Last updateTue, 20 Oct 2020 8pm

Are the E-book bubble's days numbered?


Recall the rage of electronic books a few years ago and the aggressive emergence of tablets beginning with the iPad. That caused substantial panic for the book printing sector. However, the tide seems to be turning. Christel Lee from Print World Asia investigates.

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Some years back one could walk anywhere and spot a person holding either an iPad or a tablet, or mid-sized tablet PC. It made me feel very dated with my Finnish branded phone. I recall my conversation with a renowned paper manufacturer who believed books are here to stay. The Taiwanese traditional book reader, formerly Vice-President of Gold East Paper, was not about to part with his books.

In recent years, we have watched our big bookstores close one-by-one, Borders being one such earth-shaking closure in Singapore. The United States-based bookstore operated in Singapore for 13 years and it was one of the most crowded hanging out places in downtown Orchard Road. Borders Bookstore in Singapore was also famed for its sale of the Harry Potter series and consumers were known to queue outside overnight for fresh-off-the-press copies.

Its decision to exit the market in 2011 left many fans in shock. On the other side of the camp stood bored shoppers who cited 'poor book selection and proliferation of non-book products – including toys and cookware' as the reasons for giving the store a miss. Local press quoted industry insiders attributing the cause of its closure to the store's endless discounts which cut into its earnings. Other book lovers said the bookshop's range was not as comprehensive as before.

The tide is changing

Just about everyone I know carries a tablet and I felt sheepish after revealing what (in my language) I called an 'impulse purchase'. "Where have you been?!" was the most popular question directed at my old-fashioned habit of having a basic phone.

I am still a book reader and one of my favourite haunts is the library. I attempted to read off a tablet but my eyes just couldn't take the staring for long hours. Facing my work computer doesn't count.

Today, tablets are economically-priced and competition between PC makers and smart phone manufacturers is nothing less than intense. Blackberry CEO, Thorsten Heins, shared the same sentiment. He told Bloomberg there would not be any tablets coming out of his company unless it can justify the launch with sufficient profit. This is notwithstanding Blackberry is struggling for market share in the mobile phone market, along with Nokia – which did not go far with its latest range of smart phones.

Additionally, while many huge book printers have signed merger agreements, a big boy from Taiwan has just recently cemented its presence in Hong Kong with a 40,000sqft outlet! Eslite Bookstore is one of the largest retail bookstore chains in Taiwan. It is also one of the largest providers of English language publications and translation materials in Taiwan with headquarters in Xinyi District, Taipei.

If you are wondering how that could work, Catherine Wang, Operating Director of Eslite, justified the move saying the key to its success is a flexible business model that adapts to each locale.

"We are a chain bookstore, but we customise for each location. People in Hong Kong work long hours in the office and after midnight, when the MTR closes, they disappear. And given the work-orientated lives of many Hong Kongers, it's perhaps no surprise that the most popular books are ones on business, psychology ('How to deal with your boss'), health and cooking. The literary book section in Hong Kong is struggling; it's only about 10–12%. However, it's 15% in Taiwan," she says.

There are debates on both sides of the issue. Some argue it's a matter of individual preference. However, when accompanied with good business decisions, you can still snuggle up with a good book with just candlelight.

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