Monday 23 June 2014

Q & A: Wendy Wong on eBooks In Asia

Tusitala's logo is a kitsune, a fox with 9 tails,
which features in Japanese, Korean and
Chinese folklore
Wendy Wong is Studio Manager / Creative Director of TusitalaThe name is Samoan for storyteller, or a teller of tales – fitting, since Tusitala is a digital publisher of indie authors. The company is based in Singapore, and is a huge fan of Asian content and Asian writers.  

I spoke to Wendy about eBooks in Asia generally.

Are eBooks as popular in Asia as in the west?
Not yet, since there are issues around availability and accessibility.

Can you expand on that?
One of the biggest barriers to eReading in Singapore and in Asia generally is that the larger providers of eBooks – Amazon and Apple iBooks – don’t allow for potential readers in Asia to buy eBooks directly. To make an eBook purchase on your Kindle, for example, you’d need an American address and credit card. If you’re especially dedicated, you’d find a backdoor entry, and the locally available service Kindle Concierge can purchase eBooks on your behalf, so you can bypass all the off-putting red tape, but most local eBook enthusiasts end up with libraries of pirated eBooks.

Google Play Books has recently entered Asia, and at Tusitala we hope that Amazon and Apple will follow Google’s example by expanding into the largely untapped Asian market, thus making eReading more commonplace.

Aren’t there any local eBook retailers?
In Singapore, local eBook stores come and go. Amongst those that survived are Booktique and M1 Learning Center, yet little is done to publicize their services to the general public. (Note, in Hong Kong, eBooks are readily available through Paddyfield.)

Given the problems of availability, how aware of eBooks are readers in Asia?
I think readers may be aware of eBooks, but local authors are often unaware of how easy it is to publish digitally and to access worldwide markets. At Tusitala, as digital publishers, we do our part to celebrate Asian content and to get Asian authors to try ePublishing. It isn’t always easy, but we believe that it is a necessary process that will end with a more vibrant and locally relevant eBooks scene, certainly in Singapore, and then more generally in the rest of Asia.

Do you think libraries have a role in helping raise awareness of eBooks?
Yes. In Singapore, National Arts Council data shows that eRetrievals at libraries across the island have recently seen a spike; in response the National Library has expanded and diversified its collection of eBooks to include more languages and titles. The National Library Board has also been quite vocal lately about their eBook borrowing campaign, and we hope that this encourages people to consider eReading as the convenient and hassle-free experience that it is.

What about the language issue?  Are eBooks available in languages other than in English?
Sure. In Singapore, local content in Chinese, Malay and Tamil is abundant. But while there is no dearth of quality Asian-language content, people here primarily read in English. I expect this aspect of eBook publishing in Asia varies market by market.

I see the main advantage of eBooks as giving me access to content that wouldn’t otherwise be available to me in Asia.  What do you see as the advantages?
Reading habits have adapted to the fast-paced lifestyles of developed Asia – increasingly, people consume news or articles on their phones. By comparison, reading books seems to be a choice that needs to be made (do I lug a novel through my commute?), not an option that is readily available on readers’ gadgets (let me scroll to my e-reader app), and eBooks can help level the field between surfing for information, and reading for pleasure. 

I sometimes find eBooks frustrating, for example, in non-fiction titles, flipping to illustrations, or trying to follow footnotes.  Do you think the format has any disadvantages?
This is not a disadvantage of eBooks per se, but in Asia I think the ecology of reading is such that academic reading is encouraged in young people, rendering reading a habit that doesn’t generally integrate with everyday life - there is a tendency to associate reading with passing exams, rather than reading for pleasure. 

What are your thoughts on the future of eBooks in Asia?
The eBook scene has potential for huge growth, and eBooks are surely set to become more popular, but, as I mentioned already, it’s a matter of availability.  At Tusitala we hope Google Play Books’ entry into Asia marks the beginning of burgeoning accessibility to eBooks in the region. We hope this encourages local writers in Asia to start telling their stories to an ever-expanding audience.

All in all, we are optimistic about the future of eBooks in Asia. When accessibility and awareness align, we hope that eBooks can change the perceptions towards reading for pleasure, and thus foster a more inclusive and pervasive reading culture that everyone can be a part of.

Do you have a message for potential authors?
If you are an author of a book with Asian content and you are looking for a digital publisher to get your existing printed edition made available as an eBook, or to publish a new title, we would be very glad to connect with you!