Cover Story

A new world library

Updated: 2011-09-16 08:40

By Rdiger Wischenbart (China Daily)

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E-books open up enormous possibilities for companies

Riding the Beijing subway is probably a good approach to get a feel of what e-books mean to readers in China. The number of people browsing text in significant quantities is just amazing. But even more staggering is the estimated breakdown of reader numbers by the reading media.

Of course, we see people fully absorbed in books, with that ubiquitous black ink on white sheets of paper. Their number, however, is almost matched by others who stare at little white boxes made of plastic, with novel screens on which e-ink mimics the traditional printing techniques, in black and white.

Less frequently, we also see the colored screens, or tablets like the Apple iPads, with many others operating on the Android platform knocking on the doors.

But the most remarkable feature of public reading in Beijing, and most other Chinese cities, is mobile phones, which are increasingly being used to browse text.

What people actually are after is an easy exercise. Those who play, or update their social media portfolio, are interacting all the time with their little magic boxes, while readers keep that seemingly passive attitude, while reading, and, in a slightly detached rhythm, only casually touch their devices to turn a page.

My totally anecdotal survey tells me that at least one-third of the many individuals who stare at their phone in an average Beijing subway train, actually are readers of mostly lengthy text. With the huge growth in mobile Internet use - some 277 million, by last estimates - it opens the room for a lot of reading.

In spring this year I conducted research on the global (book) publishing industry on behalf of the International Publishers Association (IPA), and found that China, with a market value of about 84 billion yuan ($13 billion), is the third largest book market in the world, after the United States and Germany. The nation ranks ahead of Japan, the earlier No 3, and certainly tops Britain and France.

To make sense of this ranking, one needs to add that, on average the retail price for a book is between one and a couple of dollars in China, while it is 10 times more than that in Europe or North America. What it also means is that a lot of books need to find buyers and readers in China to bring in high turnover.

E-books, or other forms of digital dissemination of books, via the Internet, open up enormous possibilities, notably in a vast territory such as China. The cost of physical distribution of content comes down significantly compared with shipping paper over long distances. Data repositories cost less than a warehouse. Moreover, writers and readers can find entirely new ways to interact.

Over the past few years, we have witnessed fabulously huge communities of authors and readers emerge and communicate via online platforms, with unseen trajectories for best-selling works, fan communities and emerging new coalitions of market actors.

Publishers need to rethink what kind of value proposition they really add for readers as well as writers, as do retailers (who may turn into reading community organizers, or content aggregators). Recently we have seen hardware companies like e-reader manufacturer Hanvon, and digital infrastructure company Huawei, develop content channels.

Mobile devices, notably smart phones, are being used for more daily routines, and the networks, led by China Mobile, are positioning themselves as paramount gatekeepers and content providers, confidently including the future reading (or, as until recently labeled, the book) market in their service portfolio to their hundreds of millions of subscribers.

But behind such issues of technology, infrastructure and economics, even more interesting is what this does to reading, and to the many readers (and the authors). Think of how deeply the emergence of mobile phones re-organized our daily lives. On the one hand it is certainly a nuisance as the ring tones hardly fall silent. But for business and for private lives, having a cell phone means that we can seamlessly stay in touch with those we constantly communicate with.

This will also be the case with reading and books. The reading devices will soon be secondary, in a "platform agnostic" environment. More importantly, to read will mean, more than ever, to be connected with other readers. This also includes, as a matter of fact, that reading as a strictly private, secluded pass time, will be challenged by the never ending flow of communication, and by a public sharing of what we read.

On the other hand, unparalleled library worlds open up when, over time, any book will be accessible to such digital reading. It remains to be seen if this will be a labyrinth, or reader's heaven, or both at the same time.

The author is a Vienna-based consultant specializing in international culture and the book market.

(China Daily 09/16/2011 page7)


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