first published 22 September, 2013

Digital in the Publishing Process

Singapore’s publishing industry benefitted from the wave of digital technologies that started to become important in publishing in the 1980s, including desktop publishing, database publishing, digital scanning and colour separation, and computer-to-plate printing. Singapore suppliers leveraged the new technologies to great comparative price advantage, and some Singapore publishers worked closely with them to establish global franchises. The picture is more complicated today, in part because the biggest revolution of recent years has occurred not in business-to-business processes but in the consumer facing ends of the industry. In an Internet world, the benefits of incremental process improvements are overshadowed by the network effects and benefits that accrue to the biggest customer-facing players: Amazon, Google, Face-book, etc. In the 2000s, Singapore publishers seem more responsive in their digital efforts, trying to keep up with the innovations coming from Silicon Valley.

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.

Content Origination and Development

The Internet has turned out to be a fantastic new space for content development. Authors and creatives share and develop their ideas online, on blogs or personal websites, and take advantage of internet tools to empower self-publishing. This has opened a rich field for editors and publishers seeking to identify new talents and source images and other materials. Many local trade publishers will have picked up for commercial release books that were initially developed online or self-published by authors in book form. Here the publisher’s value-add emerges most clearly, in improving content, polishing its presentation and knowing how to market it and place books in the right sales channels, at home and abroad. Local self-published author Shamini Flint is one case-in-point; her detective novels are now published by Harper Collins. Other writers, like NUS Press author Sudhir Vadaketh, post first drafts of their essays online, and use the feedback they receive to improve their works.

Asset Management Systems

New e-book markets, and the new economics of print-on-demand represent an opportunity for Singapore publishers to give new life to their old titles—the backlist—books published in earlier years but which may continue to be relevant for years to come. In some cases this may simply mean reissuing old books, in other cases there are advantages to be had from repackaging and recombining old material in different ways, including with new material. But in most cases a digitisation process is required, to bring the old print material into digital form.

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.

Editorial, Pre-Press and Production Workflows

Most SBPA publishers report a fairly common workflow. Manuscripts are submitted in digital document files, typically (but not only) in Microsoft Word format, with illustrations and other visual materials submitted separately. Editing is done in- or out-of-house but also via Singapore’s important community of editorial freelancers, and layout is done in- or out-of-house in dedicated page layout software, based on import of edited text files. From the page layout software, print-ready pdf files are created, as well as web-ready versions for electronic distribution, and from these same files, .epub and .mobi files are created for trade e-book markets.
Again, it is only the largest multinationals and the newest start-up publishers who use a different workflow, one that concentrates on the creation of digital assets to be re-used in many different forms and formats, a flow which is less wedded to “the book as container”. In such a workflow, documents are ingested into a database or XML warehouse system and outputs are created in different ways, sometimes via an intermediary layout stage involving manual tweaking for appearance and design, and sometimes going directly into a new format via an automated process.

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.

Title Management and Metadata

The digital transformation of the publishing industry has put a higher premium on managing publisher’s metadata, the “data about data”, information about books. To understand what metadata is, think of a book listing on your favourite online book retailer: All the information associated with the book on that webpage is its metadata - title, author information, descriptive blurbs, quotes from reviews, pricing information, formats, categories and the like.

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.

Digital Marketing

Professional, STM and academic publishers generally work in well-defined vertical segments, and so tend to have close relationships with their readers, their “end users”. Digital technology has allowed them to integrate a wide variety of content and services to better serve their core audience and they may have very deep and detailed information about how their readers use information, and what information they are looking for. Many educational publishers likewise have working relationships with institutions and instructors who use their content directly, and when content is integrated with learning management systems, publishers will have a very deep understanding of how their content is used, what works successfully and what doesn’t. This allows publishers to develop their offerings in a manner that’s closely aligned with their readers’ needs, and to reach out into their network to offer new products.

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.

Sales and Distribution

Local publishers that wish to sell their digital books globally (and eventually in Singapore), must climb several hurdles. They need to sort out the best way to distribute their books to the many different digital channels. While Amazon has the largest marketshare in the retail e-book market in the US (and also in the UK), other players have bigger shares in other markets. Recent data from Australia suggests that Apple has a 1/3 e-book marketshare, equalling Amazon’s for example. And then there are specialist distributors who reach particular markets, libraries, educational institutions, corporates, etc.

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.


This survey has outlined some of the ways Singapore’s publishers are working to build new businesses in the digital space. The SBPA has identified many areas of common concern and industry interest, and organises a regular series of talks and workshop sessions in these areas. In the case of digitisation, the SBPA and the Media Development Authority have worked together to offer a modest program of grants to lower the barriers for publisher participation.
This being said, solutions to some of challenges ahead may require action beyond just the publishers’ community. Among these:

  • 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