Five Myths about Book Publishing

Social capital is the store of goodwill, mutual understanding and trust that helps societies thrive. While it is not easy to account for, social capital is a resource that needs to be deepened and diversified.

Today it seems we are frittering away our social capital at an ever-increasing rate. One important cause, among others, is our fractured media landscape, including the rise of internet platforms and social media. While at first it seemed obvious that social media would strengthen social capital, by connecting people in different, useful ways, it now appears that there are unexpected negative consequences that threaten to outweigh the positive benefits we were all looking for when we signed up for Facebook. Social media, after all, is an amazing machine well-turned to give us what we want online. What a surprise that what we want isn’t always good for us!

In such an environment, books remain an important asset to society:  reading and turning pages turns out to be powerful balance to the empty gratification of clicking and swiping…

Books, bookshops and libraries have long represented an open social space that brings diverse people together, by encouraging them to follow their own interests and curiosity. A healthy book publishing industry is a social positive. Successful bookshops should be valued as real cultural (and social) assets. I think most people have a pretty good intuitive understanding that this is true. Still, in my advocating for books, bookshops and publishing in Singapore over the last five years, I’ve come across a few myths that people hold about books, myths that seem to prevent us from taking stronger action to preserve and strengthen that ecosystem.

First Myth: The digital revolution will sweep away books and the publishing industry. It’s inevitable. This one seems particularly strong among our bureaucrats, though perhaps it is now starting to change. Even the National Reading Survey put up by the National Library Board (NLB) phrased the question as “Are we still reading books?”. I always find it amusing that the dominant narrative for books is one of decline, as publishers face the disruptive power of digitalisation. My colleagues will know very well that book publishing has been dealing with the digital revolution since the mid-1980s, when desktop publishing became the first of the great digital media disruptions. We’ve been dealing with the terrible and wonderful impact of e-commerce for the last twenty years: remember, Amazon started its path to global disruption with our industry.

Ebooks are an important new format, but they are not showing any signs of wiping out print books, with which they exist in what looks like (for now!) a pretty stable equilibrium. The latest figures show that the market for print books is growing around the world, in contrast to other physical media. The headline accompanying the latest figures: Gutenberg’s Revenge.

It’s important to celebrate Gutenberg’s staying power while acknowledging all the exciting new possibilities that the mobile revolution and internet innovation have brought us. In particular, the mobile internet has opened up a new space for writing-and-reading platforms that allow new writers to more easily find audiences, get feedback and hone their craft. Whether that’s Singapore’s teenage Tumblr poets with their tens of thousands of followers, or fan-fiction that goes viral, some of the most interesting new media products are coming out of online platforms. These platforms, like Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing, or China Literature’s WebNovel, seem more like complements to the book ecosystem than replacements.

Myth Two: Young people are lost to books, and digital natives have left books behind. This is simply not true. In every survey I’ve seen, young people are reading much more than their elders. And they read for pleasure. The NLB’s 2016 National Reading Habits study showed that 22% of readers in their 20s read books more than once a week; the highest percentage among age cohorts. And 82% of readers in their 20s read fiction; only 48% in their fifties did so. No, it’s the older Singaporeans who seem to have lost the habit of reading for pleasure (or never had it?). It’s the older folks who seem the most easily distracted by their new smartphones, who deny themselves the pleasures of a good book.

Myth three: All good books come from somewhere else, and so we needn’t worry about the importance of a local books ecosystem. This one is pernicious, as is its corollary, that we should only encourage our writers to publish overseas. Singapore is a highly open society, and we read in global languages: English, Chinese, Malay and Tamil. We are a tiny market, and our publishers must compete with cultural centers like New York, London, Beijing, Taipei, KL and Jakarta, which have evolved powerful systems for creation of prestige. Count the number of interviews and reviews of local books versus foreign ones in our newspapers. The picture is getting better but still could be improved.

And though we rarely talk about it, so much of the regulatory structure of our books ecosystem favours importers over local players, from the prevalence of grey market imports to the exemption of overseas e-commerce from GST, a move that tilts the playing field 7% against local publishers and local bookshops in favour of overseas e-commerce players. Add a dash what the Australians call “cultural cringe” and you see how local publishers (and their writers) are always swimming uphill.

In the television industry, this broad set of problems has long been recognised, and it’s one reason the industry receives some S$ 250m a year in subsidy under Public Broadcast legislation. We should switch the paradigm and start designing a books and media ecosystem that recognises Singaporeans as creators and not just consumers of content.

Myth four: We don’t need publishers any more. This one seems pretty strong in some circles in the Ministry of Education these days. In recent years, MOE has increasingly decided that it should not just set the syllabus, but it should create the content for textbooks. The result has been a loss of talent, as educational publishers companies shrink their textbook teams or exit the market. The reason for this often cited has to do with Singapore’s desire to adopt new learning technologies and to encourage new learning styles. But it seems odd to me that in a time of great technological change, where we need more innovation, when we should be finding ways to make our system more flexible, to have a broader portfolio of innovation, we are concentrating our efforts inside one institution.

If we don’t invest more in our curriculum, and provide better common materials for our students to work from, then parents will continue to fill the void by turning to private tuition. That will only exacerbate the problems of inequality of outcomes in schools that are troubling Singaporeans these days.

Our educational publishers have responded to these changes by focusing on export markets. Countries around the world are hungry for Singapore-made content, and even our smallest educational publishers are now skilled exporters.

Myth Five: If we could just forget about copyright, then we’d have all the content we need, with no hassles. Let us just cut-and-paste in peace! I’ll admit that intellectual property is not always easy to sort through, and I’ll admit as well that some copyright holders haven’t always responded to the challenges of globalisation and digitalisation very well. But it would be a mistake to open up broad new exemptions in areas like education, academic research or the library sector, without careful consideration. We need to preserve incentives for the creation of high quality content. If Singaporeans aren’t incentivised to create content, then the only content we will have will come from overseas. Three years ago Canada introduced a change to its copyright law that encouraged educational institutions to stop paying license fees to make copies for educational purposes. The resulting disruption led to a sharp downturn in the educational publishing business, with the inevitable loss in the creation of local educational content. Sure, educators could cut-and-paste with greater freedom, but they were finding less Canadian content to choose from.

But I think there’s another reason for encouraging respect for copyright in our schools, and it has to do with teaching our students to respect their peers and themselves as creators. We should be teaching them to be proud creators who realise that they are deserving of respect in that role. If our exemptions for educational purposes are too broad, students will enter the working world, without understanding the basics of copyright, without respecting others’ creative and intellectual output and more importantly, not respecting their own creative work.