Digital Publishing in Singapore, iii

This section considers the use of digital technologies in the various business activities of Singapore’s publishers: from content origination through production to marketing and sales.

Most SBPA members have made an effort to digitalise their back catalogs. Books published in the last 10 years, for which publishers have printer’s pdf files, are usually quite easy to convert for e-publication, but it can be quite expensive to try and do full text conversions for books older than that. There are different flavours of digitisation of course. The simplest will simply involve digital image copies of book pages, but such image files cannot be easily searched, edited and reused in more interesting ways. More ambitious digitisation involves converting page images into text, crudely, for the purposes of creating searchable indexes and tables of content, or at a higher level of accuracy, in case the text will be reused in different formats. Most Singapore publishers report that they find this sort of conversion and text recognition work best outsourced to suppliers outside the country, typically in India or the Philippines.

For some, say education publishers, there is little value in republishing old books (designed as they were to meet the needs of a particular curriculum), but there may be benefits in reusing portions or parts of the material that they published previously. The relevance of re-use of publishing assets varies greatly by type of publishing. Interestingly, in a recent survey of SBPA members, only the largest educational and professional publishers and the very newest digital-first start-ups reported having DAMs, digital asset management systems that allow them to keep track of particular images, illustrations, quiz questions or chunks of text, with a view to reusing them in future. Such systems are difficult to set up, but they also enable the critical (and complicated) task of tracking the intellectual property rights that adhere to particular assets. The need to track and trace such rights is one of the key barriers to greater levels of re-use of such materials.

SBPA members report variable progress on this process of digitalising their publishing assets and back catalogs. Some have been working systematically to do this for many years, others have not yet found the need (or the time or the funds) to begin. Publishers to the professions have had a head start here, as they were first to digitise, and have a keen appreciation for the importance of “the long tail” of material which may seem obscure but which could well prove to be of critical importance for some customer at some time in the future.

Gecko Guides, a local digital-first publisher of travel guides as apps, websites and print-on-demand books, uses a system where authors use web-based tools to write their books. Authoring in web-based systems cuts down on conversion and ingestion issues, allowing for an “author once, publish many times” approach, and also allowing the creation of particular kinds of quality control and pre-formatting. But web-based systems generally don’t yet offer the full richness of an editing environment offered by dedicated word processors.

Singapore’s local trade publishers generally provide this information to the local book trade via catalogs or book information sheets, but increasingly a more systematic approach to managing book information will be required. If a webpage is now as important a channel as the physical display of a book in a bookshop, it becomes imperative that the information on the webpage is accurate, well-made and delivered as efficiently as possible. E-books and app versions of books are sold nearly exclusively in such environments, and getting text and keywords right is crucial here if one hopes to appear in Internet search results.

Most of the SBPA members spoken to for this report say that they track this information in home-grown databases or spreadsheets, and send it via different manual processes to any vendors that require it. The larger publishers tend to have systems that they have built themselves, or purchased from vendors. Singapore’s library suppliers and book distributors often take up this task on behalf of publishers, retyping book information into different databases that they use. Some smaller publishers have begun to experiment with web-based title management tools provided by overseas vendors on a “pay as you go” basis. The advantages of a robust title management system go beyond those of simply “cleaning up” one’s book information. Systems on the market automate various parts of the process, including sending datafeeds to e-book retailers and library suppliers, powering websites, as well as creating book information sheets and even catalogs for printing on an automated or semi-automated basis.

The larger multinationals have invested a great deal of time and effort in integrating all their enterprise systems, tracking book submissions, editorial and production work, title information as well as sales (and royalty) information.

Trade or general publishers however tend to operate across different vertical markets, publishing a cookbook one day, to be followed with a self-help book or a young adult novel the next. A close “brand” relationship with readers is difficult for publishers who work across different “verticals”, and who need to find and build new, distinct audiences for each new book or author. General publisers tend to have direct business relationships only with “the trade”, distributors, bookshops, and so on. In general, the more narrowly and precisely defined one’s total audience, the easier it is to build direct relationships with readers through digital marketing and social media.

Indeed, of the publishers spoken to for this report, it was the more specialist publishers who stay in close touch with actual and potential customers, via a database of email or mailing addresses. Academic and professional publishers, big and small, reported that they felt such mailing lists were central to their marketing efforts, providing information on new books, promotions and the like. Some trade publishers and educational publishers selling to parents reported that they were beginning to build such lists as a matter of priority. But other trade publishers in particular did not build such mailing lists, though they may have made use of other digital channels.

Singaporeans are heavy users of social media. Add this to Singapore’s high level of smartphone usage and then it shouldn’t be a surprise that Singaporeans are the world’s most most active users of social media on their mobile phones (according to Nielsen’s Global Survey of Social Media Usage 2012). Seven out of ten Singaporeans access social media with their handphones during a typical week. And social media is a key place to make purchase decisions for media and entertainment. The same Nielsen study says that 66% of Singaporeans are likely to purchase media or entertainment products based on social media reviews or recommendations.

Given this statistic it shouldn’t be surprising that most SBPA members have some form of a social media presence and report that social media is part of their overall marketing mix. (In fact the Association also conducts a great deal of its member communications via Face-book). But that being said, most describe their efforts as being in the nature of trials or experiments, and they remain unclear of the returns on their social media investments. Only a few publishers report doing any kind of financial analysis on their digital marketing efforts.

Facebook is perhaps the most popular such platform, but publishers should be looking more widely. Goodreads, a social network built on reading and sharing book recommendations, receives some 260,000 unique visitors from Singapore each week (according to Google Display Network’s Ad Planner) . Some SBPA publishers have used Google text search advertising to good effect. This technique would seem to have a great deal of potential for books and lists with very clearly identified audiences. And local publishers are just beginning to gain experience in promotions and discounting strategies working with the big global e-retailers.

Local publishers must choose between opening direct accounts and working with aggregators who can serve different accounts on their behalf. Without good metadata solutions, the overhead of time and effort in supplying digital files and metadata to different players can rise very quickly. Local companies have begun to offer this service.

The larger specialist publishers will operate their own networks to subscribers. WorldSciNet from World Scientific is perhaps the leading local example, and many of the multinational players operate their own platforms. Local technology companies working with Singapore’s publishers have developed the capability to create these systems as well.

Publishers lack a culture (and capital for) “research and development”. Generally publishers concentrate their innovation in their publishing program. They spend lots of time coming up with new books. Each new book carries a significant risk, and so few publishers save funds (or mental energy) to take an R&D approach in a more general sense. Taking an R&D approach may be a fruitful avenue for Singapore’s publishers to explore further, learning from education publishers and the Future Schools initiative. Collaboration between libraries and publishers to better understand e-reading habits of Singaporeans is one area to explore, but the two communities do not work together on a routine basis. Designing new environments to sell e-books is another area where innovation is required and publishers may seek to work with partners.

The internet-fueled globalisation of publishing is starting to impact Singapore’s entire publishing ecosystem. More and more advantages are accruing to global players, at the expense of the local ecosystem. For example, up 22% of local book sales accrue to Amazon, at least partially because of the price advantage they gain by not paying local sales tax. There may be very targeted ways to redress the balance, and allow local players to work on more of a level playing field. Bookshops can be seen as cultural assets as much as businesses.

We still call it the Singapore ‘Book’ Publishers’ Association, but the skills and expertise of Singapore’s publishers stretch far beyond the paper book to the total realm of publishing, in print or in digital formats.

Part 3 of 3 in the Report on Digital Publishing in Singapore, for the Singapore Book Publishers Association, 2013