Books

Closed shop

The SCMP reports that Page One in Causeway Bay has closed (Bookshop at end of last chapter in Times Square), though it seems possible that it may re-open if space can be found.  So not really the end of the last chapter, then.

The one in TST moved recently and became a “concept store”.  At first sight it appears to have become a magazine store with a few books, but hidden away upstairs is a reasonable size bookstore.

The concept, of course, is high-priced books, but the SCMP seems not to have picked up on that:

[T]he closure of its Causeway Bay branch signaled wider difficulty for English-language bookshops, publisher Jimmy Pang Chi-ming said.

"Hong Kong people read few books. They read fewer English books, and even fewer hard-cover collectables," he said.

Well, maybe they do read books but don’t want to pay excessive prices.  English books are typically marked up by 25% in Hong Kong.  Strangely the same books are available in Bangkok without that mark-up, or in India for significantly less.

Or you can buy from Amazon or Book Depository.


Google Books in Hong Kong - in Chinese

Google Play now offer e-books in Hong Kong (from Tech in Asia).  That’s the good news.

The bad news is that I can’t find a way to get it to display books in English only, so it’s a frustrating experience.  As ever, not all titles are available, and whereas Amazon has a reasonable idea what I might want to buy, Google doesn’t:

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Meanwhile, Amazon is still charging their US$2 penalty for non-US customers.  Rumour has it that they drop it when Apple is competing with them in a territory.  But not Google, apparently.


ESF Subvention finally abolished (in 2029)

It has been apparent for at least 10 years that the government had no wish to continue subsidizing the ESF.  The real surprise is that it has taken so long to make this decision - and it will only start to take effect three years from now, with some subsidy remaining in place for another 13 years (until the last pupils admitted to ESF primary schools in August 2015 complete their studies).

The SCMP has two news stories and one opinion piece:

Decision to end ESF subsidy a lesson in Machiavellian ruthlessness

South China Morning Post | Saturday, 08 June, 2013 | Alex Lo

Shock and horror! Fees for schools under the English Schools Foundation from 2016 will be at least 23 per cent higher as the government phases out the public subsidy.

But you would expect that. The die was cast once the Education Bureau announced it would phase out the current subsidy. You want to know how much ESF parents will eventually have to pay? Just check out the fees of other international schools.

The decision to end the subsidy after freezing payment for a decade may go down in history as one of the most ruthless made by this administration. But before you pick up your pitchfork and bay for blood, it's not entirely the fault of Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying and his education secretary, Eddie Ng Hak-kim. Of course it is their fault for allowing it to happen. But I am actually not sure they know what they are doing with the ESF in the sense they almost certainly did not come up with the policy decision - those immediately below Ng within the bureau did.

There is an almost Machiavellian elegance to the decision - if you discount its irresponsibility, unfairness and immorality. You can be sure our clueless Mr Ng would never come up with something so clever; this is reserved for the senior administrative officials within the bureau, not a few of whom - I bet - are, or were, ESF parents.

Let's see what this decision really means. Taxpayers' money will be saved. The ESF is certain to prosper, as it will be able to charge high fees and million-dollar debentures on a par with other international schools. The government can claim it is helping to boost international school places without lifting a finger. It is also a populist decision as many local families resent the real or perceived special treatment given to the ESF as an old colonial institution.

But it is never explained why it is no longer the government's responsibility to support affordable education for non-Chinese-speaking children of residents or permanent residents. Nor is it clear why local families should be left to their own devices once they leave the local system and join the international school sector.

But the reality is that these families are on their own unless they can pay the high school fees.

The government’s official reason for ending the subvention is that it "flies in the face of the government's policy of not providing recurrent subsidy to schools mainly running non-local curriculum."

It’s the word “mainly” that appears to be the crucial one.  Schools operating under the Direct Subsidy Scheme (DSS) are allowed to have 49% of their students in an “international” stream that leads to qualifications such as IGCSE and IB Diploma, but must have 51% studying for local exams.

It would be a huge change to the ESF to be able to satisfy the DSS rules, and so the ESF Board has accepted the government decision but they have arranged meetings with parents to get their views.  Expect these meetings to be lively, and ESF management will be heavily criticized, but current parents are not the ones who will lose the most from this decision, and it’s not possible to consult with parents of future ESF students.

On Friday, the HK Standard quoted Secretary for Education Eddie Ng Hak-kim on the lack of international school places, saying that “international schools [should] consider devising an allocation mechanism such as a certain proportion of places being earmarked for children whose parents are recruited or relocated from outside Hong Kong."  So it seems clear the government wants the ESF to operate as an international school, offering priority to expats - and there is no doubt that the ESF can be successful operating in that way.

The losers here are local parents who can’t afford higher school fees, but the government doesn’t care about them.


Books I haven’t read

How many Booker Prize winning books do you own?  How many have you actually read?

I can’t be the only person who buys them and then either gives up after a few pages or never quite gets round to even starting them.

I started reading Peter Carey’s True History of the Kelly Gang (which won in 2001) but found it intensely annoying, and I also hated Tim Parks’ Europa (which was shortlisted in 1997), though I greatly enjoyed his later Dreams of Rivers and Seas, which wasn’t nominated, and also his non-fiction.

I bought the hardback of Graham Swift’s Last Orders (winner in 1996) because I had read and enjoyed several of his earlier works, but somehow I haven’t got round to this one.

I nearly bought Yann Martel’s Life of Pi for my Kindle when it was reduced to 99 cents at the end of last year (as the Kindle Deal of the Day), but it wasn’t available for customers in Asia Pacific.  It turned out that I had bought the paperback and not read it.  So I did read it, and very good it was too.  There’s a film coming out soon.

I have a paperback copy of last year’s winner (Julian Barnes - The Sense of an Ending) but I haven’t read that either.

But I have read Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall which won in 2009. I even bought the sequel Bring up the bodies before it was nominated, and this week it was announced that it has won the Booker Prize.  Success.


That can’t be correct…

I’m always on the lookout for places to buy books at reasonable prices and  Fishpond.com.hk has some eye-catching discounts.  But hang on…

They claim that the RRP for The Second World War by Antony Beevor is HK$496 (US$64).  Eh?  I don’t think so.

  • The US list price is actually $35 and Amazon.com are offering it for less than $20.
  • The UK list price is £25.00 ($40.00) but Amazon.co.uk are offering it for £12.46, or you can buy it from Book Depository for £20.70 with free delivery.

So, the price of HK$234 (US$30.20, £18.60) is cheaper than Book Depository, but it is nothing like a 53% discount.

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So where does that RRP of nearly HK$500 come from?  Hong Kong book shops tend to add 20% to the official price, but that only brings us to around HK$325. 


The crazy world of Kindle e-books

The price of Kindle books continues to baffle.  There are plenty of bargains, but an equal number of titles that seem hugely over-priced.

If you want to know when the prices do drop, then eReaderIQ is a useful service.  You enter the Amazon ASIN code and either a target price or a price drop and they will send you an email notification.

What I find baffling is that so many of the titles on my list have gone up in price, often quite significantly:

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Both of Emma Kennedy’s books have fallen in price but haven’t yet reached the rather arbitrary price target I set.

After watching “The Iron Lady” on a plane, I snapped up “The Downing Street Years” for a very reasonable $3.59 (plus $2 surcharge) but baulked at paying $4.49 for the companion volume. It then more than doubled in price and has now reached the giddy heights of $12.99, so I guess I’m going to have to wait for that pleasure.

I’m fairly sure that I don’t need to read Hank Paulson’s self-serving account of the financial crisis, but if it gets cheap enough I suppose I will be tempted.  No sign of that happening, though.

I purchased the second volume of Chris Evans’s autobiography and enjoyed so it, so I put the first volume on price watch, but it has increased since then.  As has Frank Skinner’s autobiography. 

Peter Hennessy’s “Having it So Good: Britain in the Fifties” did drop $2.00 (to $7.99) but the current price is a rather off-putting $15.39.  Strangely, the companion volume about the immediate post-war period increased by $2 at the same time as the first price drop, only to return to $9.99 about a month later.

I have also purchased several titles in paperback because they are cheaper that way – such as Hilary Mantel’s Bring up the Bodies ($15.90 on Kindle) and Claire Tomalin’s Dickens biography (a scarcely believable $21.99).


ebooks more than paperbacks?

More on the sometimes crazy pricing of ebooks:

The great ebook price swindle

Publishers are facing an uncertain time in the digital world – but increasing the prices of their ebooks is a retrograde step

Dan Gillmor | guardian.co.uk | Friday 23 December 2011 15.07 GMT

I want to offer a word of thanks to the American book publishing industry, or at least the traditional big companies that have dominated it in recent decades. They've helped me rediscover my local library and the used book stores in neighboring communities. They've achieved this by exhibiting the qualities that come so naturally to corporate media giants: greed and arrogance – in this case, as applied to the way they've dealt with the digital world.

To understand what they've done, you need to understand a bit about how books are sold in America. Publishers have two major distribution methods. One is traditional wholesaling: sell the book to a middleman, who typically adds a mark-up to customers, but sometimes discounts a book below cost as a "loss leader" to attract more business for items that aren't discounted in this way.

The other model is called the "agency" system. In this case, publishers set the price and the bookstore merely handles the sale to the ultimate customer, for a set fee or percentage of the transaction. The "big six" US publishers all sell their physical books via the wholesale model. After years of wholesaling digital editions as well, they moved to the agency model for ebooks, with Random House becoming the final publisher to switch early last year. The publishers had been increasingly angry about Amazon's selling of new bestsellers at the loss-leading price of $10 (actually, $9.99), worrying that the giant online company was setting customer expectations at a too-low price point and undermining the sales of physical books.

Apple played a role in this switch, by essentially telling the publishers it wanted the agency model for its own online bookstore, which services the iPad and iPhone. And Apple co-operated in what was the inevitable result for e-books everywhere: higher prices to consumers.

Not just higher prices, but vastly higher; many ebook bestsellers on Amazon (and in Barnes & Noble's Nook store) jumped 30% to 50%, from about $10 to $13 or $15 or even higher, as publishers imposed higher list prices for the digital versions. And in case after case, the ebook price for a new book was close to, and sometimes even higher than, the Amazon price for a hardcover. Remember, Amazon still has the right to discount from list price for physical books, as it has always done. Meanwhile, publishers have dictated that ebook prices will be the same as they charge for paperbacks (around $10 these days).

It’s one of those strange cases where competition increases prices (there’s another one here).  Apple offered publishers the chance to charge higher prices, and they were happy to do so.

It’s no surprise that Amazon’s original US$9.99 price for newly-published titles was not to the liking of all publishers, but a simple low price for a large range of titles was a great marketing message for the Kindle. No-one can really know how many sales of hardbacks were lost because the Kindle price was lower, but I’d suspect that they were more than made up for by higher overall sales.

An ebook priced like a physical book is a terrible deal for the customer. Among other drawbacks, you can't resell – or even give away – an ebook in most cases. You don't really own an ebook; you're just renting it, even if the company you rent from says you can keep it, because that depends on the life span of the seller. Maybe Amazon will be around for a long time to come (I hope so, as a holder of a small amount of Amazon stock), but why would anyone count on that?

I’m not so worried about Amazon going out of business. In the unlikely event of this happening I am sure that some alternative devices would appear, but it is completely baffling that an ebook should be the same price (or even more expensive than) a hardback book.  It simply makes no sense.

And yet - although it just seems wrong for a Kindle e-book to cost more than the physical book, the prohibitive shipping charges to Asia ($10 for the first item, $5 for additional books in the same shipment) make a huge difference. Even with the totally arbitrary $2 charge for delivering an Amazon e-book to overseas customers (through Wi-Fi) the KIndle version is usually cheaper.

And plenty of books are much cheaper on the Kindle.  For example, last week's SCMP had a review of a book about Walmart in China.   The publisher’s price is $25 for paperback or $65 for hardback, but I purchased it on the Kindle for $9.99 (plus $2 ripoff charge), and I could download it within seconds.  Hard to argue with that - though, strangely, it is now $16.97.

Another recent purchase was the first volume of Margaret Thatcher's memoirs for $3.99 (plus a very slightly less unreasonable $1.60 ripoff charge).  So it’s not a problem finding books for the Kindle at reasonable prices, and easy enough to avoid buying any that are over-priced.  Plus you can always download a sample to check out a book before purchasing.

When new ebooks were $10, I was buying them all the time. In almost all cases, book purchases are impulse buys – something you want to have, right now. I was buying new best-sellers at a rapid rate, and happy to do so. (The books I bought this way tended to be mysteries and thrillers – the kind of book purchases I treated like movie tickets, to be read or seen once and then put aside.)  No more. I still buy some e-books, but only at lower prices.

I think that’s right – at around $10, I would buy new titles that I want to read now, but at $15+ I am likely to wait till the price is reduced (or buy the paperback if it’s cheaper).  And at less than $5 it really is an impulse purchase.  

Sure, I can afford the higher prices. But the greed of the publishers has inspired me to make different plans. Now I reserve bestsellers at my local library – run by people who love books: imagine that! – and read them whenever they are available. What were impulse purchases of books that sent revenue to publishers are now impulse reservations that do not. If I have to wait a few weeks, no big deal. I should have remembered that all along.

I agree that publishers need to think more carefully about pricing.  In the long term it is going to hurt them - piracy is one way, and there are some interesting comments on the Guardian article, such as this one on a radically different approach:

If an author publishes an ebook via a publishing house, of the $9.99 price, they get only $0.60 in royalties at 6%.  If they self-publish the same book and charge just $2.99, they get a royalty of $2.09 - but the customer gets a 70% discount!

And it's not hard to upload - you will find that indie books that have been uploaded by authors are usually formatted correctly - they take the trouble because it's their baby, while the publishing houses do a poor job, but want to take money off the author and customer for the work anyway.

There was a more recent story about how some writers are making a good living through Amazon:

Amanda Hocking, the writer who made millions by self-publishing online

Ed Pilkington | Thursday 12 January 2012 20.00 GMT

When historians come to write about the digital transformation currently engulfing the book-publishing world, they will almost certainly refer to Amanda Hocking, writer of paranormal fiction who in the past 18 months has emerged from obscurity to bestselling status entirely under her own self-published steam. [..]

Over the past 20 months Hocking has sold 1.5m books and made $2.5m. All by her lonesome self. Not a single book agent or publishing house or sales force or marketing manager or bookshop anywhere in sight.

Which is something that ought to make publishers stop and think.


Amazon wants to buy The Book Depository

The Book Depository is a UK-based website that offers a decent alternative to Amazon for international customers.  Anyone who has ordered books from Amazon will know that international delivery charges are prohibitive, with the possible exception of expensive books that are reduced by 50% (or more).  The Book Depository don’t charge extra for delivery, and although they do charge customers outside the UK more, their prices are still normally quite reasonable (typically a discount of around 10% on cover prices), especially compared to the 20% markup that usually applies in Hong Kong.

The question is whether that will change if Amazon are allowed to acquire The Book Depository.  They made an offer, which has been accepted by the company, but it has been referred to the Office of Fair Trading.

From The Bookseller:

The Office of Fair Trading has said it now expects to announce its decision on the Amazon takeover of The Book Depository by late October.

On a notice posted on its website this morning (19th September), the OFT said the expected decision date on the merger is 24th October. The decision was originally due on 2nd September. An OFT spokesman gave no specific reason for the delay but added: "In general it can be because some cases are more complex than others, some require more information from the parties or the OFT needs time to analyse the data . . . No inference should be made about the likely outcome of the case."

Amazon announced the deal with The Book Depository in July. The Booksellers and Publishers Associations, the Independent Publishers Guild and the Bookseller Group all oppose the merger.

Given that company appears to be doing well (Book Depository's sales rise 20%) and Amazon is already so dominant, one might think that there would be grounds for blocking the deal on competition grounds.

If it does go through, will Book Depository continue to operate independently and offer a better deal to overseas customers than Amazon?  I guess we just have to wait to find out.

UPDATE: OFT clears Amazon acquisition of the Book Depository


Kindle Daily Deal

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Amazon now have a “Kindle Daily Deal”: one title at a reduced price, usually at $0.99 or $1.99, for exactly 24 hours.

So far, so good.

Except for readers outside the United States.  Sometimes the title is simply not available, which is quite annoying, and sometimes we are allowed to buy it – but only at a higher price.

Not just the ridiculous $2.00 extra charge for nothing (I don’t have a Kindle 3G, so the cost of delivering a title to me in Hong Kong through the Internet is the same as delivering it to a customer in the US).

No, today’s Kindle Daily Deal is less than $2 for US customers but a whopping $11.20 for those of in the rest of the world.  Which is even more expensive than yesterday’s price ($9.99).  So I don’t think we are saving 44%:

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Love the Kindle 3, hate paying $2 extra for nothing

The combination of the lower price and improved contrast won me over.  After thinking about buying one of the earlier Kindles but never quite being convinced that it  was a good idea, I really couldn’t resist the new Wi-Fi only model at US$139 (plus US$21 for delivery to Hong Kong).

However, there is a problem.  When Amazon started selling the Kindle internationally they added a flat charge of US$2 per book to cover the cost of using the mobile phone network wherever you happen to be.  Which seems somewhat unfair considering that Hong Kong has probably the lowest cost of voice and data anywhere.  But, OK, maybe Amazon were never going to set different prices for each country.

What is much more ridiculous is that even for the Kindle 3 model with Wi-Fi but not 3G, Amazon still insist on adding $2 to the price of most titles.  For no service at all.

The pricing is strange in other ways, with plenty of Kindle books priced virtually the same as - or even higher than - the physical book.  How can that be?  How can it possibly cost more to make a digital copy than to print a book and ship it first to the Amazon warehouse and then to your home? 

Yes, of course, it is almost always cheaper to buy a Kindle book (even with the $2 international surcharge) than to pay for delivery to Hong Kong, but that’s not really the point.  I understand that international couriers charge to ship books, but it costs virtually nothing to create a Kindle book and send it to me through the Internet, so what justification can there be for some of the ridiculously high prices they charge?

There are still a lot of titles available for US$9.99 US$11.99, though some only get to that price after an initial period at a higher price. Tony Blair’s autobiography was priced at $17 (+ $2.00, of course) before they dropped it to $9.99/11.99 (when it made it on to the New York Times bestseller list).  Who is going to pay the higher price, and how would you feel if you paid that and then saw it reduced a few days later?  Madness. 

image Then there’s the fact that international customers can only buy from the US store.  I can buy physical books from either the UK or the US stores, so why can’t I buy Kindle books from both?  Actually, it’s worse than that because some titles are in the US store but are not available internationally, and at times this seems totally random - with one book from a series unavailable whilst the rest are available.

There are some free books available, and some very low cost editions of out-of-copyright titles, though when you have to pay $2.00 for most of the “free” books it obviously makes them less attractive.  If I have to pay, then I’d rather pay a bit more and get a better quality edition without typographical errors and with proper navigation. 

There are also some limited-time offers, but I don’t know how to find them.  Searching for free books produces hundreds of old titles and a lot of rubbish, and I can’t be bothered to search through all of that for something worthwhile.

But what about the Kindle itself?  I have read a few very negative reviews (of the previous versions), but the Kindle 3 reproduces pictures fairly well, and the only real problem is with big charts or diagrams that either don’t fit on the page or which get separated from the text.  Apart from that, it’s fine.  On balance I think I’d still prefer to read a physical book, but the convenience of being able to carry dozens of books in one really small unit more than makes up for that.

Now, Amazon, about that $2 charge for nothing at all…