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eBooks' gilt edge

Digital books are paving the way for a brave, new world of learning and infotainment as more electronic publishers mine the interactive power of apps and online tools
The Business Times - March 30, 2012
By: Christopher Lim
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eBooks' gilt edge -- BT IMAGE

IN the face of big name bookstore closures like Borders, and all but one of Popular's Harris outlets, publishers and book retailers here are cautiously exploring a digital future - namely ebooks, with children's literature being a key growth area.

Heading the pack are Samsung and Popular, which are banking on the thriving education market. And even specialist publishers like the National Art Gallery are entering the ebook arena, while bodies such as the National Library Board are driving ebook adoption by growing its collection and relaxing lending rules.

Even as printed books face major challenges, interest in book content - as distinct from its delivery channel - remains and looks set to find its way to new eyes through electronic reading gadgets like laptops, tablets and phones.

In terms of size, the largest local ebook retailer is SingTel's skoob (, which launched in November with fewer than 40,000 titles, but has already grown its catalogue by 50 per cent, and includes content from international publishers such as Random House and Penguin, HarperCollins, Hachette Book Group, Simon and Schuster and Macmillan.

'We aim to have 200,000 titles by the end of the year and will also start to offer Chinese language publications soon,' says SingTel chief of multimedia Goh Seow Eng.

First-mover edge

In other words, SingTel has its sights set on the two of the biggest international players - Apple's iBookstore, which boasts a 700,000-book catalogue, and Amazon's Kindle Store, which has crossed the one million mark but counts games, newspapers, magazines and audiobooks towards that total.

Neither service has officially launched in Singapore yet and SingTel clearly intends to maximise its first-mover advantage. One area in which it resoundingly trumps the competition is payment. While locals are able to buy from Apple and Amazon using gift cards and other circuitous routes to bypass the two stores barriers to Singapore-based buyers, SingTel not only lets you buy with a local credit card, but even lets SingTel mobile customers charge purchases to their monthly bills. This sort of seamless billing is extremely convenient, and hooking e-shoppers is all about lowering barriers to entry.

Another key differentiator for skoob is local content, says Mr Goh. 'Since skoob was launched in November 2011, 17 local publishers have come on board and we now offer more than 400 local ebooks.

'Local biographies, such as former President S R Nathan's An Unexpected Journey, have secured three spots in the top 20 bestselling titles.'

He adds, 'International fiction and local non-fiction titles have been the most popular with skoob readers. In particular, biographies, property, finance and business titles.'

Price remains an issue, however. Although Mr Goh says that skoob's ebook titles are 20 per cent cheaper than their print equivalents, 18 out of a random selection of 20 ebooks on skoob were priced slightly higher than their iBookstore counterparts, even taking into account a 10 per cent discount for customers when they charge skoob purchases to their SingTel bills.

While it could be argued that direct price comparisons aren't fair fights since the iBookstore and Kindle Store don't officially sell to Singapore, a key international ebook store, Kobo (, does.

Samsung's Reading Hub, which is accessed through an app on its mobile phones and tablets, is powered by Kobo and offers about 2.3 million books, some 30-35 per cent of which are commercial ebooks while the remainder are free titles.

The Korean company has also launched a Singapore-exclusive e-assessment education app, which is bundled with its Galaxy Tab 7.0 Plus and Galaxy Tab 7.7 tablets, and can also be downloaded free for its Galaxy Tab 8.9 and Tab 10.1 models. The app was developed by B-Secure, and registered Samsung customers get material targeted at Primary 4-6 math and English. You get 100 multiple-choice questions, which are refreshed monthly with new content for the first year of ownership, with Samsung still deciding whether or not to extend the service beyond that point.

'Singapore is an ideal market for the Primary 4-6 e-assessment apps, given its strong focus on education, as well as high smartphone and tablet adoption rates,' says Winston Goh, Samsung Asia's senior product marketing manager for telecommunications. 'As Samsung does not, by itself, own content, our strategy is to work with partners who have access to quality content and are willing to deliver that content via our devices,' he adds.

The e-assessment app is the tip of the iceberg for Samsung's digital education ambitions, and Singapore is set to play a big role in the company's plans.

'A Hub specialised in learning - Samsung's Learning Hub - has been recently added and will be launched in Singapore in the second quarter of this year,' says Samsung's Mr Goh. 'Singapore will also be one of the first countries in the world where the Learning Hub will be available.' This Learning Hub will include courses such as mathematics, languages and cooking that can be consumed at one's own pace.

'We are optimistic that there is huge potential in the ebook industry,' he adds. His company has noticed significant interest in the medium, and that Singaporean customers are particularly interested in content they can access anywhere and at any time.

One of the strongest players in the print education market here is Popular, which also operates stores under the Prologue and Harris brands, and while it isn't pulling out of print any time soon, it hasn't been idle on the digital front.

'Popular's ebook strategy is participation in the form of e-assessment,' says Christine Chiang, Popular's senior director for IT and Business, adding that Popular launched its Go-easel app last year as a way to meet the needs of tech-savvy readers.

Ms Chiang describes Go-easel as 'a one-stop solution comprising e-guides and e-assessments complete with instantaneous auto-marking' and 'built-in diagnostic tools' to identify areas of weakness.

'Subscribers can easily choose the titles they want, purchase in-store or online, and download the contents,' she adds.

Popular's strategy will be to put its weight behind the Go-easel brand to make sure it works on popular gadgets and goes beyond text content to include sound and video.

SingTel is also working with Popular to distribute its content. 'We are working with Popular to offer access to hundreds of assessment ebooks and study guides for Singapore primary and secondary school students via a new app that will be launched soon,' says SingTel's Mr Goh, emphasising that education's a key market for the skoob store, which already carries study guides and educational books from publishers such as Marshall Cavendish, Cengage Learning, Asiapac, Flame of the Forest, McGraw Hill, Sunbear, Monsoon, Singapore Asia Publishers and Janus Education.

'We believe e-learning is the way of the future and the days when students lug around stacks of heavy books are numbered,' says SingTel's Mr Goh. 'With the convenience of ebooks by their side to revise any time, anywhere, students will garner a tremendous competitive advantage.'

The new e-assessment app SingTel is launching with Popular 'will provide students with an experience that is similar to using paper assessment materials,' says Mr Goh, and 'will be equipped with powerful time-saving features such as auto-marking and score analysis' as well as the ability to 'provide students with model answers'.

App for art

The National Art Gallery also had its eye on children when it made its debut in the ebook market earlier this month, but not in the education market per se.

Koko the Great is a children's book that's been published in print as well as an ebook app for Google Android and Apple iOS gadgets. It was written by Natalie Hennedige, illustrated by Twisstii and narrated by Chua Enlai and Danny Yeo.

'The launch is timely as it rides on the increasing preference of parents and young children to use iPads and Android tablets as educational and reading devices,' says Yeo Wei Wei, the National Art Gallery's head of publications.

The app is far more than an electronic copy of the printed book. It's an interactive tool that has both English and Mandarin audio, and a full soundtrack. Children can even personalise the book by recording themselves reading, or making their own animal sounds.

'By bringing this book from print to digital format, we've created an additional platform for our readers, especially those who prefer the convenience of an e-book,' says Ms Yeo.

Some might wonder why a new museum publisher specialising in the visual arts would want to channel its resources into an ebook rather than, say, a large-format glossy art book, but Ms Yeo explains that the National Art Gallery's goal is to increase awareness of the Gallery's collection, and the key to doing that is accessibility.

'Our books have a guiding principle: to make art accessible, enjoyable, and memorable to a wide range of readers,' she says. 'For this reason, we have books that cater specifically to the young reader, as well as art lovers and the uninitiated. Ebooks are a natural extension of this focus on accessibility. With ebooks, authors and publishers are now able to reach new audiences around the world, while enriching their learning experiences.'

Although Ms Yeo says that the Gallery aims to launch five ebooks within this year alone, she added that the Gallery will continue to publish printed books to cater for the portion of its audience that still prefers it, in spite of the declining popularity of print.

A good barometer for the popularity of ebooks here is the National Library Board's (NLB's) statistics, and an NLB spokesman says that ebook readership has more than tripled since its eResource website was launched in 2006. Within those five years, the NLB's collection has swelled to 2.3 million ebooks.

In addition to increasing the size of its catalogue, the NLB's also made it more accessible by increasing the loan quota to six ebooks per person - up from four previously. And students can borrow up to 12 ebooks during the year-end school holiday period.

Ebook readership is going up in Singapore, according to the NLB spokesman, and one of the ways the NLB has tried to meet that demand is through the release of its MobileRead app last year in conjunction with its annual READ! Singapore campaign. The app lets iPhone and iPad users download short stories selected from the campaign, and the NLB is also developing an Android version of the app.

'27.5 per cent of Singaporeans placed reading as their most preferred leisure time activity,' says SingTel's Mr Goh, quoting figures from the Singapore Journal of Library and Information Management. 'While the average reader in Singapore reads about five books a year, about 10 per cent of readers read more than 30 books a year,' he adds, pointing to proof that reading remains a popular pastime here.

Mr Goh also points to a 2009 study by the Infocomm Development Authority of Singapore (IDA), which found that 'the primary activity for 3 per cent of Internet users in Singapore is reading online magazines and ebooks'. That works out to 110,000 people. Take that within the context of 150 per cent mobile phone penetration, and the highest smartphone penetration in the world, and the stage is set for ebook readership to grow. It may be spearheaded by children's books and educational publications now, but going into the future, there will be no limits.


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