Read new bestsellers for $16 a month

Would you pay up to $16 every month to read new bestsellers on your tablet or smartphone?

StarHub yesterday launched a subscription-based e-book service in partnership with Russian-origin Bookmate. This comes two months after the local telco suspended Booktique, its online store which sold e-books individually to consumers.

Rather than paying separately to download and read each e-book, Bookmate users pay a tiered fee to get online and offline access to up to 500,000 titles, mostly in English as well as in eight other languages, such as Russian and Bahasa Indonesia. A premium $15.98 monthly fee (or $14 for existing StarHub Hub ID users) lets readers download and read every book, such as the 2005 bestseller Freakonomics by Stephen J. Dubner and Steven D. Levitt.

A standard fee of $9.98 ($8 for Hub ID users) will not grant access to the above, though popular novels, such as this year's Man Booker- shortlisted We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler, are available.

Bookmate can be used on personal computers, while smartphone apps for Android and Apple platforms are free from the Google Play store and App store. The catch is that once subscription elapses, readers can no longer read even books downloaded earlier.

This is fine by users familiar with the model of movie- and TV show-streaming services such as NetFlix or Hulu.

"If I pay $16 a month and read four books, it's worth it," says English literature student Brian Lee Jun Wei, 25, who is in his fourth year at Nanyang Technological University. He is used to the "pay and play" model for computer games, which he downloads from websites, and has no problem not owning a physical copy of his entertainment. "To me, it's important that I own the knowledge, not the book itself."

Bookmate's subscription-based model is like that of a library and, indeed, the National Library Board's free OverDrive app and eReads service are its biggest competitors here. Overseas, there is Scribd, which charges US$8.99 (S$11.70) a month.

Previous e-bookstores in Singapore sold titles individually to consumers and have since shut down, from StarHub's Booktique, which launched in March last year and closed in October this year, to SingTel's Skoob and MediaCorp's ilovebooks.

Industry watchers say the main hurdle was that the e-books often cost close to the price of print books instead of being at least 40 per cent cheaper, a strategy deployed by bigger overseas e-book retailers such as Amazon.

Bookmate founder Simon Dunlop says: "It's hard to build a business on the basis of selling a single book in a market where reading is free. Subscription takes away the buying decision you have to make every time you want to read a book."

Bookmate was set up in Russia 31/2 years ago and has this year, with the backing of Russian e-commerce giant Ulmart, started expanding into other countries including Britain.

Mr Dunlop says the selling points are the growing catalogue and social media activity. Bookmate users can see who reads what book - a boon for writers and publishers tracking popularity. As on review aggregators such as GoodReads, Bookmate users can create personal "shelves" and lists such as "indie sci-fi" or "20th-century literature" to recommend titles.

"When you read a book, it's a 10- to 20-hour commitment and people want to know: "Is this the right book for me?'" says Mr Dunlop. "Also, when you're reading, maybe you have an emotional reaction to a book and traditionally, until now, we've not been able to share that."

Publishers and distributors are cautiously optimistic about Bookmate, saying it avoids the pricing hurdle which killed other local e-bookstores. "I think $10 is okay for readers here," says Mr Edmund Wee of Epigram Books, which will have part of its catalogue available on Bookmate this week.

Other Singapore publishers on board include Marshall Cavendish and Monsoon Books. Major English-language publishers such as Serpent's Tail and HarperCollins are also offering books on Bookmate.

Independent graphic artist Shawn Siow, 35, hopes Bookmate will draw readers to his work. The Singapore writer has sold "a few hundred" physical copies of his self-published Project Red graphic novels in bookstores, but no e-books during the six months he was with Booktique. "With a subscription model, there is no risk for readers. There is a chance for my book to be read," he says.

In a win-win situation, Bookmate is also unlikely to affect sales of printed books, international publishers say. "From what we see, they are two completely different markets," says a HarperCollins spokesman.

This article was first published on December 18, 2014.
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