“We still call it a ‘book’ fair…”, said the representative of the Frankfurt Book Fair to a recent meeting of publishers in the region. Digital technology and pervasive data networks are changing the structure and possibly even the nature of the book publishing industry, in Singapore as in the rest of the world. But this is by no means something happening “to” publishers: Singapore’s entrepreneurial publishers are shaping the digital transition as much or even more than they are shaped by it, and have been doing so far at least the last 20 years.

Even for those inside the industry, the high visibility of the recent rise of the e-book in the United States and United Kingdom consumer markets obscures the longer-term (and in many ways deeper) shifts in the broader landscape of publishing. If there can be said to be one trend at the heart of the deeper changes underway over the last two decades, it is the “great unbundling” of content from its form as a printed book. The “p-book” is no longer necessarily the best package for detailed, well-structured text. Increasingly, publishers are integrating content and process, that is to say, they are delivering text (or images, or data) at precisely the right time it is needed, and connecting it directly to the relevant actions that content is used to inform and empower.

In publishing for the professions (law, accountancy, etc), book content has been unbundled, repackaged into deep databases, combined with journal articles, news articles, statistical information and different sorts of datasets, and delivered in an integrated fashion through web-based software. Lawyers routinely search case law, opinions and scholarly commentary through a single search interface. Social science researchers may download single chapters of e-book editions from their libraries without reference to the book the chapters first appeared in, and link from the text to other cited texts, or statistical databases and simulation software. Students are now routinely tested on their understanding of content from within the content itself, and the presentation of online curricular materials is changed on-the-fly as learning management systems take into account the data they collect on the performance and preferences of students. Homemakers use tablet apps that combine recipes and food photography with menu planning software, generating shopping lists from selected recipes.

It is a process that proceeds at different speeds in different subject areas, depending on the economics of the different tasks to be performed, and the costs of creating and publishing the relevant content.

Indeed, the “book” as container of content with a particular form may be losing some its relevance, even as key skill sets of book publishing—content commissioning, creation, curation, filtering and selection, shaping, polishing and then bringing to market—become in ever greater demand.

Some books will always remain as books. The narrative text — novel or non-fiction— demands to be read from end to end, as a story, and would suffer greatly from being unbundled and broken into parts. But even if the narrative text has a necessary coherence, it is being unbundled from its physical form, and delivered electronically in various ways, including to the Kindle and similar e-reading devices. Perhaps of even greater potential relevance to Singapore publishers seeking overseas markets, books can be delivered digitally to printers and distributors overseas, then printed in smaller runs nearer to the markets where they will be read and consumed, even in “editions of one”. The promise here is of lowering the financial risk of publishing, lowering the amounts of capital tied up in publisher’s physical stock, and lowering the cost of exports.

But of course the “great unbundling”, and all the other promises and possibilities of digital publishing, are not laid out in a clear and easily identifiable roadmap for publishers navigating day to day challenges. The promise of digital — better access to export markets for example — has been realised by some Singapore publishers, but it is fair to say that others have not yet found a path that works for them. Many areas of print publishing have plenty of headroom for growth, and there are risks to being a pathbreaker. Most publishers will find it more rewarding to stick to the business they know, while learning from innovations at home and overseas. But whether innovator or follower (fast or slow), all players in the new landscape will benefit from a map or survey of the territory.

It is in that spirit that this report examines the digital publishing activities of the members of the Singapore Book Publishers Association (SBPA), within the context of Singapore’s existing markets for digital publishing (broadly defined), and as well in the context of the internal processes of book creation, production, marketing, distribution and sales. We've focused on the home market (around 40% of SBPA member revenues), but overseas markets are not ignored.

The report is structured as follows:

  • A brief introduction to Singapore’s publishing environment, the structure of the local industry and the openness of the market;
  • A brief introduction to the digital eco-system of Singapore: the technical infrastructure and habits of use upon which local digital publishing activities must be based;
  • Singapore’s key digital publishing markets——in professional and academic, education and general or consumer publishing. Here we will learn of the activities of SBPA members in serving these different markets, as well as the equivalent ones overseas;
  • A survey of the ways SBPA members are using digital technology in the different internal processes of publishing, from content creation to production to sales and marketing; and
  • A few words by way of conclusion.



The membership of the local Book Publishers Association encompasses both the giants of global publishing and local SMEs, some one-person operations. Many of the bigger foreign-owned players have been present in the local market for many years, and have helped to build the local industry: Pearson's local school book publishing activities date back to the 1960s, and McGraw-Hill’s nearly as long in higher education and professional publishing. Other MNCs are more recent arrivals but have a large presence: John Wiley & Sons, for example, employs around 450 publishing professionals in Singapore. Many multinational publishers base Asian and even global HQ functions in Singapore, leveraging Singapore’s Asian connectivity, copyright regime and pro-business environment.

Singapore is an open market for books, and territorial restrictions of publishers are not respected by Singapore law. Both UK and US editions of bestsellers can be found side-by-side in bookshops (as can Hong Kong, Chinese and Taiwanese editions). The book trade tends to be dominated by the prestige of foreign-published bestsellers, though books from innovative local publishers have been scoring higher and higher on the bestseller lists since the 1990s. (Neither the SBPA nor booksellers systematically collect books sales figures, so hard information is difficult to come by). One SBPA member interviewed by international industry newsletter Publishing Perspectives, with several bestsellers on his list, put it this way: “being an English language publisher in Singapore is like trying to fight for survival in a sea full of great white sharks. The great white sharks are the imported titles from the US and the UK.” The same could be said for being a Chinese, Tamil or Malay language publisher in Singapore. But Singapore’s nimble publishers do thrive in this dangerous sea.

Many countries seek to protect their domestic publishing industry by favouring local companies in school book publishing. Not Singapore: the two biggest publishers of Singapore's schoolbooks (Pearson and Marshall Cavendish (MC) Education)—with some 80-90% of the primary and secondary textbook market between them—are both foreign-owned.

Spending on books has been increasing in Singapore, driven by a growing population, growing tourism, and increased spending per household, particularly on books for educational and professional purposes. But this increased spending has not necessarily led to growth in sales in the local book trade. In common with many other publishing markets, Singapore’s bookshops are facing formidable challenges. One estimate puts the amount of total retail space available for books shrinking by some 30% between 2010 and 2012, with high profile bookshop closures (Borders, Page One), reduction in outlets by the chain players (MPH and Times the Bookshop), and the reduction of space devoted to books by other players. Online booksales from overseas (chiefly Amazon and its Book Depository subsidiary) make up roughly 22% of the local trade book market. In addition to offering undoubted efficiency and convenience, Amazon has the playing field tilted 7% in its favour: book orders under S$ 400 do not attract Singapore’s Goods and Services Tax (GST). In June 2013, Amazon introduced free shipping to Singapore, a move likely to increase market share further.

Perhaps one of the most troubling issues in the digital transition now looming over consumer publishing is the question of how readers will discover new books. Bookshops remain essential arenas for readers to find authors, and vice versa. Not only do local publishers rely on bookshops commercially, the process of discovery and the implied dialogue that comes from browsing a great bookshop enriches and powers the cultural life of the city. Amazon and the other online bookshops cannot play similar roles. (It is not clear if public libraries can full the gap either).


Since the 1990s, Singapore has worked hard to position itself as a hub for the management of intellectual property assets. Part of this process has included a review of intellectual property legisation via trade negotiations with the US and other intellectual property exporters. Singapore’s IP regime is now recognised as one of the best in the world. For example, Singapore is ranked second in the world and top in Asia for having the best protection of intellectual property in the World Economic Forum's Global Competitiveness Report 2012/2013. The International Property Rights Index 2012 also places Singapore top in Asia. With a strong IP regime and technical infrastructure, Singapore is well-placed to grow its IP-licensing and management industry, including for e-books and other publishing assets.


Singapore has an advanced IT and communications infrastructure. In its 2005 ten-year plan, Vision 2015, Singapore’s Infocomm Development Authority (IDA) established the following strategic goals:

  • “To establish an ultra-high speed, pervasive, intelligent and trusted infocomm infrastructure;
  • To develop a globally competitive infocomm industry;
  • To develop an infocomm-savvy workforce and globally competitive infocomm manpower; and
  • To spearhead the transformation of key economic sectors, government and society through more sophisticated and innovative use of infocomm.”

The goal was nothing less than “to be #1 in the world in harnessing infocomm to add value to the economy and society.”

An important part of the effort to reach these goals has been investment in broadband Internet infrastructure. Singapore is more than mid-way through a nationwide fibre-to-the-home (FTTH) rollout, which will bring extremely high download speeds into the island’s homes and business premises (by the beginning of 2013, more than 95 per cent of homes have been passed, and 250,000 residential households had high-speed fibre accounts). Counting 3G mobile data subscriptions, more than 90% of households in Singapore have broadband access. A free wi-fi service with hotspots in public places has some 1.2m subscribers.

PC penetration is high, and 95 per cent of primary and secondary school students report access to at least one computer at home. According to Nielsen, 97% of Singaporeans between 15 and 19 years old use the internet in a given one-month period. Young people in their 20s are also heavy internet users, with some 92% reporting internet usage to Nielsen. A recent survey by Acorn for Singapore’s FTTH operator showed that 87% of Singapore’s broadband connected households accessed Internet at least once a day. Half of Singapore’s Internet users have also purchased goods or services online.

Singapore also has a very high smartphone penetration, and again according to Nielsen, by mid-2012, 89 per cent of mobile users had a phone with an advanced operating system. According to Ericsson ConsumerLab, 42% of internet users in Singapore have tablets. Market research firm GfK notes that 70,000 tablets were purchased in Singapore in December 2012 alone.

The capabilities of digital media offer many avenues for innovation, but actual innovation depends on a complex set of factors. Singapore offers a promising technological infrastructure and support system, but how many of Singapore’s book publishers have been able to create new digital businesses with their Singapore customer base? How many new publishing start-ups have established positions here? Companies must be ready to innovate, and must be of sufficient scales so that the cost of innovation can be justified through improvements in productivity. They will need investment funds; the right human capital (technical, managerial and editorial) as well as just access to knowledge.


Singapore’s Media Development Authority offers a variety of incentives to help companies to innovate, upgrade themselves, expand, take on bolder projects and work through the digital transition, solving some of the market structure issues alluded to above. Grants are structured for media companies across the product cycle: from development of ideas through production and marketing. Funds are granted also to help individuals upgrade their skills and different companies to operate move to a higher level of excellence.

Publishers are invited to apply for development funds to help prototype digital versions of existing print content, for example. To date some 16 publishers have received grants under this scheme. Production grants can be used to create digital applications on agreed-upon platforms, or even to build innovative platforms for content delivery, but fewer publishers have taken advantage of this scheme to date.

Part 1 of 3 in the Report on Digital Publishing in Singapore, for the Singapore Book Publishers Association, 2013, originally published 24 September, 2013 - 00:04

Part Two: the Markets
Part Three: the Process (and Conclusions)