The Internet era of new reading habits and norms is dramatically reducing printed paper readership and presenting unprecedented challenges to the publishing industry. Meanwhile, these developments are also bringing new opportunities, which were explored at the first International Publishing Forum at the HKTDC Hong Kong Book Fair 2019. The forum was co-organised by the Hong Kong Development Council (HKTDC) and Hong Kong Publishing Federation.

Introducing the forum, themed “Growth and Innovation in the Publishing Industry”, Elvin Lee, Chairman of the Hong Kong Publishing Federation, said: “Publishing has to change its mode of business and it’s an unprecedented challenge.

“This issue has to be faced not only by Hong Kong but all of our counterparts worldwide. Carrying on publishing requires new momentum and innovation to drive our industry to meet these new challenges for sustainable reading habits of tomorrow.”

Reach for the sky

As book sales decline in Taiwan, as elsewhere, Taiwan industry leader Lin Tien-Lai, Chief Operating Officer of the Global Views-Commonwealth Publishing Group and President of the Commonwealth Publishing Company, said that despite challenges facing traditional printing, publishers can “reach for the sky” to stay ahead.

Reflecting his own life story, changing almost accidentally from school janitor to librarian, teacher and ultimately general manager of a leading publishing house, he said: “We don’t just publish and sell paper any more. We are a learning and knowledge platform, not just a printing house.”

The ethos is flexibility and adapting to modern times, what he termed ‘blue ocean’ strategy – meaning limitless depths of avenues to reach readers.

“Our focus is what print and publishers don’t do,” he said. Beyond books and magazines, his company’s strategy extends from book stores to subscriptions, e-publishing and online learning courses – backed up by social media, digital marketing and all the tools reaching young readers who are predominantly on their phones.

In uncharted, constantly-changing territory, a key approach intensive marketing strategies that harness the large followings of ‘key opinion leaders’, or KOLs, to promote book reading. Exceptionally noteworthy is that the chief editor of the company’s website, with millions of online followers, is in effect one of the most influential executives in Taiwan publishing.

“We re-invent ourselves every year,” he said. “If you don’t re-invent yourself, someone else will re-invent you.”

A new era of podcasting

Venturing into a “brave new world” of publishing, Zhong Wenming, President of Dragonfly, FM, told how the leading Mainland China Internet publishing house he helms has bypassed traditional publishing altogether – directly targeting the Internet-connected, mobile phone era through podcasts.

Podcasts offer a new avenue of communication, he said – except it is listeners not readers.

“People used to write on stone and many primitive materials but now there is podcasting,” he said. “In the end it’s all the same – about getting a message of content across to readers. Now that everyone has a mobile phone, podcasts can engage audiences while they are walking, or driving, or doing housework. The market is limitless.”

As an example, he said some popular podcasts’ ‘listening’ averaged 130 minutes daily – an appealing statistic of engagement to advertisers – and the fledgling market is increasingly popularised by the familiar voices of well-known actors, TV anchors and authors. “With educational material in particular, narration and storytelling has proved to be a great success,” he said.

The ultimate aim is the same, whether listening or reading, he added. “It’s about reaching young people and cultivating a culture of understanding and harmony. It may be untraditional, but we want to make audiences laugh, smile and enlightened.”

Schoolbook revolution

Not surprisingly, given that the young generation has been brought up reading text on their mobile phones, educational publishing faces huge challenges, said Joseph Chong, Managing Director of McGraw Hill Education Asia.

“It’s not only a big challenge in Asia, but worldwide,” he said. “Revenues are slowing, operational costs are rising and libraries are undergoing budget cuts.”

One leading educational publisher, Pearson, has gone so far as to announce it is phasing-out printed textbooks altogether, aligning with the ‘Netflix and Spotify generation’ that prefers to ‘rent not buy’. Some kindergartens are even pioneering artificial intelligence (AI) teaching without human teachers.

For publishers, however, there is a conundrum: defend existing business models, and if necessary scale-down to manageable levels; reform through adopting emerging models, namely digital e-learning, which by definition requires an entrepreneurial spirit to “try new things and go for it”; or transform completely, gravitating online to a new era where “content” is no longer the most important but “channels are king”.

In the background, there also exists a vast market in education compromised by soaring college fees and unmanageable student debt. The desire to learn doubtless remains undiminished, but the question is how to make it affordable, remarked Mr Chong.

“It’s an interesting horizon,” he said, reminding the seminar audience of a popularised bottom-line mantra resounding around the industry today: “Publishing is no longer a battleground between print and digital. It’s an ecosystem embracing all formats – increasingly influenced by consumers.”