E-reading Chinese-language books in Taiwan: Frustrations Galore

Taiwan has been quite slow to get into the e-books game, but over the last few years, more and more titles are being made available on a range of platforms. Although there is a range of reading devices available, I’m going to look only at e-books available on the Kindle (the only dedicated e-reader device in my possession) and on various mobile phone apps.

A word of warning, expect to be slightly disappointed. The industry seems largely to be dragging its heels, preferring traditional paper copies to digital copies (cue a junior lecturer’s lesson plan on Walter Benjamin). I’m not sure if this has to do with copyright law or if there’s just a general fuddy-duddyness. Anecdotally speaking, I’ve seen a lot of people reading martial arts novels and lots of manga on their phones in the MRT.

Kindle: I was actually surprised when I was gearing up to do this blogpost, how many Taiwanese books are available on Kindle if you search for them. That is the catch though, you already have to know what you’re looking for. Once you do manage to get your book on to the Kindle, it works quite well.

The other options available that I’ve seen are Google Play Books, MyBooks or eBook – the eBook reader launched by books.com.tw (and there’s also ReadMoo and Kobo rated below in the table). Even here, older but famous titles (like 《孽子》  for example) are hard to find. If you know of any other stores let me know in the comments section.

I was sorely disappointed with the audio features of all of apps, which pretty much just either offer nothing for Chinese audio or offer a robotic Google Translate rendering of the content, as they clearly didn’t think hiring a voice actor was worth it.

The advantage of the buying books on Google Play is that you can technically convert them to view on your Kindle (if you have a Kindle), it is also slightly more user-friendly than eBook, which is (to put it kindly) frustrating beyond belief.  You can select text and you get the option of using Google Translate, making a note, or searching the web on it, which is useful (in comparison to competitors).

eBook’s advantage is that it has a lot of great titles, although these are all newer titles (《孽子》 sadly unavailable again). However, they haven’t brought out their own reader and have decided that lack of interoperability is their business model. The user interface is also kind of annoying – in that you can’t look up any words (you can’t even copy text). So you have to get really good at drawing characters in Pleco. Invariably you’ll get the basic guide on how to use the app when you open it up, which gets old quickly:

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PUT IT TO THE TEST I hear you shout rather too aggressively for my liking, but hey… I live to serve.

I’ll try to search for a range of titles, all of which have caught my attention for different reasons.

OK, first Kindle:

孽子:    Come on, possibly the greatest gay novel in Taiwanese literary history, it’s not an abstract modernist mess and it actually makes sense, what you got for me Kindle:

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Eh…. ok, moving swiftly on. How about more recent books like this one by late Taiwanese director Mickey Chen:

《台北爸爸紐約媽媽》:

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OK, one point Kindle, now go for it, get political, batter me with some uncensored opinions from the emperor of 天龍國:

《白色的力量》:

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Yes! That’s how we do it!

Now the last one for the hat-trick:

《野猪渡河》:

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OK, let’s abbreviate this process somewhat, as I’m getting as bored of screenshots as you are:

Google Play Books seems the clear winner in terms of availability of books, and I’ll try and publish a post for Kindle owners to let them know how to get Google Books on their Kindle (you can also just Google it).

Update: the ReadMoo and Kobo apps tie with Google Play Books for availability of books. I haven’t tried them out yet for readability, but feel free to fight their corner in the comments below. Thanks to Kerim Friedman for the tip!

PS. If you want to convert Kobo books to Kindle format you’ll also need the to download the Kobo app for desktop, and then the process is pretty much the same as for Google Play.

Late entry warning: WeChat has joined the chat… I was going to just add it to the table, but some of the results were too funny not to share. Ironically enough, where all the other Taiwanese providers let us down, WeChat did have the elusive 《孽子》, but when I typed in Ko Wen-je’s book 《白色力量》:

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The first entry is from Terry Gou, the chairman of Foxconn and the one-time rumored presidential candidate running mate for Ko Wen-je. When I added the 的, the book in question did come up, but it was 待上架, which I guess is Chinese for forbidden book, lol (I’m not going to hold my breath).

To be fair, WeChat was never going to do that well on a Taiwanese books test, so maybe I should come up with an alternative. Anyone got some good recommendations from the app? A friend did transfer me some money on WeChat, so will use that to explore some Chinese novels there and get back to you all if I find it useful.

More at this site if you want to explore!

This Kindle dictionary seems to be recommended on the forums, although Google Translate often can work too, if you don’t want to buy an additional dictionary.

I also wanted to talk about the Kindle pinyin feature:

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It’s a weird one, because in my experience it seemed not to give you the pronunciation of the hardest words in most cases, but some of the most common words like 「沒」「不」and 「見」, although occasionally it will hit words you don’t know. Not sure if this is just random or if there is any algorithm behind it:

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As a result, I tend not really to use this feature at all, as it’s kind of distracting and isn’t super helpful with new vocabulary.

 

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