Asia’s Potential Monsoon of Ebook Sales: Philip Tatham on ASEAN

In Feature Articles by Roger Tagholm

‘The reason we want to start selling ebooks direct into ASEAN,’ says Monsoon’s Philip Tatham, is because it’s rare territory: still without heavy competition from major ebook retailers.
Image - iStockphoto: Dragon Images

Image – iStockphoto: Dragon Images

By Roger Tagholm | @RogerTagholm

‘The Market Is Still Very Much Untapped’
Monsoon Books, a publisher of titles on Southeast Asia based in Singapore and the UK, is taking a different stance on Digital Rights Management (DRM).

It’s opting for a more open approach in a bid to boost its ebook sales in a part of the world in which digital hasn’t yet taken off.

In talking with Monsoon Books Publisher Philip Tatham, we asked him to talk about his decision on DRM and to give us his overview of the ASEAN region, the population of which (some 600 million) exceeds those of both North America and the European Union.

Publishing Perspectives: Can you explain Monsoon’s different approach to DRM?

Philip Tatham

Philip Tatham

Philip Tatham:  We’ve signed up with Dutch social DRM provider Booxtream to apply social DRM instead of strict DRM to ebooks we sell from our website.

When a reader buys a Monsoon ebook from our site, their name and email and date of purchase appears inside the ebook, as an ex libris and in a disclaimer page at the end of the ebook. The purchase transaction code is also watermarked into the ebook, invisible to readers but traceable, in theory, by Monsoon.

By using social DRM we want to enable readers to read their ebooks on any or all of their e-reading devices. We want to enable them to share an ebook with a friend or family member as they would a paperback. In fact, we bundle the ebook for free with most paperback purchases on the Web site.

Part of the reason we want to start selling ebooks direct into ASEAN is because it’s a large market for us in terms of print, but one in which none of the major ebook retailers is pushing its ebooks.

PP: Are you worried that the ability to download multiple copies and lend ebooks will damage your sales?

“I’m not too worried about Cambodia’s mobile booksellers photocopying titles to flog to Western backpackers.”Philip Tatham

PT: We discussed this with our authors and all were of the opinion that readers should not be penalized and forced to read an ebook on one device. We all lend paperbacks to friends or family members and we want ebook readers to be able to do the same. Will people upload a file to a torrent site? It already happens to ebooks wrapped in strict DRM. We want to concentrate on satisfying those people who are willing to pay for good ebooks.

PP: Do you think that in general, publishers worry too much about piracy?

Monsoon Books logoPT: I do believe trade publishers should worry less about piracy.

Some people will always take what they want for free, but as publishers we should worry more about making the experience of reading, whether ebooks or print books, easier and more enjoyable for those customers who are willing to pay for our products. What is important is word-of-mouth and publicity. I would worry more if nobody was talking about a book than if it appeared on a torrent site.

In February an author notified me that a Russian-run website in Malaysia was excerpting passages from his book to plug its wares. I suggested to the irate author that instead of taking legal action against the Russians we ask them to credit the author and his work and include a bookstore link.

I think book piracy in ASEAN is far more of a concern for academic and educational publishers than it is for trade publishers. I’m not too worried about Cambodia’s mobile booksellers photocopying titles to flog to Western backpackers and I note with amusement that The Rough Guide to Cambodia lists a bookstore in Cambodia that stocks “a great selection of second hand [sic] and photocopied books,” no doubt including a photocopy of the Rough Guide itself.

It annoys me that a Russian publisher in Pattaya, Thailand, published a Russian translation of one of Monsoon’s books and even serialized it in a magazine for the Russian community in Thailand – but I am not going to let that put me off selling a lot of genuine books in Thailand via legitimate bookstores.

PP: What is happening with digital in the ASEAN market? 

PT: What’s fascinating about the ASEAN market is the relative lack of penetration of ebooks. With the exception of Google, none of the big ebook retailers has really made a serious move into the market. Local ventures do exist for local ebooks in Thailand, Malaysia, and Indonesia, but the market is still very much untapped.

PP: How are the booksellers doing?

PT: Book retailers in ASEAN are suffering as much as their European and North American counterparts, and for many of the same reasons: increasing labour and rental costs as well as more competition for readers’ leisure time from non-book products.

A 2015 survey by Singapore’s National Arts Council found that only 44 percent of Singapore residents read at least one “literary book” a year. Singapore publishers complain of a flat retail market, with notable exceptions — regional player Books Kinokuniya and indie bookstore BooksActually, and a number of Singapore publishers have invested in new e-commerce platforms in order to increase their direct-sales reach and shore up flagging bookstore sales.

‘Big Bad Wolf Really Blows the Market Down’

PP: Apparently, there is a Big Bad Wolf now – and it isn’t Amazon. 

300 BigBadWolflogoPT: Ha, that’s right. Big Bad Wolf is a pop-up mega book fair company that holds one or two events a year in Malaysia, and earlier this month [May] for the first time in Indonesia, where they offer in excess of 2 million books at 60- to 80-percent discount.  The books are English-language and some local-language, mostly remainders but also some very good new stock.

Big Bad Wolf really blows the local market down even with just one or two sales a year and they have really unsettled local publishers and retailers. 

PP: Do you think Amazon will make a move?

PT: ASEAN comprises 10 member states and the amount of due diligence needed to enter each new market would suggest that Amazon, and other major players, perhaps with the exception of Google, will concentrate on bigger markets first — particularly markets with credit cards and, ultimately, markets with avid readers.

Whether the large ebook retailers will relax rules on which country ISPs have access to their products is moot, but for them to actively promote and sell their products in the ASEAN market seems a way off.

‘Singapore Is Well-Placed to Bounce Back’

PP: What are the challenges facing the region?

“A worrying trend for the book trade is the competition for Singaporeans’ time in the form of high-tech gadgetry, online gaming, and TV.”Philip Tatham

PT: Education is of paramount importance to people throughout the region. Literacy is high and reading books for education and improving one’s lot in life is a given. However, a love of literature and reading for leisure is not necessarily instilled in Southeast Asia’s youth as much as it could be, either by teachers or parents, and this presents a challenge to publishers of trade books in all languages.

Of the 10 member states of ASEAN, four countries — Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, and Thailand — have traditionally proved the most fruitful for publishers of English-language trade books, with the remaining six countries of Philippines, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, and Brunei presenting more challenges for foreign trade publishers.

PP: How is the market in Singapore?

PT: Singapore is one of the most mature English-language book markets in the region with many global publishers maintaining offices there. But the forecast for 2016 is not all rosy.

There’s a general slowdown in Singapore growth and business costs remain high. Empty desks are appearing in international school classrooms this year as expats are being repatriated home.

The slowdown may only be temporary and Singapore is well-placed to bounce back. But a more worrying trend for the book trade there is the competition for Singaporeans’ time in the form of high-tech gadgetry, online gaming, and TV.

PP: And elsewhere?

PT: Over the causeway in Malaysia, the currency crash and the general economic slowdown in growth, coupled with ongoing political scandal and public disquiet with the ruling party, is affecting book sales. But the local book industry receives welcome boosts in the form of book vouchers issued to students annually. Philippines, Thailand, and Indonesia import vast quantities of English-language trade books but most in evidence are global bestsellers and books from major publishing houses.

The more adventurous trade publishers are already exploring the new market of Myanmar and consolidating their presence in the maturing book markets of Cambodia and Vietnam.

PP: Indonesia is the fourth most populous country in the world.  Is there a good market for English language titles there?

PT: Two English-language bookstore chains — Periplus and Books & Beyond — dominate in urban centers and tourist hotspots, and they’re now being challenged in Bali by WHSmith, the travel retailer. Although the percentage of Indonesians buying English-language books is small, with such a large population and millions of tourist arrivals, Indonesia can be a rewarding place in which to sell trade books.

Drill down the data to single out the popular tourist destination of Bali and we see the Indonesian island attracted 5 million tourists in 2015, 1.5 million of them English-language speakers from UK, Australia, New Zealand, and North America, according to the Foreign Tourist Arrivals to Bali Database for April from the Bali Government Tourism Office. These 1.5 million English-language speaking tourists are served by about 25 Periplus, Books & Beyond and WHSmith stores as well as by indie retailer Ganesha and others.

Books Actually, an independent bookshop in Singapore. Image provided by Monsoon Books

BooksActually, an independent bookshop in Singapore. Image provided by Monsoon Books’ Philip Tatham

Monsoon to Manor House

PP: Why have you decided to open a UK office, and how do you split your time?

PT: Having established Monsoon in Singapore in 2002, and with a good network of distributors and retailers in the ASEAN region, I felt the time was right for me to return to my native UK and to dedicate more time to the UK market. Although we specialize in books on Southeast Asia, many of our books are penned by British or Commonwealth authors, and we have a strong list of British colonial and military memoirs.

Apart from setting my office clock to Singapore time and starting work at 7am there is little difference operating the company from halfway round the world. I still chat to sales reps, retailers and trade associations in Asia daily by phone or via social media and see them face-to-face almost as often as I would have done had I remained in Asia.

PP: Can you give us a little potted history of Monsoon Books – and yourself too.

PT: Monsoon publishes fiction and narrative nonfiction with Asian, particularly Southeast Asian, themes. Our list includes literary and genre fiction, and on the nonfiction front we are strong in biographies, memoirs and true crime. I established Monsoon Books in Singapore in 2002 and it has since grown to become one of the most recognized trade book publishers on Southeast Asia.

“A band of enthusiastic Canadian soldiers accidentally burned the house down while attempting to blow up the sealed entrance to the estate’s wine cellar.”Philip Tatham

I’m British, have a degree in Indonesian literature and I spent 20 years working in trade publishing in Singapore and Malaysia before returning to the UK to open an office in the converted stables of Burrough Court Estate in north Leicestershire. This has a fascinating history.  A hunting lodge for the royal family and gentry, Burrough Court belonged to Lord Furness, who kept a zebra and a giraffe on the grounds – the zebra was ridden regularly in the paddock by Lady Furness. A mistress of the then Prince of Wales, Lady Furness introduced her lover to Wallis Simpson during a party at Burrough Court, and was soon supplanted in the Prince’s affection by the American socialite, for whom the future King Edward VIII would later abdicate the throne.

Lord Furness housed his private airplane on the estate and it was this airplane that was commissioned by UK Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, a familiar visitor to the house, to transport him to Germany in his efforts to prevent the Second World War.

The main house survived the war, but was destroyed in a fire shortly afterwards when, as the tale goes, a band of enthusiastic Canadian soldiers accidentally burned the house down while attempting to blow up the sealed entrance to the estate’s wine cellar.

We love a good story at Monsoon Books.

PP: As do we at Publishing Perspectives.  Thank you.

Artwork: Monsoon Books

Artwork: Monsoon Books

As we reported last month, Frankfurt Book Fair’s Juergen Boos has announced a new StoryDrive Asia event in Singapore for November 10 through 12.

About the Author

Roger Tagholm


Roger Tagholm is based in London and has been writing about the book industry for more than 20 years. He is the former Deputy Editor of Publishing News and the author of Walking Literary London (New Holland) and Poems NOT on the Underground (Windrush Press).