26 October 2016
In the race to keep the publishing business alive and well, Asian authors are being marginalized. Photo: HKEJ
In the race to keep the publishing business alive and well, Asian authors are being marginalized. Photo: HKEJ

This is where the future lies for Asian authors

Everyone loves a good book. Not only that. Books have traditionally been one of the best definers of culture and ambassadors for people who have never been to another country.

Where would America be without Fitzgerald and Hemingway? Where would Britain be without Dickens, or even J.K. Rowling?

Since Gutenberg invented movable type, books have been the final word on various topics.

These are in fact sometimes treated as primary sources.

And the model upon which the book rests consists of an author, a publisher and a bookseller, who all vie for support from readers.

But the brick-and-mortar book model is also plagued by inefficiencies such as insufficient stocks in certain branches (e.g. some have more copies, some do not) and the cost of carrying physical inventory.

In recent years, e-books and e-readers have modified that business model a bit, even allowing authors to bypass publishers through websites such as Amazon’s Createspace or the Kindle authoring tool.

The abundance of free content on the internet has also made the business of selling the printed word a bit messy to say the least.

Newspapers, publishers and bookstores struggle to figure out how to remain relevant and stay afloat, knowing that the fat margins of the past are but a distant memory.

In the race to keep the publishing business alive and well, one sector that has been marginalized to some extent are Asian authors.

Marginalized because the already shrinking pie for authors has been dominated by well known and often western writers the likes of John Grisham or Stephen King (for fiction), or by some popular New York Times columnist like Thomas Friedman and writers from Britain and the US.

One can bring up the likes of Asian-American author Amy Tan but she is one of the exceptions rather than the rule.

The danger of this is that Asian views become less appreciated, especially outside one’s country.

If we stop and think about how foreign writers have shaped our mental images of countries such as the US, France, Russia and Britain, think of the opposite.

They probably think of us less because we get to publish less, all because publishing has become less of a calling or a mission for publishers than it is a business.

Not only that. Even within, fellow countrymen sometimes tend to appreciate their own culture less if there is no one to express it, with one of those expressions being the printed word.

There has been this notion that digital publishing through e-books would make things better by giving the publishers and authors a bigger revenue stream and profit margin as the cost of paper publishing is reduced.

However, one thing that has been stopping this trend from rapidly progressing is the lack of a single e-book standard.

Anyone can read a paper book, but if your gadget can’t open the e-book file, you can’t read it.

Although the dominant e-pub file format has attracted some following, there are competing standards such as the azw3 format for the Amazon Kindle.

If all gadgets, be they smartphones, tablets, PCs or e-book readers could easily open a standard dominant format, the e-book sector would grow much faster.

Instead, these closed standards, such as that for the Kindle, only serve to slow growth as only some people can open the e-book and some can’t.

What should happen for example, is for most gadgets to come preloaded with an e-pub reader app and for most to have digital rights management capability.

Publishing has never been easy and no one is saying that the bar ought to be lowered, which would result in what we are seeing now — the preponderance of unvetted junk on the Web.

Most successful authors such as J.K. Rowling and even F. Scott Fitzgerald have had to pass through several rejections before they became famous.

Nevertheless, without sacrificing editorial review standards, we should try to find ways such as adopting a universal format for e-books to lessen the impact of shrinking budgets and smaller sales to nurture some of Asia’s best writers.

If we build the ecosystem right, e-books can reduce the inefficiencies inherent in the paper book/brick-and-mortar bookstores that have defined the book business in the past.

This will allow the industry to take more risks on new Asian authors.

Because in the end, without our book authors (like artists), we lose our identity not just to those outside but internally as well.

Those Asian authors and their books define who we are as Asians.

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Consultant on low-carbon technology and publisher of Asian Spectator technology blog

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