Thursday, January 20, 2022

Selling books is hard these days, but not all indie bookshops are clearing their shelves

Physical bookshops will be scarce in future as more reading Malaysians turn over digital pages.

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Inside the brown-painted Menara Majestic in Petaling Jaya sits a small, 270 square feet shop lot brimful with books.

This tiny space, The Bibliophile Bookshop, is the pride and joy as well as the folly, many would say, of a young man, J Kiridaren.

The book lover-turned-entrepreneur took a risk opening a physical bookshop in July last year, at a time when many brick-and-mortar businesses were being hit by soaring online shopping, and the Covid-19 pandemic was turning the economy from bad to worse.

“I started posting my reviews of books that I read on Facebook. That got some audience and people started asking me where they could buy those books,” he told MalaysiaNow.

“Gradually, I became more involved in the book industry, starting from buying and selling second-hand books to working at a book shop, to owning one.”

He admitted that many in book circles were shocked when they heard he had opened a physical bookshop in these uncertain times, but he still believes in the value of a physical presence.

“Many industry players are distancing themselves from physical shops because they want to cut costs.

“But I think an actual shop is something more. It’s a space for readers and authors to meet together, and a space to discuss books,” he said. “This kind of book culture exists in bookshops.”

He also believes that a physical presence will help with branding.

“An actual shop is something more. It’s a space for readers and authors to meet together, and a space to discuss books.”

He said though online stores can sell more cheaply, the book-buying public will still be looking for a place to let their mind rest and wander.

Despite his optimism, Kiridaren said he and other independent bookshops are facing problems with publishers who supply them.

“Publishers used to look for bookshops, but now they want to keep higher margins to themselves, so they sell the books themselves or hire their own marketing agents.

“One publisher even cut our margin from 40% to 25%.”

To make up for this, Bibliophile Bookshop also publishes its own translated classical works such as “The Prince”, “The Alchemist”, and “The Art of War”.

Kiridaren is confident that brick-and-mortar bookshops will make a comeback, perhaps after the pandemic is over.

He now has another shop lot for a warehouse for secondhand books, and another for a book cafe.

Books line the shelves at the Gerakbudaya bookshop in Petaling Jaya. Sales have been declining since 2016 and the store is struggling to stay open.

A similar problem faces Gerakbudaya, a bookshop known for selling and publishing alternative books.

Its founder, Chong Ton Sin, told MalaysiaNow sales have been declining since 2016.

“We barely made it to 2017. Then in 2018, we managed better because of the general election, so people were looking for books related to politics. But from 2019 onward, it’s been difficult for us.

“One by one, publishers have said they won’t publish as many books any longer because they can’t sell them. Or that they have no money to print copies. If there are no books, how can you sell them?”

With fewer suppliers, books and sales, Gerakbudaya had no option but to lay off some staff and take other cost-cutting measures such as cutting salaries.

Chong’s bookstore has also been affected by independent Malay publishers, such as Fixi and Dubook, who initially took the book industry by storm, but are now slowing down.

“Their sales went down. They told me it’s the slow demand. I think the quality of their books has dropped,” he said.

According to Chong, the movement control order (MCO) was a blow to their business. There were no book fairs, so they couldn’t get out and sell their books.

“All these things make the situation worse. The upside of the MCO was that our online sales increased.

“But we are hoping things will get better. We look forward to publishing and selling more books. We do it for the younger generation.”

Malaysians still read, he said, but not so often physical books as digital material on their smartphone screens.

As bookshops are struggling, e-books are gaining ground in Malaysia.

Faiz Al-Shahab, managing director of e-Sentral, a Malaysian e-book platform, told MalaysiaNow that e-book sales saw an increase in 2016, the same year Chong noted Gerakbudaya’s declining sales.

“We look forward to publishing and selling more books. We do it for the younger generation.”

“When we started in 2011, many people thought we were an e-commerce platform where you buy books and they would be posted to your house. It took a while for the public to realise that we are an e-book platform, where users download the books they want to read through our app,” he said.

The pandemic has certainly helped the company.

e-Sentral saw a spike of up to four times the usual monthly sales of e-books during the three months of the MCO last year.

“It was a turning point for e-books in Malaysia. We even registered 25,000 new users in a day during the MCO,” he said. e-Sentral now has 650,000 users.

Although the e-books sold through his online platform are mostly English, the best-sellers are Malay novels.

“However, we sometimes see an increase in demand for more serious non-fiction books.

“It depends on current events. For example, books about Singapore’s first prime minister, Lee Kuan Yew, increased in sales when he passed away.”

Whether physical or digital books, it seems that Malaysians are still buying, which must be good news for those in the reading business.

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