Insights on E-Books in China

A Picture of a eBook Español: Foto de eBook Бе...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Most of us English speakers here in China focus on the debate over e-books and the future of publishing as it applies in a global context, but what is interesting is how the matter is unfolding here in China

Reading through an old article from the Beijing Review (not to be confused with this site, and whose website seems to be unresponsive now), I made notes on three insights that caught my eye.

Ebooks are just alright with me

First, that except for the most partisan ebook advocates, most of the folks in the publishing business are taking things rather calmly.

Print publishing’s dominance is set to wane, but is unlikely to perish. Chances are e-books will coexist with paper books in the very long term, and each form will enjoy comparable market shares. But the influence of e-books will grow and they will eventually play a dominant role.

This might have something to do with the rather parlous state of the publishing industry in China (it is something less than an industry but something more than a bunch of government printing houses where nobody is making very much money,) but it is a much more even-handed approach than some of the denial, anger, and resistance we often hear from voices in the western industry (take Jonathan Franzen‘s reactionary luddite screed as one extreme example).

The Bureaucrats will be the tough nuts

If there is one country that cannot afford to kill all of the trees necessary to put books in the hands of its people, it would be China. Yet perhaps the most conservative part of the Chinese government is the biggest gatekeeper to the widespread adoption of ebooks: the Ministry of Education. Tens of millions of students need textbooks each year, and rather than start distributing them on everything from tablets to phones, the government is standing in the way. According to one industry spokesman quoted in the article:

Technically, we will need five to 10 years to address security and stability concerns over e-books, in order to convince the Ministry of Education that e-books are right for students.

I suspect the Ministry will find itself left in the dust as its students adopt e-books with great speed. Eventually, they’ll be playing catch-up. On the other hand, the MOE’s first concern is ideological correctness of the population. Educating the masses remains secondary.

Books are Too Long

The last insight is particularly amusing. Apparently not realizing that its audience is both literate and (while young) getting older by the minute, publishers are operating under the impression that they’re going to have to change formats to get people to read e-books.

Readers of e-books are much younger than those of print publications, particularly in literature. As a result, we have first to address the age differences when working on e-editions, otherwise, the chances for success will be slim. For example, we can cut full-length novels into short stories, which are easier to read.

That’s it! To get more people reading e-books, we simply slice them into small edible bits! Except that a) readers are already taking the full books, b) many will see the slicing and dicing as a way to get more money for the same book, and c) they should be encouraging more short stories rather than slashing the length of novels.

Cutting novels down to fit a format reminds me of that great line in the movie Amadeus when Emperor Joseph II tells Mozart that his work has “too many notes.”

Takeaway: publishers don’t get what makes e-books work any more than the Ministry of Education. They still have much to learn.

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