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Content provided by :  Hong Kong Trade Development Council

The New Word Sellers

Dania Shawwa 

Dania Shawwa, founder
of Hong Kong-based Haven Books


The rise of the online book business may be creating an international marketplace for regional publishers, but making it work is another thing entirely, according to Hong Kong-based Dania Shawwa, publisher of Haven Books. 

Ms Shawwa has taken on a broad range of titles that would appeal to readers living anywhere. But while several of her company’s books have earned media praise in the United Kingdom and the United States, sales have not reflected the good publicity. “They did not necessarily translate into books being sold,” says the publisher, who is now reviewing her list to focus more on local, Asian-centric titles. After years of covering all publishing costs and offering royalties to writers, Ms Shawwa is now looking to co-publish or co-invest to make her business viable. 

Online Model


Bestselling author Jung Chang is among the high-profile speakers participating in the HKTDC Hong Kong Book Fair, 17-23 July. Author of the 1991 bestseller Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China and Mao: The Unknown Story, Ms Chang will take part in a public forum on 19 July, moderated by Sir David Tang

Other Hong Kong publishers have embraced new technology as a way to compete with traditional heavyweight publishers in the West. Marshall Moore created Typhoon Media as an online model, selling e-books across a planned three imprints. He says that low start-up costs, flexibility and an eye to using new technology helped him break even two years after launching in 2010. His marketing strategy includes sending review book copies to top bloggers for such sites as Goodreads.com. Bloggers, he says, are now key influencers on what the public buys. 

Adopting the e-book model allows Mr Moore to avoid shipping, distribution and warehousing costs. Distribution can be a challenge for publishers in Hong Kong. Some Hong Kong presses have benefited from partnerships with larger, well-established publishers overseas to access distribution channels. 

But other Hong Kong publishers have not been as fortunate. Mary Chan of MCCM Creations has spent 15 years trying to convince distributors to take her entire list of titles. MCCM publishes a mix of locally focused visually driven cultural books, as well as fiction and picture books. She says distributors are interested only in specific genres.


Pete Spurrier 

Pete Spurrier of Blacksmith Books, which specialises in Asian non-fiction

For other publishers working within a niche genre and producing small runs, shipping and distribution can be costly. Adopting a print-on-demand model, meanwhile, limits distribution to big online booksellers, according to Pete Spurrier of Hong Kong-based Blacksmith Books, who says distributors want to work with publishers using standard offset print runs. “The economics also don't work because there is no economy of scale: each book costs a relatively high amount to print,” Mr Spurrier says. 

Subject matter also plays a part. Blacksmith Books deals in Asian non-fiction which, he says, outsells fiction and poetry enough that he can afford to ship at least a pallet’s worth to distributors in the UK and US. “When you are shipping this amount, the cost of transport per book really isn't that high, so the economics work,” he says. He’s focused on getting his books into smaller and independent bookstores to support those businesses. 

Sticking to a niche market is vital, says Peter Gordon, who runs Chameleon Press. The publisher produces about two to three books of poetry a year. “We know how to make money from that,” he says. Anything that doesn’t fit the remit may get a recommendation from Mr Gordon but not a contract. 

Across Asia


Triena Ong


Triena Ong, President of the
ASEAN Book Publishers Association and the Singapore Book
Publishers Association

The move to e-models is forcing publishers to adapt elsewhere in Asia, albeit at a different pace. “The hurdles we have to face are what to do, how fast and when,” says Triena Ong, President of the ASEAN Book Publishers Association and the Singapore Book Publishers Association. In many Asian countries, iPad use is high, but book content is not yet available. Amazon’s Kindle has to be bought overseas, and Google is just beginning to push its Android operating software. Publishers are on tenterhooks as to how to move forward. 

In Singapore, where the homegrown Page One bookstore and Borders closed, a few e-bookstores are making headway, including local e-book seller Skoob. But international retailers Amazon and Book Depository take a significant share, accounting for about 20 per cent of the local market, according to a report by Singapore-based Peter Schoppert for the Publishers Association. 

The Singapore Book Publishers Association is helping its members go digital. One programme sponsored by the city-state’s Media Development Authority allows publishers to receive funding in order to convert out-of-print and existing titles to e-formats. 

Cannibalising Print

Arief Hakim


“There is a fear that e-books will cannibalise print,” says Arief Hakim, of the Malaysian Book Publishers Association

Formatting isn’t the only concern for publishers in Thailand, where online sales are rising, according to Amy Chonrungsee Chalermchaikit of the Publishers and Booksellers Association of Thailand (Pubat). Revenue distribution and confusion over copyright related to online sales and e-books, however, remain issues to be negotiated, she says. 

In Malaysia, e-books still represent only a small percentage of sales, but government and libraries are buying electronic titles and will lead the market, according to Arief Hakim of the Malaysian Book Publishers Association. He says that publishers have been reluctant to enter unfamiliar territory. “There is a fear that e-books will cannibalise print,” Mr Hakim says. Until market demands forces greater changes, the situation will remain “chicken and egg,” he says. “Small users equal small content.” 

 Amy Chonrungsee Chalermchaikit

Amy Chonrungsee Chalermchaikit of the Publishers and Booksellers Association of Thailand 

E-sales in Malaysia may be small, but locally produced books have shown unexpected growth, sparking a new challenge: space. “Five years ago, there was no problem with shelf space,” says Mr Arief. “Now everyone is fighting.” Big drivers include fiction, romance and Islamic contemporary titles, with cookbooks and other lifestyle categories popular. Thailand is pushing sales of highly illustrated children’s books to Malaysia and Indonesia, and modern spiritual enlightenment titles to China. 

In Hong Kong and Singapore, the quest for self-improvement keeps sales of business titles and self-help strong, and Ms Ong says specialty booksellers providing poetry or Asian-focused titles can still be profitable, despite high rental costs. 

Reading Culture

Pubat is running book fairs and holding publisher conferences in Thailand to help develop the city i 

Pubat is running book fairs and holding publisher conferences in Thailand to help develop the city into a publishing centre

Pubat has been organising book fairs and holding publisher conferences in Thailand to promote books and a reading culture. UNESCO named Bangkok the 2013 World Book Capital and, next year, the city will host the International Publishers Association’s 30th congress. The organisation’s mission is ambitious: “Thailand is going to be a centre of publishing,” says Pubat’s Amy Chalermchaikit. 

In Indonesia, there’s continuing disputes between government and textbook publishers over curriculum changes and a government scheme to upload content as PDFs. Nova Rasdiana of the Indonesian Book Publishers Association says Indonesian publishers face the high upfront costs that international publishers demand on new sales. Low local currency value means that the standard rate overseas companies require is cost-prohibitive for publishers who buy foreign titles. Ms Rasdiana would like to see more room for negotiation, a chance to co-publish or reduced advance payments in favour of a royalty-based system. 

Looking Good

If the move to e-content has been slow, adaption to other electronic media has not. Across the board, Asian publishers are now providing a web presence. Larger houses can quickly set up an online storefront, while boutique enterprises make use of free social media outlets such as Facebook to reach consumers. These multiple channels have opened the field, according to Ms Ong, who is upbeat about the industry’s regional prospects. 

“I’m of the view that publishers haven’t had to change; they still publish books. Now they have the added advantage of being able to use new channels,” she says. “I think publishers have never had it so good.”

Related Links
ASEAN Book Publishers Association 
Blacksmith Books 
Chameleon Press 
Haven Books 
Malaysian Book Publishers Association 
MCCM Creations 
Singapore Book Publishers Association 
Typhoon Media


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