Amazon debuted its Kindle Unlimited service in India in September as the company’s first ever Asian market for the eBook service. As of the launch, 1 million books became accessible to India’s 1.3 billion people via the service. Amazon saw promising prospects in the Indian economy, especially as a smart gadget market, and the country is projected to become the second-largest smartphone market by 2017. Owing to the accessibility of eBooks through both the company’s e-reader Kindle device and through the Kindle app for iPhones and Android models, as more Indians get smartphones, the potential customer base for the Kindle Unlimited service is growing rapidly. The service will be especially significant thanks to a collaboration with a local major book publishing company.
This is not first time for the Kindle to land in Asia. The e-reader Kindle device itself already went on sale in Japan three years ago and took only five months to earn the largest share of the eBook market, beating out local companies. Kindle’s unprecedented low prices certainly played into its success, but its rapid spread mainly resulted from Amazon’s unique service to give customers access to a huge selection of content. Before the debut of the Kindle, the domestic eBook market was small and offered very few titles. Amazon, however, brought their knowhow in boosting both profits and sales on eBooks, resulting in around 18% growth rate in eBook sales at that time. According to Impress Research Institute, the current Japanese eBook market recorded ¥127 billion in sales in 2014, up from ¥94 billion in 2013, and projected to increase to ¥160 billion this year. Kindle’s importance is clear, as sales have doubled since its launch in late 2012.
Other countries in Asia are proving slow to adopt e-readers and eBooks, mainly because of unstable prospects. Both Indonesia and Thailand, for instance, have small electronic book markets, taking less than a 3% share of their respective domestic publication markets. That small market-share limits further growth, as publishers have an unsettled outlook on future demand and are reluctant to invest in the medium. This has resulted in a lack of access to a wide range of content, few advantages on price compared to paper books, and accessibility challenges as people feel constrained by having their libraries restricted to a single brand of eBook service due to compatibility restrictions. Considering an estimated international eBook market worth $33 billion by 2018, with Asia accounting for around 20% according to PWC, publishers in Asia will miss out on opportunities if they are not investing in digital formats.
Minseong Baek is a Research Intern at the East-West Center in Washington and an Asan Washington Young Fellow at Asan Academy in Seoul.