Tue, Feb 14, 2006 - Page 8 News List

Publishers now under threat from booksellers

By Lin Chia-cheng 林家成

The Fourteenth Taipei International Book Exhibition has come to a close. As always, the media gave the event extensive coverage. But while a visit to the Theme Square Hall and the international exhibitor area helped give an introduction to foreign publishers and cultural exchanges, there was nothing to write home about with regard to the contents provided by domestic publishers.

Looking at Taiwan's publishing market in the last year, it is worth noting that there has been an increase in the number of publications that are either edited in China or are direct conversions from publications in simplified characters. Also, book prices have gone up, and length of books is being stretched out in the layout process. The prices of many non-technical books have become prohibitively expensive.

The reason Taiwan's books are so expensive is that some publishers and bookstore chains have formed a "vicious partnership." Two major bookstore chains have issued excessive amounts of VIP cards to gain market share. They have then turned around and pressured publishers to give greater discounts and offer their books as consignment merchandise so the retailers only will have to pay for what they sell and have the option to return the rest. Then they make up various excuses to delay payment to publishers. At present, bookstore chains owe publishers at least NT$10 billion (US$310 million) in outstanding payments or post-dated checks. This is tantamount to frozen assets that put publishers at risk.

Nevertheless, Robert Wu (吳清友), chairman of Eslite Corp, which runs more than 40 Eslite bookstores nationwide, harbors extravagant hopes of bringing the company's business model to Shanghai.

Another reason is the competition between bookstore chains. Out of fears that other competitors will benefit if they run short of a certain kind of books, bookstores demand that publishers provide large numbers of books, but do not guarantee the sales of these books. As a result, publishers are forced to shift their costs to the consumer.

Three or four decades ago, publishers such as the Hsu Family Foundation participated in the translation of many technical books about integrated circuits, helping to develop a great deal of Taiwan's talent in the industry. Since there is an increase in Taiwan's national income it is imperative that the public understand that it is their duty to respect intellectual property rights and pay reasonable fees.

Copyright fees for publications are usually paid as a proportion of the list price. Now, in order to satisfy booksellers need to offer big discounts, the list price has gone up, which has consequently pushed up royalty payments. The payment of these higher royalties will tax foreign exchange reserves and damage Taiwan's social vitality.

Nung Hsueh Co, a major book distributor, has recently filed for bankruptcy after unsuccessfully trying to satisfy the demands of booksellers. It remains to be seen whether this will trigger a domino effect.

Although cross-strait exchanges have yet to be normalized, books sold in Taiwan are already three to four times more expensive than books in simplified characters sold in China. What's more, international markets have seen a marked decline.

If cross-strait exchanges are normalized, how would the nation's publishing industry survive? Can the nation still retain its competitiveness if it is deprived of its cultural industry?

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