More room for local authors
A Malaysian company is turning locally-published books into e-books, increasing avenues for writers to reach an audience.
THANKS to e-books, the publishing world has radically changed. According to a report by British newspaper The Guardian in August 2011, the sales of hardback fiction have fallen by over 10% in 2011 and e-books now account for 13.6% of the fiction market in the United States. According to British-based Juniper Research, e-books are expected to generate US$9.7bil (RM30bil) worldwide in 2016, more than three times the US$3.2bil (RM10bil) it is expected to generate in 2011.
The rise of the e-book has resulted in changes in the way publishers publish, sell and distribute their books. Malaysian publishers, however, have largely been protected from these seismic changes and many have stuck to the traditional way of publishing. This may be due to Malaysians’ slow embrace of e-books and the lack of availability of e-book readers such as Amazon.com’s Kindle, the Sony Reader or Barnes and Noble’s Nook, which are not available here. E-book readers that are made in Asia, such as from China and South Korea, are sold in Malaysia, but these are only sold in very selected stores.
However, the introduction of tablets, such as the trendy and popular iPad, which is widely available around Malaysia, may change things.
“There are 400,000 tablet users in Malaysia. People who have these do not have content to read, they can mostly get games only,” says Zafirah Ahmad at a recent interview in Kuala Lumpur.
Aware of this huge untapped market, Zafirah and a group of like-minded people decided to dip their toes into the e-book waters by creating a digital portal where publishers and users can sell and buy books. Called e-Sentral, the portal (e-sentral.com.my) currently offers e-books from local publishers such as Fixi, Pelangi, PTS Publications, KarnaDya and Singapore’s Guide Gecko.
Zafirah is a book lover who became frustrated when she could not purchase e-books from e-bookstores such as Apple’s iBookstore or Amazon due to geographical copyright restrictions.
“Because of this limitation, I decided: why not we have something that is localised in our market and also with local content?” she says.
The company starting working on the portal in 2009 but only started selling e-books four months ago.
The response to e-Sentral has been encouraging, says Zafirah, with many customers returning.
For now, the portal has about 400 e-books. Although there are some English e-books, most are in Bahasa Malaysia.
“Local books sell more than English ones – and that includes local and foreign English books,” says e-Sentral consultant Faiz Al-Shahab.
The e-books are currently available for iPads and iPhones, and are priced 50% to 60% lower than their “tree book” versions as there are no printing or distribution costs, says Faiz.
At the moment the e-books on e-Sentral are available only to Malaysians and Singaporeans, though they plan to launch in Indonesia soon.
E-Sentral has also created its own Digital Rights Management (DRM) to ensure that the copyright of the books is protected.
Initially, the company wanted to buy a DRM system from the West, but found it too expensive. Rather than pay for it, they decided to create one – and that turned out to be a good decision because, “Now there’s interest from the Middle East to purchase our system,” says Faiz.
Change is challenging
Currently, overseas English publishers such as Random House would not want to contribute to portals such as e-Sentral, says Faiz.
“They sell the rights for specific territories so they do not want portals like ours to get their content and some people can cheat and buy the product in Malaysian currency which is usually cheaper than the US dollar and the Euro. Also, they have a really bad image of Asia and in particular of South-East Asia, thinking it to be infested with piracy,” he says.
This assertion is untrue as most pirated e-books or e-books that have had their DRMs removed are distributed from American websites, says Faiz.
And another reason publishers should embrace e-books is the fact that they currently have trouble moving their physical stock, points out Faiz.
“If the whole world is turning digital, then where are they going to sell their stocks? So Asia and even countries such as South Africa are becoming ‘dumping grounds’ for English books to be sold. This is basically the talk we heard when we were at the Frankfurt Bookfair (the world’s biggest bookfair),” he says.
Although Faiz believes that not all books can be digitised, e-books is just the “natural way forward” because of practical reasons and real limitations. “For one, pulp paper has become more expensive, just like other natural resources,” he says.
Zafirah adds other advantages: books can be distributed faster and to a bigger audience, and they can even reach different and larger markets.
It has been challenging, however, to convince local publishers to turn digital.
“Some of the publishers (in Malaysia) just refuse to go digital, though the number of publishers who are participating is increasing,” says Zafirah, adding that “we help digitise books and also train publishers to digitise their works.”
Helping authors publish
E-Sentral isn’t just a bookstore. It is also a publishing portal that helps authors sell their e-books. It also acts as a content aggregator by helping authors sell their e-books at international online bookstores such as iBooks and Amazon.com.
Authors can open up an account at e-Sentral to publish their e-books, eliminating the need to set up a portal of their own or to engage the services of an IT professional.
E-Sentral also offers to teach people how to digitise their novels and attach the DRM. Authors pocket 60% of the book price while the rest goes to e-Sentral. If authors request e-Sentral to digitise their books and create the cover, they will get 50% of the sales proceeds.
In the traditional publishing system, books are vetted by editors, selected for publishing, and then sold to bookstores. E-books have the ability to demolish the need for books to be physically present in bookstores. Authors can now bypass the publisher and publish their e-books, reaping the lions’ share of the profits and are also able to reach an international audience.
Western companies are already taking advantage of this. There’s Kindle Direct Publishing, which has made authors millionaires.
“People are thinking: Why should we go to publishers when we do it ourselves and become millionaires?” says Zafirah.
“A lot of publishers have to digest that and think about this new way of doing things. This is the reality. When society decides to change they will just switch, they won’t wait,” says Faiz.
E-books and devices such as the iPad are also changing the way people read. Faiz highlights how Apple “killed off albums” and created a music revolution with the iPod.
For a while, music labels fought against the change, but they soon adapted.
Thanks to the iPod, listeners can now buy the songs they want rather than the entire album. In the future, readers will be able to do the same.
“For example, rather than pay for an entire magazine only to read 50% of it, you can pay for the article you want to read instead,” he says.
Overseas retailers such as Amazon.com and Fictionwise.com offer short stories for sale. That way, instead of buying an entire collection of stories, readers can buy the stories they want for as low as US$0.40 (RM1.20).
The digital revolution can even transform the way books are written.
“For thousands of years, people read content in a linear fashion,” Faiz says. To get to the next event in the story, one has to turn the page.
However, due to modern technologies, we can now read in a non-linear fashion. For example, while reading the digital book, the author may include a link to a separate story that expands the original story further.
“The author has the option to create subplots, flashbacks and backgrounds. Readers can choose to read ‘the story behind the story’,” Faiz points out.
When the company exhibited at the Frankfurt Book Fair in October last year, they attracted a lot of attention because they were the only ones championing the non-linear, interactive publishing model concept to the world.
The potential is huge, says Faiz. Not only will there be more income streams for the author, literature could be changed forever. After all, “Who says we have to read the story page by page?”