Monday, January 31, 2005

E-books in China & North America: Notes from LAS talk by Dr. Anthony Ferguson

Some notes that I took at a recent talk, organised by the Library Association of Singapore, by Dr Anthony Ferguson, (Head) Librarian of Hong Kong University Libraries. Tony was in Singapore for about 5 days, of which I had the pleasure of showing him around places like our HDB heartland, makan (i.e. eat) at a Hawker Centre, the Night Safari (Singapore Zoo), and a whirlwind tour at a few public libraries like Library@Orchard, Library@esplanade and Jurong Regional Library.

Any inaccuracies posted here are entirely my own. The notes were taken during the talk, and done so selectively. Posting them here is just a way of sharing, and hopefully soliciting more comments and conversations on this topic. Be advised that I'm not an authority on ebooks. :)

It's generally recognised that the adoption rate for ebooks has been much more successful in China than in North America. The North American ebook sales model was initially based on sales to individuals. That didn't work (mostly because of the existence of free alternatives like libraries). The business model then switched to libraries as primary customers of ebooks. Some ebook players in North America:
  • Questia
  • Netlibrary
  • Mightywords (note: URL is no longer accessible)
  • Borders (online books), which partnered with, while Borders stuck mainly to print
(I was thinking that geographical size should not be a factor, since both countries are huge. So what was the difference?) In both countries, they faced about the same major ebook challenges: Copyright issues, publishing standards, issue of subscription Vs. ownership.

There are 3 major e-book players in China (i.e. subscribed by the top 10 academic libraries in China):
  • Apabi ebooks (spun-off from BeiDa - Beijing University. Here's the English write-up from HKU Libraries)
  • Super Star Digital Library
  • Scholar (shu sheng zhi jia)
Smaller e-book projects include:
  • "Collectanea", i.e. "Passages selected from various authors, usually for purposes of instruction; miscellany; anthology" (definition from
  • Non-commercial digitisation projects, like those of major libraries (National Library of China, I think) and university libraries. Tony also mentioned a project called the "Million Book Project" (several universities in China are in this collaboration with Carnegie Mellon Libraries. Here's a FAQ)
The success factors in China include:
  • A booming economy, hence good funding for ebook projects and proliferation
  • China libraries wanting to grow faster & bigger (i.e. playing catchup from the loss from the cultural revolution)
  • Chinese citizens embracing web technologies - they read on the web rather than handhelds, whereas in North America, ebooks are associated with the use of Handhelds, whose sales is slowing down by the way).
  • People in China seems to be much more passionate about reading than people in North America. Tony felt that the mainland Chinese were "radically different" with regards to book consumption (of course as China gets more developed, with more quality entertainment and alternatives, it could be a matter of time that people shift away from books towards TV etc... which reminds me of this recent blogpost)
  • Copyright is "not as big an issue" in China, meaning, the people are "less squeamish about potential copyright infringements" -- whereas in the US, people may become fanatical about copyright issues that things don't move as fast.
  • It's possible that publishers in China are making money from ebooks
  • License agreements for ebooks are less of an issue, and often cheaper than subscriptions for English ebooks.
Tony also commented a bit about the Google digitisation project (hey, which librarian isn't nowadays?). Technically, it's feasible because he's seen an automated scanning machine at Stanford. However, Tony suggests that the Google project isn't going to make libraries obsolete, because up to 80% of libraries' circulation comes from new books rather than old ones. What the google project means is to make more free books on the web than in any one individual library. Then individual libraries could focus on acquiring contemporary books and on user education, instead of say, preservation and archival issues.

As for the future development of ebooks in China, funding would be the key to sustained growth. Should the economy slow down, the market for ebooks would become more selective.
[BTW, here's something relevant to the discussion above: "Latest thing in hi-tech: a book". Article by

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