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Can't tech this

How physical books have fended off disruption



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"We've had people asking us why we're still selling books when print books are now such a sunset industry, and my comeback has always been that if that were true, then we should not have been in business for the last 12 years." - Kenny Leck, BooksActually co-founder

Find out what physical bookstores mean to avid readers in this video:

ALMOST 10 years ago, Amazon released its Kindle e-reader which threatened to make tinder of physical books around the world. When it was launched in 2007, the first-generation Kindle sold out in less than six hours in the United States (US) for US$399. The e-reader had epitomised instant gratification, instantaneously hoovering up digital books, newspapers and magazines from the cloud and depositing them into the palm of the reader.

Even so, a decade and multiple Kindle iterations later, the tech onslaught on physical books seems to be ebbing.

Figures from both the American Association of Publishers (AAP) and the United Kingdom's Publishers Association (PA) show that physical books are biting back, racking up year-on-year growth compared to their digital versions.

In the US, AAP reports that from January to November 2016, children's and young adult books were up 5.8 per cent to US$1.62 billion; paperbacks grew 6.5 per cent to US$2 billion during that period and hardback books grew 2.1 per cent to US$2.5 billion. On the other hand, sales of e-books fell 16.4 per cent to US$1.1 billion.

In Britain, 2016 e-book sales plummeted 17 per cent to £204 million, their lowest level since 2011, when the Kindle was at its peak in Britain. The rapid decline of digital books in the UK was led by a slump in sales in its most popular category, fiction, which dived 16 per cent to £165 million in 2016.

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UK sales

Could the pendulum of consumer favour be swinging from screen to page?

"E-books had a spectacular rise to popularity about five to seven years ago. But those days of double- and triple-digit growth in the US are gone," says Marisa Bluestone, director of communications at the AAP in Washington DC. "While e-book revenues have declined, we've seen a slight return to print, and an increased interest in audiobooks. Ultimately, there's room for both print and digital formats and we're happy when someone is reading - no matter the format."


Last year, a US poll by Nielsen found that 27 per cent of young adults chose reading over watching TV or going to a cinema as their favourite pastime. In fact, more Generation Z respondents (aged 15-20) preferred to cosy up with a book than review social media (17 per cent) or play video and online games, 17 per cent and 16 per cent respectively.

The trend is not confined to the English-speaking world. In India, Nielsen reports that book-buying in the world's second most populous nation of 1.28 billion people, where literacy levels are at an all-time high, is on the rise too. In its survey, The India Book Market, educational tomes account for 71 per cent of the market, with physical books for tertiary level students contributing an additional 22 per cent.

For all the success of e-readers, Singapore Writers Festival (SWF) director Yeow Kai Chai believes that the physical book does not easily lend itself to the digital format. The poet and former Straits Times journalist says: "Despite the fact that the world becomes more virtually connected, it is the personal touch that has actually gained currency. The tactile quality of the physical book - the grammage of the paper, its texture - is irreplaceable. Ultimately, people still enjoy the experience of flipping through undiscovered titles, and soaking in the atmosphere of the bookstore and interacting with staff and other like-minded bibliophiles."

Mr Yeow says that although the SWF welcomes books in all formats, the team have yet to present books released exclusively in the digital format. Writers both acclaimed and up-and-coming prefer the physical book format when releasing their titles in markets globally.

Book lover Praba Krishnan, who works as a senior account executive with a research organisation in Perth, Australia, says he prefers to curl up with a physical book on his weekends after a long week at work where he goes through reams of information on his computer screen.

"It's ironic because even in this high-tech digital age, the last thing I want is to be poring over another computer screen when I get home," says Mr Krishnan, 39, who owns an iPad, but who prefers to spend his precious downtime thumbing through books on mindfulness and meditation, as well as personal and professional development, instead of scrolling through hundreds of titles of e-books.

"My wife bought me one of Dostoevsky's classics when she recently returned from Russia, and it makes a welcome addition to my collection of books. You can't collect books if they are in a digital format. There's something about the reading experience in a physical book that is very precious, warm and almost inexplicable."

An avid home chef, Mr Krishnan also spends a lot of his time building up a collection of cookbooks. "I can make notes on the pages, I can make a reference to another dish, and it makes the book even more valuable than the cover price. It's something my family can look up at a later point - and spark off a discussion on the finer points of home cooking.

"Try doing that with your digital reader!" Mr Krishnan says, laughing.

A nuanced approach

In Singapore, homegrown bookstore BooksActually has bucked the trend of failing bookstores such as US megachain Borders, which closed at Wheelock Place in 2011 after 14 years in Singapore.

With an emphasis on providing a distinct book experience through canny curation and a contemplative ambience at its store, the fiercely independent local bookstore is still fighting fit after 12 years in Singapore's bruising retail sector. As Kenny Leck, the store's co-founder explains: "We sell a whole book experience - from books to 'stuff' such as vintage Singaporean memorabilia."

The store publishes its own books, on top of the foreign authors that line its bookshelves. Its imprint Math Paper Press, which started in 2010, gives local writers and poets a voice by publishing their works in-house.

While BooksActually looks for a distinctive in-store experience, Page One bookstore, which re-opened on June 1 on the fourth storey of The Cathay in Handy Road after closing its Vivocity outlet in 2012, is counting on the bargain-book approach to help clear its excess stocks of lifestyle, art and design books.

The store has a core publishing arm which supplies tomes to bookstores throughout Asia, as well as its Page One book outlets - which includes five stores in Beijing, one in Chengdu and another in Hangzhou.

Inez Maria, Page One's acquisitions editor, says most of the more-than 2,000 titles in the 1,300 sq ft space are new and it also sells overprint books for as low as S$1. "Not many people know that we publish more than 300 titles a year through Page One's publishing arm in Singapore. And we have not stopped even after the VivoCity bookstore closed in 2012."

The reason the management maintains a Singapore publishing arm is so that Page One is better able to control the quality of the printed product.

So could this "bargain bookstore" route be a response to the recent uptrend in physical books?

"I wouldn't say that," says Ms Maria. "We have a high volume of publishing, and the Cathay store helps us clear the excess stocks, and also books that have been rejected by our China outlets. The management at Cathay Organisation were kind enough to allow us to ply our trade on a monthly lease, to help us keep costs down. And we have indicated that we intend to open the store for another seven months."

Ms Maria is not sure what the store's next step will be, beyond the seven months of its current lease. "If things work out, yes, we will be open for much longer, but we're taking it one step at a time for now."

For its opening sale till end of June, books are flying off the shelves at between S$0.50 and S$5.

The Kino way

Another success story in the physical books realm here is, undoubtedly, Japanese store Books Kinokuniya, which holds court at Ngee Ann City. Its flagship store, which opened in 1999, saw a massive renovation and expansion in March this year with a new frontage, and a larger selection of books spread over 38,000 sq ft. There are now more than 500,000 titles, including English, Japanese, Chinese, French and German publications.

This year marks the 90th anniversary of the bookstore chain which was founded by Moichi Tanabe and which opened its first store in Shinjuku, Tokyo, on Jan 22, 1927. Besides the flagship store on Orchard Road, Books Kinokuniya runs three other retail bookstores, and the curation differs at each branch.

In striving to give the reader a many-splendoured experience at its stores, Kinokuniya's managers focus on what sells - and in which locales.

For instance, at the Liang Court branch, the focus is on otakus (young Japanese obsessed with popular culture) as well as book lovers. There are 150,000 titles in a store space of 13,000 sq ft which includes mostly merchandise and publications imported from Japan.

Over at Bugis Junction, the selection is more eclectic, encompassing young adult fiction, comics and graphic novels, travel, language and business publications. Although comparably smaller at 3,746 sq ft, the Bugis Junction store focuses on students and young executives and its decor appeals to the hip, chic and trendy young adult book lovers.

In June 2013, Books Kinokuniya forayed further into the heartlands with its Jurong Store, spread over 7,768 sq ft in Jurong Gateway. Offering more than 70,000 titles, the focus of its curation in the Jurong area is more on the family unit as well as being distinctly student-friendly.

Store director Kenny Chan believes that connecting with customers, both old and new is what drives sales and eventually growth of the store: "As EM Forster put it so succinctly in Howards End: 'Only connect!'

"We find that catering to both existing as well as new customers is what makes for a winning retail strategy where we connect with our customers."

Mr Chan explains that Kinokuniya stores have a unique value proposition in that they are both Japanese and Asian at the same time. The Japanese part of their operations allows them to think of the aesthetic experience for the customer who walks into the store - how the store is designed according to wabi-sabi principles (the Japanese pursuit of authenticity and beauty); and the Asian part of their DNA allows them to offer a cultural aspect of the whole book experience.

"This includes being selective in our curation so that we open a window into Asian literature. Balli Kaur Jaswal, Kevin Chan and Philip Yeo are more accessible because they are closer to home. Unlike Borders which served up an American buffet of books, we have our literary versions of char kway tiao, sushi, pizza - you name it, we stock it."

Mr Chan says that Books Kinokuniya's success over the years has been primarily because it is a chain bookstore which behaves like an independent store.

"We've been an indie since we first started in Singapore in 1999. What you're saying about the millennials and the young adults taking to physical books is something that I have always believed in personally.

"We predicted way back in our operations that the young adult category in our stores would grow exponentially and this is working for us now. We have now, arguably, the largest collection of young adult books in the world in our stores in Singapore."

So significant has this youthful segment of the market been, that there was a need to carry a separate young adult poetry section.

"Some time back, we already sensed the tectonic shifts in the retail market, and we acted on our instincts. We saw that the millennials read a lot, they are also very social media savvy - now the TV series 13 Reasons is so strong with that cohort - the subject of suicide is something all young people have had a dalliance with at some point in their lives. This is what Wordsworth mulled over in his Intimations of Immortality," Mr Chan says.

"To hone the strategy further, we included books by YouTubers such as Lily Singh and the Kardashians. Our connection with popular culture and culture in general - has always made us relevant. So customers come in and they see that we are more than a bookstore - we are at the centre of anything and everything cultural - and we have had to find that delicate balance between being relevant to the current customer as well as to appeal to the newer ones.''

Being cosmopolitan has also helped in making sure books fly off the shelves. That, combined with plating up an eclectic literary repast for customers has helped whet appetites for a wider range of book offerings.

"The focus is not to give customers just the overt bestsellers but also to be able to pull out the under-the-radar crowd-pullers that don't make it to the bestsellers list - but nevertheless afford readers a sense of discovery and infuses that element of surprise when they browse in our stores," Mr Chan adds.

As Kindle executives and other digital disrupters go back to the drawing board to attempt to carve out a new epitaph for physical books, bookstore owners remain unfazed.

In the warmly lit corridors of bookstores and among eye-catching displays of books begging to be opened, you can almost hear them chorusing in unison: "You can't tech this."

*Find out what physical bookstores mean to avid readers in this video:

Not strictly by the book

Kenny Leck of BooksActually reads between the lines

THERE are no neon signs outside this boutique bookshop at 9 Yong Siak Street in quaint Tiong Bahru. But when you step into the store, the first thing that hits you is the familiar scent of freshly minted books.

There is a cosy space at the back of the store which stocks distinctly Singaporean memorabilia such as drinking glasses that seem to evoke the 1950s and 1960s, old books from Malaysia, even notebooks and notepads that seem stuck in some delightful post-war time warp. And not to mention two very friendly cats that purr and sprint between your legs.

BooksActually is really quite an anomaly if you go by conventional retail wisdom: how could a bookshop this small thrive in Singapore's brutal physical books market?

Besides the wide selection of internationally published books, the bookstore forayed into publishing local manuscripts with its own publishing arm, Math Paper Press, in 2010. To date, it has published almost 200 Singaporean titles. Sales proved to be healthy, and now the bookstore derives at least 40 per cent of the total revenue from its in-house press.

Kenny Leck, the store's co-founder, explains why BooksActually has bucked the trend: "Firstly, e-books never had an impact in Singapore; if they did, then all the bookstores would have closed to begin with.

"I guess we're an anomaly as a bookstore. From the outside, we've always been seen as a niche business; but if we're really a niche business we would have closed down within five years of inception. Although we're centred on books, we don't sell bookmarks, we don't sell book covers or notebooks. What we sell is a whole book experience."

Mr Leck says that one of the main reasons that the bookstore is still standing is that halfway through their operations, they started to publish their own books.

"There were not enough publishers in Singapore to soak up the content available. There were a lot of manuscripts out there, and we decided to try to get some of these books on our shelves, which would otherwise have never seen the light of day. Even though we are booksellers, we are consumers at the same time, and we can say, here's a book that we would be happy to spend money on as a book lover... The key is to know what works best in that particular year or that particular period, and I'm not going to say that all the decisions we've made have been fantastic. There have been a number of decisions that just didn't work or failed very badly.''

Which begs the question: What has been BooksActually's biggest success and biggest failure in the last 12 years?

"The biggest failure is that we have still have not bought our own property; but we are looking at end-2018 to buy our own store space... It would give us a lot of leverage, and also more importantly, the bookstore is going to exist with or without me - it would be an easier transition for me to hand over the reins to my successor.

"Biggest win would be that we have been in business for 12 years... We can now confidently say that books bring in money, and we're glad to have stuck to our decision to be in the printed books business."

While BooksActually is better known - and loved - for its brick-and-mortar presence, it also maintains a comprehensive online store which helps create awareness for its stock beyond Singapore. But in this age of digital mantras that exhort scarcity in the overcrowded online retail arena ("Find your scarcity to be click-baity," etc), how does the boutique bookstore stand out, both online and offline?

"If the brand recall of our store reaches 90 per cent, or that 90 per cent of people have stepped into our store, then I think it's time for us to switch strategies. But at this point in time, we need to raise awareness for our bookstore and let people know that we exist, and stand out from the crowd. It's still a good problem to have, as we know that we have not reached saturation point, and we have to constantly remind ourselves on a daily basis that we have not reached full awareness and we still have much work to do to reach out to more readers.

"We are concentrating every year on customers who are 13, 14 or 15 years of age, as these are the customers who will grow with the store... And if he or she comes in once a month and is our regular customer, then we know that we are doing something right with the curation."

Besides maintaining an online presence, BooksActually is also well represented in the annual Singapore Art Book Fair as well as the upcoming Singapore Writers' Fest which it has been supporting since 2009. From August 2017 onwards, Mr Leck is planning a music fringe as he says the bookstore has always nurtured a relationship with Singapore musicians.

So where does BooksActually - actually - go from here?

"We need to believe in something before we go into it. We are not swayed by marketing trends. We know that if you play around with them or tweak them they can give you fantastic results. We've done that before - sometimes we even dabbled in it without realising we were doing so...

"So we have a very nuanced selling position - we're not going to go for the overtly commercial books just to chase that extra dollar. If you look at what we sell, it's totally far removed from what the bigger stores are stocking."

Take, for example, a Bahasa Kebangsaan (National Language) book that Mr Leck recently came across. "It's a textbook, fully coloured and written in Malay, and which was printed in 1963 in Kuala Lumpur. What I find appealing is the cultural aspect of publishing, which this books evokes... From the retail perspective, Bahasa Kebangsaan is just a vintage item, and it doesn't make business sense. But I decided to snap up as much stocks of it as possible because, come on, here's a vintage item that has real value to us as Singaporeans."

To Mr Leck, this cultural exchange between the bookseller and his customers is more valuable than anything else.

After more than a decade in the physical books business, the last thing that Mr Leck and his team of intrepid publishers will want to do is conduct business strictly by the book.

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