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E-book fervour yet to catch on in Thailand but upward sales trend points to potential; stricter copyright protection needed

Publication Date : 03-09-2012


On her overseas trips, Kim Chongsatitwatana reads "chick lit" on her Amazon Kindle. Back in her office, she uploads dozens of manuscript submissions in PDF format onto her Sony e-reader. These have been sent in by e-mail by a young crop of aspiring novelists.

At home, Kim puts away her Kindle and iPad and snuggles up with a paper novel. She runs Nanmee Books, which has published some of Thailand's biggest best-sellers, including over a million copies of the Thai translation of the Harry Potter books. While the main focus for Nanmee remains old-fashioned paper books, Kim has a few e-books to launch.

She is one of roughly 1.5 million Thais who flip the pages on electronic devices - a small world of bookworms, but one full of potential.

Despite the growing awareness of digital content, the e-book fervour has yet to come of age in this country. Most Thai publishers only welcome the e-book trend half-heartedly. Their apprehension is quite reasonable - cheaper e-books might make it more difficult to sell struggling paper editions.

Nanmee has 121 e-books in its catalogue. These include old and new works by top Thai novelists and short-story writers such as Praphassorn Sevikul, Prachakom Lunachai and Naruchaj Muenjaingam, plus recent award-winning Thai-language titles and even Thai translations of Philip Pullman's "His Dark Materials" trilogy.

"I'm thinking about publishing e-book versions of titles already out of print," Kim said.still in infancy.

She believes e-books have potential, but sales are limited. That's because the e-book business is still in its infancy in Thailand where e-reader devices are still unaffordable and not fit for reading.

"Most devices don't have non-glaring screens. Still most people don't use e-readers to read books, but to access social-media websites such as Facebook," Kim says.

Emerging e-book markets represent at best one per cent of the overall book market. The growth is steady, but slow. Online booksellers reckon e-readers are here to stay so they want to tap the e-book business further. They believe digital publishing is the way to the future because e-readers will eventually become more affordable and drive demand for e-books.

When it comes to e-book formats, the trend is moving towards the "open" rather than the "closed" system, said Leslie Hulse, senior vice president of HarperCollins in New York, who was in Bangkok recently to discuss the digital impact on traditional book publishing.

The open system means you buy an e-book once and read it everywhere - on Kindle, PC, Mac, iPhone, iPad, BlackBerry and Android devices. The closed system limits you to reading only on Kindle and or devices equipped with the Amazon app.

The main online bookstores in Thailand are AIS and B2S. AIS claims to be the country's largest online bookstore, which, together with B2S and several others, runs on Ookbee, the country's most popular digital-publication platform.

Other online bookstores include Se-Ed, True, Nai-In and Asia Books.

AIS boasts more than 300,000 e-book downloads per month while B2S and Asia Books get 70,000 and 100 downloads per month respectively. Asia Books has the most e-book titles at 700,000, including 800 to 1,000 Thai titles. AIS boasts 2,000 titles in contrast to the 6,000 at B2S.

Best-sellers are mostly Thai men's magazines and the Thai translation of Steve Jobs's biography, says Pratthana Leelapanang, AIS vice president for value-added service business. AIS boasts 33 million smart-phone users, and about 17 per cent of them use e-readers, with half of them reading e-books.

"I see the upward trend in the sales of e-books despite the fact that e-book sales represent one per cent of overall book sales. We focus on e-book sales only and don't try to be like Amazon, which also sells physical books. I'm hoping to stock up to 100,000 e-books in the future," says Pratthana.

Pratthana is optimistic that more customers will take to e-readers, even though the devices are not cheap.

E-book sales are rising consistently at B2S. When the company opened its online bookstore last November, its e-book revenue was 400,000 baht per month. Now it earns 2 million baht a month, mainly thanks to magazines.

"E-magazines sell better than e-books," says Jutharath Wongsuwan, B2S's vice president in charge of marketing.

Jutharath expects to see revenue of 50 million baht in e-book sales next year, up from 20 million baht this year. But that's still a fraction of annual paper book sales, which stand at around 800 million baht.

"E-books don't have a major impact on our book-selling business because it represents just one per cent," the B2S exec said.

To boost e-book sales, Jutharath plans to offer significant out-of-print Thai novels in e-book format only. These will include such well-known works as "Khoo Kam" by Thommayantree. B2S also plans to offer e-book titles in English.

"People buy e-books because they are on average 30 per cent cheaper than paper versions," notes Jutharath.

Sales of e-book titles in English are trailing behind Thai e-books.

Asia Books' managing director, Sirote Jiraprayon, reports that his online bookstore has 100 downloads per month, up from around 20 to 30 downloads a month last year. This is despite his online bookstore having the country's largest e-book selection of 700,000 titles from about 600 publishers. Best-sellers are fiction and as well as non-fiction, like business and academic titles, and are 30 per cent cheaper than paper versions. Of Asia Books' 150,000 registered members, 10 per cent are e-book readers.

For a healthy e-book future, Thailand needs stricter copyright protection, says Sirote of Asia Books.

Hulse of HarperCollins agrees. "Risk is highest per capita in Southeast Asia and South America. What we need is a strengthening of the copyright law."


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