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[B-SIDE Podcast] Turning the page: Big Bad Wolf book fair goes digital

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More than 60,000 book titles will be available at steep discounts in the online edition of Big Bad Wolf, a book fair that has, in the past, attracted half a million visitors over a single run.  

In this episode of B-Side, Big Bad Wolf (BBW) founders Jacqueline Ng and Andrew Yap tell BusinessWorld reporter Patricia B. Mirasol how two years of planning went out the window because of the pandemic.  

The rising cost of logistics will leave a mark on the book industry, they said, and traditional booksellers will have to go beyond the printed page and embrace digital events, e-books, and audiobooks. Post-pandemic brick-and-mortar bookstores, they added, will have a community aspect. 

The Big Bad Wolf founders also share how they grew from a tiny operation into a traveling book empire that visits more than 34 cities around the world. 


The steep rise in logistical costs will force the book industry to change. 

One of most crucial way the pandemic affected the supply chain is in logistics. In terms of logistics, Mr. Yap told BusinessWorld that costs rose 34 times within the Southeast Asia region. The costs from Asia to Europe, meanwhile, are up 67 times. 

“That’s a lot,” Mr. Yap added. “We don’t see this going down until whole world recovers.” 

Publishers also find it difficult to reach out to bookstores these days, as traditionally it’s always been in book fairs where they close deals.  

“If trade fairs are affected, then definitely, further down the line everything’s affected,” said Mr. Yap. “When it comes to the print of books, however, the majority of books are printed in China, so [the supply chain] isn’t affected in that aspect.” 

In a pilot survey by the International Publishers Association and the World Intellectual Property Organization that was published in 2018, it was found that China publishes far more titles (57.8 million) than the next nearest country (the UK with 49,433). Print editions also account for the bulk of total retail sector revenue.  

Publishers worldwide have seen an increase in book sales, especially children’s books. 

Children’s activity books count as BBW’s top category at this time, according to Ms. Ng. Almost 50% of the books sold by BBW in the Philippines are children’s activity books, she said. In the other countries where they have a presence, the number increases to around 6065%. In Taiwan, an overwhelming majority of their sales (90%) are in the children’s book genre. 

This trend is also reflected in other regions. Sales of children’s education books rose 234% in the UK shortly after the pandemic was announced, which a BBC source said was in preparation for a long lockdown. In the US, the Association of American Publishers reported in May that year-to-date revenues on pre-K-12 books were up 24.0%, coming in at $124.4 million. 

“This new generation of readers created by this pandemic is going to shape the whole future,” Ms. Ng added. “Reading is not something you do once and stop doing forever. It’s a habit. When [this new generation] become parents, they’ll pass on the reading habit.” 

E-books, audiobooks, virtual events, and digital payments are an important part of the ecosystem.  

“Traditional booksellers like us can’t avoid e-books and audiobooks,” said Mr. Yap. “Getting into these is key for booksellers.” 

E-books have been gaining popularity since their first inception in the 1970s. As of September 2020, e-book sales have been up 22% year over year and 16% year-to-date, according to the January 2021 report COVID-19 and Book Publishing: Impacts and Insights for 2021. 

Turning book fairs into online events can also be considered a boon for the industry, Mr. Yap added. “If booksellers and aspiring booksellers around the globe can experience and get into the industry [through these], then that will help the entire industry more.” 

The emergence of e-wallets will also reduce buyer preference for cash payments, Ms. Ng told BusinessWorld. It’s also the more preferred payment method of sellers, especially those who don’t have the resources and therefore find it difficult to manage cash on delivery (COD). 

“I think e-wallets coming into the market helps a lot,” she said. “Even those [without a bank account] can set up an e-wallet, and that… changes the whole retail industry.”  

There is still a place for brick-and-mortar bookstores. 

Just as in the workforce, the future of the book industry is hybrid. Amazon, Mr. Yap pointed out, was blamed for the demise of bookstores, but even the multinational e-commerce company has 13 physical bookstores at the moment. 

For every industry, “there is still the retail aspect,” he said. “It’s just hard to figure out what kind of balance there will be. Time will tell.” 

BBW is building five to six physical bookstores in Malaysia this year. 

“It’s about making these into community spaces, like turning bookstores into co-working spaces and cafes,” Mr. Yap said, adding that selling book-related items should also be part of the plan. 

A lot of the appeal of their brick-and-mortar locations have to do with design, Ms. Ng added. “People take wedding and graduation photos in our stores,” she said, which helps spread the word about them to a broader market. “When they’re in our stores and start looking at the displays, they’re usually bound to find something that intrigues them.”  

Marketing is important to book sales, and being ahead of the social media curve helped BBW build its following.  

Back when the BBW started in 2009, the co-founders turned to social media as their main advertising tool to spread the word about their book sales. This organic following was their most powerful tool, Ms. Ng said. The brand has been able to build a relationship with them over the years, she added. 

“When we started, we didn’t have a budget or an agency helping us that’s why we turned to social media,” said Ms. Ng. 

Their online success hinged on authenticty, the co-founders said. 

“Be genuine,” advised Mr. Yap. “We always want to keep things simple. When we say it’s 50-90% off, it’s really 50-90% off. There’s no catch to it.” 

The post-pandemic future is bright for the book industry, but players need to evolve. 

“Most of the time when we go to book fairs, it’s like going to an old folks’ home,” he said. “The second generation is not coming in because they think there’s no future, [but] the pandemic has proven that books are here to stay.” 

Books, he added, has never had the opportunity to capture and recapture readers like this pandemic. Stay-at-home directives have brought back the joy of reading to adults who have previously been so distracted making a living. 

“It’s definitely a bright future, but booksellers  including us  need to evolve. The industry’s evolving too slow,” added Mr. Yap. “This unprecedented time also brings amazing opportunities that we need to capitalize on. This pandemic gives everyone the [push] to move.” 

The online edition of the Big Bad Wolf book sale runs from June 30 to July 7. Visit signup-ph.bbwbooks.com. 

Recorded remotely on June 23. Produced by Paolo L. Lopez and Sam L. Marcelo.

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