ASIA-PACIFIC REGION: WHERE WE ARE IN DIGITAL PUBLISHING
 

MANILA, DECEMBER 18, 2011 (STAR) PENMAN By Butch Dalisay (Illustration by IGAN D’BAYAN)  Let me share the highlights of a talk I gave last week at the University of Western Australia in Perth on how digital publishing has changed the face of literature in the Asia-Pacific region.

There’s no doubt that digital publishing has taken the Asia-Pacific by storm. A tsunami may be a terrible metaphor to apply to the region, but a gentler version of this big wave is what it is, a steady and sure encroachment of digital media on the terrain of traditional publishing.

A cursory review of what’s out there will show that the region has been eager to adopt digital publishing — by which I mean not just the application of digital processes to printing but the publication of e-books, e-magazines, and such —albeit with certain apprehensions and reservations.

In China, where the 2nd Conference on Digital Publishing in Asia-Pacific was held last week in Shanghai, industry leaders are looking to serve more than 120 million digital readers in a market of Internet users expected to exceed 750 million by 2015. [PHOTO COURTESY OF CHINADAILY.COM - Display Search, a global market research and consulting firm, forecasts China will overtake the United States as the world's largest e-reader market before 2015, by virtue of the country's large population. "But as the content provider, Chinese publishers are not taking the lead owing to disputes over copyrights and profit-sharing with IT and technology companies," Huang says. Nie Zhenning, president of China Publishing Group, says digital publishing has changed the workflow of traditional publishing, and urged greater collaboration between publisher and technology provider.]

In South Korea — where as of 2009, 95 percent of all homes had broadband —the government has decided that all public-school textbooks will be digital by 2015, a move for which it has allotted $2.3 billion. Scholars and industry analysts are closely tracking Korea’s transition to a totally networked society, particularly the impact of e-books on education — not just books ported over from print, but “books that integrate media and social networking,” according to one expert.

In Singapore, a homegrown e-book reader called the KeyReader may be late to the party, considering the predominance of the iPad and the Kindle, but it has one big plus going for it: free access to over 900,000 e-book titles in the collection of the National Library Board.

By contrast, Malaysia seems to be running late in the e-book department; as of mid-2010, it had yet to have an online e-book seller, and a Chinese-made e-book reader was just being brought in by a media company.

In Thailand, not only are many English titles on Thailand now available in e-book format; a Thai-language e-bookstore is now in operation, carrying around 1,000 titles — a figure the publisher expects to increase exponentially to 100,000 by the end of 2011. In three months since the site’s launch, it had 50,000 downloads. The site expects to turn a profit in 2012.

Taiwan’s Taoyuan International Airport boasts of the world’s first public e-book library, where (as of March 2010) passengers could browse through 400 titles on 30 devices — still not much, but it anticipates what could happen to public libraries in the future.

PHOTO - DIGITAL SANSKRIT

In Indonesia, an e-book retailer called Papataka (“bookworm” in Sanskrit) offers more than 150,000 titles submitted by around 100 Indonesian and foreign publishers. There are over 100 online Indonesian book stores — this is a country that produces 13,000 new titles every year — so the growth trend is there, limited only by the affordability of e-book readers.

Also in Indonesia, the country’s largest media conglomerate, Kompas-Gramedia, has gone into developing digital content. Working with the cellular operator Telkomsel, Gramedia now offers about 100 so-called “m-books,” mostly young adult fiction and cookbooks, downloadable by Telkomsel customers, chapter by chapter, on their mobile phones.

[PHOTO - Publishers in Japan were quick to see the potential of putting cellphone novels into print.]

In Japan — ironically for what was a technology innovator in the 20th century — reports suggest that publishers have responded more slowly and more cautiously to the onset of digital publishing. Faced with falling sales and growing inventories, Kodansha International, the country’s and the world’s most important source of Japanese books in English, simply shut down last April, coursing what was left of its sales to a US subsidiary.

Here in the Philippines, digital publishing has definitely arrived — but it will take time to settle in, to become popular, and to actually turn a profit, which is important if it is to become a social game-changer rather than just a format option for affluent readers.

Many of our major literary and academic publishers — Anvil, UP Press, and Vibal Publishing — have gone into digital publishing. A company called Flipside, to which Barnes & Noble used to outsource the digitization of its books, has now opened its doors to local material, and has put up an online e-bookstore at Flipreads.com. Some Filipino authors, myself included, can also now be found on Amazon.

Compared to the rest of the region, these are still baby steps — our bestsellers remain in the dozens of copies rather than even the hundreds. The obstacles are clear, though not insurmountable: the skepticism, resistance, and ignorance of both authors and publishers; the historically small market for books of any kind; the expense of e-book readers; and the finetuning and operationalization of the business model for digital publishing.

Digital publishing comes to the Philippines with a special urgency. Like the Internet itself, it is seen — perhaps too optimistically for now — as a great democratizer, which is something of an irony where digital access still separates one class of citizen from another.

Unrealistic though they may be, the hopes placed on the Internet and on digital communications cannot be unfounded. Many societies in the region are still in need of greater freedom and transparency in many aspects of public life.

Facebook will change Asian societies in its own way, but the real revolutions are taking place in such fields as distance learning, and even in electronic procurement, which is an important step in many places toward minimizing government corruption. In the Philippines, we have already brought governments down partly through the efficacy of text messaging.

Granted, it’s a long way from reading a text message to reading an e-book, but you can imagine the quantum leap in social and political transformation if we were able to afford South Korea’s investment of a tablet in the hands of every child and a computer for every citizen.


Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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