In-depth country profile

An introduction to the Singapore and Malaysia markets for consumer adult and children’s books

The Singapore and Malaysia book market is amongst the most significant export territories for adult and children’s consumer publishers in the UK. For most such publishers with a mature international business it would be comfortably within their top ten. This is because in Singapore English sits alongside Malay, Mandarin and Tamil as an official language, but is also the lingua franca, the medium of instruction in schools and colleges, and the language of government and the judiciary. For this reason Singapore is also an important market for English-language educational publishers, and significant sales of consumer or ‘trade-educational’ books are made into the hinterland around the educational market.

The status of the English language is different in Malaysia, where Malaysian is the sole official language; but English is the official working language in some parts of the country, is a compulsory subject at primary and secondary school levels, and is the language of private tertiary education.

The reason for grouping the two countries into a single territory is that the distribution channels into the two are co-ordinated by firms with offices in both Singapore and Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia’s capital.

Singapore also acts as an entrepot for onward export into neighbouring parts of South East Asia.

Key facts

  • Singapore’s population is 5.9 million in 2019, of which 65% are foreigners, including those who have permanent resident status.
  • Malaysia’s population is c. 32 million, of which over 7 million live in the urban conglomeration of Greater Kuala Lumpur.
  • Over 60% of Malaysia’s population professes the Islamic religion.
  • Despite these relative population numbers, Singapore is the larger market for British exporting publishers by a ratio of approximately two to one, because of the particular role of the English language in Singapore.

 

The status of the consumer book market

  • In contracts between authors, agents and publishers, Singapore and Malaysia, as members of the Commonwealth of Nations, are often but not always listed as exclusive territories for the UK publisher.
  • However, the territorial copyright status of both countries in local statute is that of open markets, that is, markets where any legitimate edition may be sold.
  • As a consequence of this local legal position, and because commercial conditions allow them to do so, some US publishers ignore the contractual status and supply direct into the territory.
  • There is also supply from UK and US exporting wholesalers to local booksellers, and from overseas online retailers to consumers, in both cases to an unquantified level.

 

The structure of the consumer book market in Singapore and Malaysia

A publisher’s or distributor’s retail customer base is typically made up as follows:

  • The Popular chain of bookstores https://www.popular.com.sg has 31 stores in Singapore and 97 in Malaysia, as well as 15 in Hong Kong, plus an online store. The group’s origins go back to the 1920s and 1930s, and it now has buying offices for Chinese-language publications in China and Taiwan. The group also comprises a division publishing e-learning materials. The company was reprivatised in 2015.

Popular stores offer a range of books (mainly in Chinese and English), educational resources, stationery, electronic goods, household appliances and other categories.

In 2006 Popular instigated BookFest@Singapore http://www.bookfestsingapore.com and BookFest@Malaysia http://www.bookfestmalaysia.com, annual book festivals which have become a significant fixture in each country’s book industry calendar and take place in December and June respectively.

  • Kinokuniya, the leading Japanese and international bookseller, has four stores in Singapore. The flagship store in Orchard Road ranks as one of the largest and most extensively stocked bookshops in the entire region: https://kinokuniya.com.sg
  • MPH Bookstores, a Malaysia-based company, has two stores in Singapore and 27 in Malaysia as well as an online store https://www.mphonline.com/en/home

MPH has its roots in a pioneering late-C19th publishing house, and in addition to its bookstore division comprises MPH Distributors (see distributor profile), MPH Publishing, and MPH Printing.

Times Bookstores https://www.timesbookstores.com.sg is a member of Times Publishing Group https://www.timespublishing.sg which also owns two major Singapore book distributors: Pansing and Times Distribution (see distributor profiles). Alongside these the group has printing interests, and publishing in Marshall Cavendish.

Times Publishing Group is in turn part of Fraser and Neave https://www.fraserandneave.com, a publicly listed company with major interests in the Food and Beverage sector.

Times Bookstores has six stores in Singapore and seven in Malaysia.

Accessing the Singapore and Malaysia markets for UK adult and children’s trade publishers:

  • For most of its trading the book retail sector in Singapore and Malaysia prefers to source through local distributors: Pansing, Times Distribution, MPH, APD and Alkem are the leading companies (see distributor profiles). Supplies are supplemented through overseas English-language wholesalers.
  • The local distributors enter into contractual distribution arrangements with overseas publishers on the basis of exclusivity for the Singapore and Malaysia markets, and sometimes for further territories in the region.

If an overseas publisher’s list does not meet the local distributors’ criteria

  • Trade wholesalers in the UK, notably Gardners and Bertrams, whose business comprises a significant export element, offer a route to market.
  • Offshore online retail also offers discoverability and availability in overseas markets.

In the case of both these last two options, sales made to overseas markets will be invoiced to a UK customer, so that export elements will not necessarily be apparent.

The absolute pre-requisite for all these routes to market, emphasised constantly by distribution partners, is the timely availability of high-quality digital metadata, and sales material (including jackets/covers) whether in print or digital. A senior publisher in a major UK house memorably told his staff that the biggest single favour they could do their books in the modern era was to write a superb information-sheet with key-words, applying a high level of Search Engine Optimisation (SEO). The intensely competitive contemporary market-place is unforgiving of those who publish a good book but fail to give it this support.