[Executive Edge] Making Filipino books digital

Ezra Ferraz
Will Filipinos buy ebooks at the same growing rate as readers in the United States are?

Will Filipinos buy ebooks at the same growing rate as readers in the United States are?

Chad Rosario, the general manager of Hand.Interactive, is betting we will. As we consume more and more content digitally, Rosario thinks that Filipinos will begin to buy more and more ebooks online. He and his team hopes that they do so through their product known as buqo.

Rosario described buqo as a “one-stop e-bookstore that offers a great selection of Filipino reads – including books, magazines, and comics.” The key word there is “Filipino.” In contrast to the brick-and-mortar bookstores in the Philippines, which sell a breadth of internationally published books, buqo “principally pushes locally published content using a Filipino platform.”

As an avid reader of Filipino literature, buqo excites me. Prior to the recent launch of buqo, publishing has not been kind on Filipino books. As a reader, I either have to consign myself to the limited selection of books in the Filipiniana section at most bookstores or scour all over the Internet in search of an elusive title. That buqo brings all types of content into a single, secure location bodes well for both Filipino readers as well as Filipino writers and publishers.

For one, buqo makes publishing a lot more potentially lucrative. Rosario said, “Partnering with buqo means that publishers and authors instantly expand their distribution globally. Revenues are no longer limited by print circulation. Instead, they now have the capability to sell their books worldwide.”

To date, 30 different publishing companies, representing more than 450 magazines and books, have signed up with buqo. These include such authors as Pol Medina and Bo Sanchez and such publishers as Summit Media and Precious Pages. Yet the journey to these milestones has not been without their challenges.

Cultural considerations

Any discussion on the difference between ebooks and physical books is bound to go into matters of preference. Many people prefer physical books on the account of how they feel in your hands, how they can be easily shared and borrowed, and how they are easily referenced or returned to, given that they sit right there on your bookshelf.

This kind of thinking filters up to publishing companies. Rosario said, “One of the biggest challenges we’ve faced is the traditional mindset that print still trumps everything else. I love books and I still buy paperbacks and hardcovers. Some people still prefer the tactile feel of paper and the thickness of books and these are facets that will lend themselves well for print reading.”

This kind of thinking must be overcome to sell people on the promise of buqo. Doing so comes down to a universal entrepreneurial skill: pitching. Rosario and his team must sell readers, writers, and publishers on what buqo can do for them and do so in the language that they speak.

For publishers and writers, for example, the pitch centers on expanding their reach. After all, what publisher would not want to sell more books (even if they are in a digital format)? What author would not want more readers for the works that they so lovingly crafted?

Regarding this, Rosario said, “But at the same time, the publishing landscape is also changing. More and more customers now are more engaged with the use of their smartphones and tablets. This is the opportunity we’re opening publishers’ and authors’ eyes to each time we pitch buqo.”

Rosario and his team have a lot of ammunition in their pitch deck. One undisputed advantage that ebooks have over physical books is their convenience. Rosario explained that with buqo “readers need not head over to a bookstore or newsstand to buy their favorite books or magazines. They can download an author’s book in the comfort of their homes or when traveling and read it on-the-go.”

Buqo’s ebooks are also more convenient for the authors and publishers themselves. Buqo’s team converts the manuscripts of authors into the necessary ePUB format for them, all for free. This pro-bono service is particularly attractive for authors who may be looking to self-publish.

According to Rosario, this approach “means that an author now has the option to just release a digital version of his book if there are budget constraints. They eventually save on printing costs that they would have paid supposedly to produce physical copies of their works. The savings they realize translate to bigger profit margins in the end.”

The extent to which Rosario and his team understand buqo’s stakeholders – readers, writers, and publishers – is impressive, if not inspiring. If more companies in the Philippines thought as deeply about the culture that surrounds their target market as they do, our country would have far better products and services.

Technical considerations

What is doubly impressive about Rosario and his team is their patience. Given that the ebook industry in the Philippines is still in its infancy, they could have rushed and put out a less-than-stellar product on the market. Many people would still have flocked to buqo due to the lack of a definitive ebook store for Filipino content.

This could have been an enticing option given the scale of buqo’s ambitions in a relatively open market, which Rosario so aptly described: “The goal is to be the number 1 Pinoy bookstore in the world. The Philippines has a very high take-up rate. We adapt fast especially when it comes to technology. I won’t be surprised to see drivers and our yayas sporting smartphones next year. This really presents a very fertile environment for a business such as buqo to thrive and succeed.”

Despite this opportunity, buqo waited to release a superior version of the product that they envisioned. For originally, Rosario and his team had intended to produce the e-bookstore platform entirely on their own. “We found out soon that this was easier said than done,” Rosario said. “Our first foray into app development was riddled with app crashes and stability problems.”

In turn, Rosario and his team decided for the right opportunity to come along. They found this in Ookbee, which is Thailand’s biggest e-bookstore. By partnering with them, Rosario solved most of the technical challenges in a single stroke. “Ookbee had an outstanding platform in their hands and we used their technology in coming up with a responsive, functional, and easy-to-use product.”

By waiting to put out a great platform, Rosario has put buqo in a position to succeed and to succeed spectacularly. As of the moment, there main challenge is content. They need to get a diversity of content, across a variety of genres, so as to attract the most readers.

“A critical factor in the success of our business is content,” Rosario said. “That’s why we want to acquire as many local publishers and authors to distribute on our platform and support our cause. Right now, we’re aggressively pitching to different groups at present. And while some of them still have reservations about going digital, there’s no denying that online and mobile platforms are quickly becoming an integral part of our everyday lives.”

To other entrepreneurs and businessmen, Rosario advised for the need to be patient enough to put yourself in the best position to succeed. “Just keep at it,” he said. “The first attempt isn’t always the hardest but neither is it the best way to do things. In our case, after some setbacks in our first bid to introduce buqo in the market, we realized we needed the expertise required to launch an excellent product. And because we weren’t satisfied with the product quality, we had to defer launching it.”

Rosario continued, “I’m a firm believer that good quality breeds trust. The trust you build with your customers is very valuable. Once you lose that trust because of substandard service or quality, it’ll be nearly impossible to make your business succeed.” – Rappler.com


Rappler business columnist Ezra Ferraz graduated from UC Berkeley and the University of Southern California, where he taught writing for 3 years. He now consults full-time for educational companies in the United States. He brings you Philippine business leaders, their insights, and their secrets via Executive Edge. Follow him on Twitter: @EzraFerraz

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