By Giselle P. Kasilag

IN THE AGE of digital libraries and online bookshops, the Big Bad Wolf book sale appears to be a stubborn relic from a bygone era that refuses to accept its irrelevance. After all, in a world advocating minimalism, downsizing, and the disposal of things that do not spark joy, books are high on the list of dust-gatherers that can easily be replaced with phones and tablets.

Around 750,000 Filipinos, however, beg to differ. In 2019, four Big Bad Wolf events all over the country successfully sold hundreds of thousands of physical books and posted a 10% growth from the year before. Metro Manila accounted for 300,000 customers while the balance was divided between Cebu, Davao, and Pampanga.

“The younger generations are starting to read,” declared Jacqueline Ng, co-founder and executive director of Big Bad Wolf Books. “That is the best thing! I think, for the past 10 years, the book industry has seen such a huge decline in readers. We are talking about countries where a lot of people are reading. They saw a huge decline. So in countries where a lot of people are not reading, book-selling is already difficult because you are catering to a very few people. So a small decline would be a big impact already to that particular country’s book-selling industry. So for the past 10 years, everybody’s [been] struggling.”

She attributed the decline to the rise of the popularity of gadgets. The explosion of sales of phones, and the advent of cable television and streaming services all contributed to the “busy-ness” and distracted lifestyle that has come to characterize today’s culture.

“The phone! You can’t even leave the phone. People can reach you instantly. You have to respond instantly, that’s the expectation. Before, you have to call in. They can’t reach you when you’re outside. You have more free time. Now there’s no such option anymore. It’s not a choice. We have so much distraction. There is so much happening that is at our fingertips. So everybody have so much more other priorities to do — career, family, and the amount of distraction. Some people are so hooked to their social media — it’s just looking at other people’s activities like what they eat and where they go. Sometimes it’s to relax but you don’t realize that one hour has passed just by doing things like that. So it’s part and parcel of life which we can’t avoid, in a way,” she added.

Ms. Ng, however, has a reason to be hopeful. As the new technology infiltrated people’s daily lives, studies are also being conducted to determine the impact of the gadgets on people. She noted that a number of these studies recommend less screen time for children. Some went as far as saying that smart phones should not be introduced to children until they reach the age of 10.

In the last two years, she noticed a shift in people’s behavior. As parents attempt to curb their child’s gadget usage, they also find themselves being forced to decrease their own screen time. Children learn by example rather than lectures and telling a child not to play with their phones at the dinner table also means that the parents cannot use their devices during meal times. With less gadgets, books have become a favored alternative.

“The really good thing for the past two years is that globally we are recognizing it and even the phone is tell you to have less screen time. So the sale globally for the physical book has increased. There is a positive increase for the publisher’s numbers. They are publishing and selling more.”

The shift, however, is still quite subtle. While people are turning to physical books, how they make a purchase has changed.

“Retail is hard,” Ms. Ng admitted. “You still see bookstores closing down. Sometimes it’s not because there aren’t customers buying books but because of change in shopping patterns. So it’s not just books but you talk about even clothes. Retail’s costs has [been] raised so high that it’s not so easy to have a shop any more. You might be collecting the same sales collection but the cost keeps going up. And the book sales margin is not big. So now it’s not viable to have a brick-and-mortar store which is why you see that the shops are closing now, unfortunately. And you know that bookshops need space. You need to showcase the books. So how do you afford so much square footage of rental? That is one thing.

“The second thing is that people are buying things online all the time. You compare. Book Depository is cheaper. Amazon is cheaper. Everything is at your fingertips. And you’re at a bookshop and you see the book you like but you go online and buy. And online, you have so much options. They show you literally all your options and where you can buy from, and with different prices so you can choose where to buy from.”

The 10% increase in both sales and visitor count from Big Bad Wolf’s 2018 to 2019 events, however, is an indication for Ms. Ng that they are on the right track. People are reading and people are buying physical books. They were hoping to post the same growth rate for this year. Unfortunately, the coronavirus has forced them to rethink their targets.

It was a difficult decision to push through with the event given that it is expected to gathered a large number of people from different parts of the metro under one roof for 10 days. Other major events such as concerts and sports fests have already been canceled following the advisory from the Department of Health discouraging such activities at the moment. Instead, Big Bad Wolf put into place various measures to keep the visitors safe. Masks are encouraged. Alcohol and hand sanitizers are all over the site. Temperatures of guests are taken even before they enter the venue.

Ms. Ng shared that they are hoping now to just equal the figures from year before. But they worry that a 20% drop could devastate their bottomline given that their margins are very low.

But she remains optimistic. The event is in a unique position to effect positive change and she is in it for the long haul.

“We are about converting a non-reader to a reader. And you have no way to convert a non-reader into a reader unless you have a physical sale. If you want to go online to buy a book, you must already want a book, and what you want. I’m talking about someone who is not even reading. Why would they even go online to buy a book or search for a book? It’s not gonna happen. So we are talking about getting people to come, getting people to be interested. Not knowing that this book existed but when they’re here, they pick it up and say, ‘Hey, this is interesting!’ And then the price, of course, they can’t resist and they just buy it and try. And for people who are already readers, you buy and it’s so reasonable and so affordable that you say, ‘Hey! I should buy for my friend, or I should buy for my colleague.’ If you see a book that he or she likes. So that spread of books, that won’t happen unless it’s a physical sale.”

Spreading the love for reading two million physical books at a time is a daunting task but Ms. Ng is a determined woman and Big Bad Wolf will continue its march to literacy for all.

The Big Bad Wolf book sale is ongoing until Feb. 24 at the World Trade Center in Pasay City. Entrance is free.