Books Kinokuniya. The e-book version is only a dollar cheaper, $24.48, at Singapore e-bookstore Booktique, run by StarHub.

This is a price readers might not want to pay for literary novels without sweeteners such as embedded video content and a free T-shirt, especially when offered the same e-book at the Amazon Kindle store for US$10.99 (S$13.70) or US$13 at Kobo.

A StarHub spokesman says the problem lies at the supply end, with high prices for the Singapore market set by publishers and distributors.

A spokesman for a major international publisher confirms this: Many e-book suppliers send electronic feeds directly from the United States or United Kingdom, which would then reflect the US or UK price rather than the lower one set for international export.

StarHub says it is working to find a solution but "major publishers are primarily focused on the US and European markets, and it will take time".

However, Singapore publishers appear to be ready to play the game. Award-winning writer Suchen Christine Lim's collection of short stories, The Lies That Build A Marriage (Monsoon Books), is priced at $8.55 on Booktique for the e-book version, while the printed version is out of stock in local bookstores and would cost up to $27.

What is missing then is the equivalent of a knowledgeable shop assistant at the counter, nudging patrons of e-bookstores towards the enjoyable reads they would not otherwise know about. Singapore e-bookstores should capitalise on books like Lim's, which are much lauded by critics and local literary lights, yet hard to find in physical bookstores and libraries.

Booktique has messageboards for readers to form online communities and skoob used to highlight bestsellers and books of the month.

What is missing is the intimacy and functionality of sites such as Kindle or Kobo, where books are grouped according to unusual genres such as "Kindle Singles: Selected for being incisive, provocative, hilarious or heartbreaking" or "Memorable Magic Systems: Books featuring fantasy's most inventive depictions of magic".

Nothing sells books like book-lovers. And e-books are a great way to infect more with the love of reading.

This year's BookStats report, released by the Association of American Publishers and the Book Industry Study Group, highlighted a surprising fact: Even though e-book sales accounted for about 20 per cent of industry revenue in the United States last year, sales of hardcover and paperback books remained exactly the same, even going up slightly.

In other words, e-books are getting to new kinds of readers, those more comfortable on the Internet than visiting a bookstore. Even more fantastic news for publishers, e-books are not eradicating the die-hard fans of printed books. "Consumers love to read and want books in all the formats available to them," concluded the BookStats report.

Last year, I met a group of students from a Singapore secondary school which encourages students to use digital textbooks on iPads. Apart from tomes for lessons, they had downloaded a number of e-book novels onto their devices.

They showed off their mini-libraries with great glee, then with solemn pride, opened their schoolbags and showed me the paperback versions of some of the novels. "I loved it so much I had to save up and buy this," said one teen, stroking the printed version of fantasy novel The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern. "Holding it makes it more real."

E-books are the best way to promote an author because their low cost appeals to impulse buyers. More than once, I have seen book-loving friends squealing about new favourite reads stop mid- conversation, access their Kindles and immediately download and pay for new books.

It is unfortunately obvious why they did not choose to pay double the price at a Singapore e-bookstore.

Among the writers who benefited from such impulse buying is Amanda Hocking. She started self-publishing 99-cent teen fantasies as Kindle e-books, sold around a million copies in two years and is now a New York Times bestseller with the print versions of her books published by Pan Macmillan.

A similar success story might easily happen here, since e-bookstores could sell Singapore titles in the regional market, reaching many more readers. Thailand's Ookbee already does this, supplying digital magazines from Singapore Press Holdings to consumers around South-east Asia.

Two e-bookstores may have closed in Singapore but that does not mean the end of the e-book chapter. Retailers just need to re-read the situation.

This story was first published in The Straits Times on Sept 24, 2013

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