Held in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, and attended by more than 200 participants, the inaugural ASEAN eBook Conference is a two-day event (running from December 4 to 5) that provided a snapshot of the e-book industry in several countries, namely Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.

Kicking off the conference was consultant (and ex-Harlequin executive) Guy Hallowes from Australia. Not surprisingly, Mills & Boon UK’s e-book program, which he initiated in 2008 while serving as the company’s managing director, became the case study. “There are no hard-and-fast rules in e-book pricing, and readers must be able to download e-books from different sources at their convenience. Basically, e-book service providers should pay attention to three major issues: content quality and variety, service speed and efficiency, and pricing competitiveness.” Next, IT manager Paul Singh from Harlequin Mills & Boon (Australia) provided a quick run-through on ePUB format, highlighted PDF conversion issues, and suggested either outsourcing conversion projects or developing in-house operations depending on work volume and complexity. Singh and his team are responsible for converting 10,000 Mills & Boon titles into ePUB files.

Subsequent forums and talks revealed an ASEAN e-book market at its teething stage, with many first-movers already dominating the market. Two-year-old e-bookstore Ookbee, for instance, corners 88% of Thailand’s e-book market with 6,000 titles (all in local language) and 2.55 million users, and sees nearly 3,930 new users every day. Six million e-books have been sold, with 26- to 35-year-olds accounting for 43% of its customer base.

At $6.67 million, Thailand’s e-book market is less than 1% of its total p-book market. But current year sales of eight million smartphones and tablets, of which three million are Apple iOS devices, is set to change the industry. “However, e-books would not sell, or sell well, without stable and reliable distribution. It is also worth noting that if a title does not sell well through brick-and-mortar outlet, then it is going to perform even worse as an e-book. So publishers should convert their bestsellers into e-books, and do not fear cannibalization of p-book sales,” said business development director Polapat Udomphol, adding that while p-books enjoy zero VAT in Thailand, e-books as licensed products are levied at 7%.

Over in Vietnam, 70% of its publishers sell their e-textbooks and e-books through Alezaa.com. “Our low GDP and disposable income means that p-books are priced cheaply between $2 to $3, and in order to move e-books, we have to price them even lower, at 30% of p-book price,” said CEO Phuong Tran, who recently signed an agreement to develop a similar e-book platform for a Swedish IT company. Alezaa offers its 50,000 active users several reading options including Kindle Cloud Reader, allows downloads of a single title onto five devices, and provides AlezaaBuild, a fuss-free PDF-to-ePUB conversion tool. “Vietnamese publishers do not know—and do not want to know—about ePUB conversion since they focus strictly on publishing, distributing and selling. So we step in to provide the necessary e-book services.”

Down south in Singapore, its year-on-year retail book sales have fallen by 1.1%, and last year’s Borders and PageOne store closures are adding to the woes. In contrast, Singaporeans spent an estimated $41 million purchasing books through overseas websites in 2010, with 400,000 monthly unique visitors reportedly clicking through Amazon sites. These facts have attracted new and aggressive e-bookstores such as ilovebooks.com, which is owned by MediaCorp (and which, in turn, is wholly owned by government investment arm Temasek Holdings). “The high penetration of smartphones and tablets, at around 149.6% in 2011, a growing demand for less expensive books and the search for convenience in shopping are plus factors for us,” said senior business relationship manager Melissa Teoh.

In Indonesia, 55 million people (or 22% of its population) use the Internet, 40 million mobile phones are sold annually, and, in five years, its e-commerce is expected to grow three times as much as the country’s overall economy. CEO Pangestu Ningsih of Mizan Digital Publishing, whose team launched its first e-book in 1999, recalled that the free title got 15,000 downloads. “In contrast, one 2008 title by singer/songwriter Dee Lestari had 60,000 downloads. The trend is encouraging but the challenges are many. For publishers, the questions have always been about the technology and potential revenue. For authors, content security, intellectual property protection and royalty are major concerns. Readers, meanwhile, are searching for comfortable reading, easy payment solutions and the availability of e-reading devices.”

So far, 40 Malaysian publishers have converted some of their titles into e-books, with the two most active players being PTS Publications & Distributors and Pelangi ePublishing. As for e-bookstores, all three major providers—Xentral Methods (e-Sentral.com), MPH Digital (mphdigital.my) and Maxis (ebuuk.com.my)—are barely one year old. Xentral has the most e-books on offer, at around 1,000. In general, e-books from these three, mostly in local language, are priced 20% to 30% cheaper than the print version, and an estimated 10,000 e-book titles will be sold this year. Higher learning institutions constitute the country’s largest e-book users, and are supported by global providers such as OverDrive, ebrary, World Book Library and Credo Reference.

For the next conference, organizer Arief Hakim (also managing director of PTS Publications & Distributors) hopes that “it will explore more topics, from focusing on specific publishing areas— such as digital comics, interactive children’s books, Arabic language publishing and games—to next-generation ePUB tools and standards. We would certainly like to invite more speakers, especially those from countries similar in size to Malaysia so that the discussion takes into account the nature and challenges of such small market.” The official website aseanebookconference.com has the details.

More coverage on Asia’s e-book publishers, e-bookstores and other aspects of the e-book industry will be available in PW’s special report, E-Books in Asia, in March 4, 2013.