Asian publishers need to go into e-books, if they are to make it forward into the next few decades. But our love affair with Gutenberg, especially nice covers, type fonts, and acid-free paper, coupled with a cup of coffee, is really hard to break up with. Although except for the paper, you can still have the covers, the type fonts and the cup of coffee with your e-book.
Eventually, when e-book reader prices drop, this will no longer be a significant obstacle much like our affection for vinyl LP's and cassette tapes gave way to MP3 tunes.
More importantly, what often becomes a barrier to publishing is not the editorial department anymore, but the economics of book publishing. Publishing's editorial standards are still high, yet many books that deserve to be published get waylaid simply because it is not economical to publish them. E-books are a way to lower the costs of publishing, as the cost is limited to editorial, copyediting and design and no longer includes printing and storage costs.
Nowhere is this more true than university presses. Notwithstanding the fact that Harvard Business School Press is probably the king of the hill in terms of profitable university presses, it is the exception for this sector. University presses are not exactly paragons of profit. Their operations are often supported by razor-thin grants that are hard to come by in these recessionary times, except perhaps in universities with large endowments or state and grant funding. They are chartered to publish and protect the production of new knowledge and culture; but often, their only strength is the name and reputation of the university itself.
Their weakness is often how to appeal to the masses and distribute their books to a wider audience, something that often gets submerged because of their primary aim to publish scholarly (and therefore often limited audience) books. Potentially, that audience is not simply limited to students, academics and scholars. It can, for example, include university alumni based anywhere around the world, historians and scientists; and in the case of Asian university and trade presses, Asians and their kin who simply want to reconnect with Asian ideas.
Events seemed to have conspired to make university presses and their commercial counterparts very profitable if they choose to go that path. For some universities in Asia, especially those that are state run, profit can seem like a dirty word; but if you want to pay your staff properly and fund infrastructure, then simply taking allocations from grants, alumni or the state simply won't cut it.
Indeed, Asian university and trade presses should take a look at the sea of opportunities that are being afforded by e-books. For many Kindle owners, for example, ordering an e-book is a much more convenient proposition as opposed to ordering a hard copy by mail.
Apple's new iPad and Amazon.com's Kindle are now engaged in a battle of epic proportions for market share. To protect its turf, Amazon.com has now increased Kindle book royalties to 70% for authors and publishers. Presumably, Apple will match that amount. Even authors stand to benefit. Authors can of course self-publish their own e-book, but except for a few well-written ones, many self-published books are a waste of time and money.
Which brings me to the point of this oped. Asian university and trade presses need to explore releasing e-books for both Kindle and iPad, which will probably become the two standard platforms for e-books. Paying iTunes and the Kindle store the 30% while retaining 70% is not a bad deal in exchange for access to those e-book platforms. A payment scheme can be developed where Asians abroad can subscribe for a fee, and pick maybe 10 e-book titles of their choosing annually, like they do in book clubs for example.
The troubles of Amazon.com with Macmillan, for example, in e-book pricing, will be just the start of developments in this arena that promises to point attention away from print and into the e-book domain. Opportunities to become sustainable and profitable abound in this new world of e-publishing, if Asian university and trade presses can take advantage of it.
Asian readers, scholars, authors and publishers can benefit from this new approach. For so long, the industry has been glued to the printing press. Maybe it is time to let Steve Jobs and Jeff Bezos into the hallowed halls of publishing in a big way.
Dennis Posadas is the author of "Jump Start: A Technopreneurship Fable" (Singapore: Pearson Prentice Hall, 2009).© Japan Today