A large anthropomorphic figure with a book-shaped heart greeted visitors to the 25th edition of the Taipei International Book Fair (TIBE), which runs from February 8 to 13. Designed by local installation artist Akibo Lee, the giant’s body is formed by more than 2,000 donated books, which will be sent to far-flung areas with limited access to books across the island after the fair ends. It stands as a metaphor for reading as a force of movement that can bringing about change.

A total of 621 exhibitors from 59 countries are taking part in the six-day annual event. This year, the number of Taiwanese exhibitors increased by around 55%, totaling 315. Several new features were added to the fair this year, including an Independent Publishers and NGOs zone, and an extended opening hours of up to 9.00 p.m. (and 10.00 p.m. on Friday and Saturday), which are aimed at attracting office crowds. Some 450 events are scheduled, including the first-ever International Bookstore Forum with representatives of Foyles (from the U.K.), Readings (Australia), Eslite (Taiwan), Urara (Japan) and others to explore impacts of e-books, online retailing and mobile devices on bricks-and-mortar operations.

The closure of many independent and smaller bookstores has been a major concern for many Taiwanese publishers. “The vibrancy and well-being of small bookstores are crucial to the longevity and survival of the publishing industry. Less outlets for distribution and sales means lower revenues for publishers,” said publisher Rex How of Locus Publishing, pointing out that “fixed pricing to cap deep discounting is one way out. It is not the cure but it will stop the bleeding.” On the other hand, a more fundamental issue is the island’s examination-focused educational system, which, said How, does not encourage students to read for leisure and general knowledge, and therefore, buy books.

Publisher Jungwen Wang of Yuan-Liou Publishing, while sharing How’s concerns, offered some optimism for the flagging industry. “The creativity and innovation in publishing and content creation to suit changing tastes — and times — has been ongoing for hundreds of years. So yes, the Taiwanese book industry has its ups and downs, as so do those in other countries, but I am sure we will be able to find the right mix of content, channel and media to fit new and emerging market needs and conditions,” Wang said.

Managing director Jerome Su of B.K. Norton, an agent for well-known American houses and university presses, is seeing local institutions going back to purchasing print books instead of having digital subscriptions. “Aside from discovering that the end of a subscription means zero access to the digital content, there is the higher tendency of cut-and-paste plagiarism, which in turn necessitates the institutions to spend more on plagiarism detection software,” he said. For Su, last year’s popularity of adult coloring books has spilled over to his children’s titles (published under the Bookman imprint), specifically the translated Highlights series of Hidden Pictures/Coloring titles. “Children’s books are doing well, and we see that growth with our Scholastic list.”

With so much information available on the Internet and mobile devices becoming ever cheaper, publisher Linden Lin of Linking Publishing is seeing a segment of the younger generation simply not buying print books. “Fortunately, we have university students and researchers continuing to purchase titles and frequenting bookstores,” said Lin, adding that “children’s books and humanities titles are the two biggest -- and brightest -- segments in the Taiwanese book industry in the past five years.” (So it is not surprising at all to find Hall 3 of the Taipei World Trade Center dedicated to the fair’s Children’s Pavilion, hosting nearly 60 exhibitors.)

In general, the Taiwanese book market has declined, with total sales of books estimated to have dropped around 25% compared to the previous year. But it still produces an average of 40,000 new titles annually. Translated titles remain a big portion of the market.

Despite the soft market last year, Taiwan is still an important market for overseas publishers, especially children's publishers. The Quarto Group, for instance, is exhibiting at TIBE for the first time, and foreign rights manager Lucy Gibbs is looking at nearly 20 scheduled meetings at the fair (while her colleague has 30 on schedule). “We have been doing co-editions in Taiwan since 2008, and in the last three years, with better market understanding and networking, our sales here have gone up. This is my first Asian book fair, and I am pleasantly surprised that there are so many meetings to fill up my schedule. And interestingly, while there are many Korean, Japanese and other Asian publishers attending this fair, all my meetings are with Taiwanese publishers.”