By Tan Weizhen
THE popularity of electronic books is rising in Singapore, buoyed by the availability of a variety of readers, from computers to smartphones to dedicated devices like Sony's e-Reader and Amazon's Kindle.
Another factor: More and more electronic versions of books are becoming available, they are cheaper, and some - legally or not - can even be had for free.
Users also say that in some cases, e-books are more convenient. Stored on, say, an iPhone, Tolstoy's War And Peace is much easier to tote around than the weighty tome itself.
The National Library Board (NLB) is leading the e-book charge here. It has more than 770,000 e-books in its collection, and said interest has grown by an average of 10 per cent over the past year.
For example, its World e-Book Library collection of fiction and non-fiction books has received more than a million hits from readers here over the past year, up from what NLB called a 'not comprehensive' audience in the past.
Page views of its eBrary collection - which features books on subjects like science and technology and economics, among others - hit 165,162 in the period from April last year to last month.
This compares to 16,903 page views between April 2007 and March last year.
Many other readers who are latching on to e-books simply download them from sites such as Project Gutenberg, Mobipocket and eBooks, reading them off the screen. Some sites, like Mobipocket, charge a fee starting at 99 cents per book.
But many, such as Project Gutenberg, do not charge for downloading, as the copyright for most of its books has expired in the United States. Other sites tout pirated books which are downloaded and passed around like MP3s.
The surge in popularity of smartphones and other devices has also helped e-books catch on. For example, dozens of e-book software programs are available for Apple's iPhone, one of the most popular of such phones here with about 60,000 sold as of December.
One free iPhone application, Stanza, has been downloaded by 10,000 users in Singapore since January, said Mr Neelan Choksi, chief operating officer of Lexcycle, the company which developed it.
With it, users can browse a 100,000-book online catalogue and download books - ranging from Jane Austen's Pride And Prejudice to Stephenie Meyer's Twilight - directly onto their iPhones or iPod Touch music players for free.
Devices like Amazon's Kindle and Sony's e-Reader, which can store over 1,000 books, are also finding their way here. One catch: The libraries for such devices are now open only to those with credit cards with US billing addresses.
That has not stopped student Alvin Lim, 25, who bought a Sony e-Reader last December and has more than 100 books stored in the device.
'The price is definitely a bonus. An e-book can be cheaper by up to 50 per cent,' said Mr Lim, who reads mostly non-fiction like history and economics.
Other popular e-book readers on the App Store include eReader and BookShelf, which noted growing interest from Singaporeans although they have no specific figures.
According to theAssociation of American Publishers, sales of e-books grew 63 per cent in the first 11 months of last year to US$250 million (S$381.3 million), compared with 2007.
Conventional book sales, meanwhile, grew less than 3 per cent.
High-tech gadgetry, availability and convenience aside, there is another factor fuelling the e-book craze in Singapore: 'Soft' copies take up a lot less space.
Said Mr Lim Junyou, 27, who is self-employed and has a Kindle: 'The best part about this device is that books don't take up space in my already small room any more.'
This article was first published in The Straits Times.