The highs and lows of BooksActually: Is this the end of a chapter for the S’pore bookstore?

Over the weekend, local independent bookstore BooksActually has been thrown into the spotlight for founder Kenny Leck’s alleged misconduct towards his female ex-employees.

This news came as a shock, considering that BooksActually has always been championed as playing an important role in preserving the longevity of local literature in the media.

Following the news, BooksActually has issued a statement acknowledging that its past employees “did not work in a safe and professional workplace environment” in the early years.

It claimed that it has “invested in putting welfare practices in place to protect and safeguard” its employees since 2019, and will continued to improve staff welfare and HR practices, as well as strengthen anti-harassment policies.

Above all, Kenny will be relinquishing sole ownership of BooksActually and its publishing arm Math Paper Press, and transfer collective ownership of both entities to the team.

On his personal Facebook page, Kenny confirmed that he will be ceding full legal ownership and directorship of BooksActually Pte Ltd to the current team, who will be the new owners.

He also apologised to everyone that he has caused pain to, and stands by his belief that BooksActually has marked a “milestone in (Singapore’s) literary journey”, and served as a an “enabler of aspirations”.

Furthermore, literary non-profit and champion Sing Lit Station has ended its partnership with BooksActually following the saga.

“We have decided to terminate the (2021 Jalan Besar Writing Residency) programme and will re-announce new details on the 2021/2022 residency when they are finalised,” it said in an update on its website.

It added that it was planning a series of discussions with stakeholders and members of the community to address the concerns and gaps in the industry.

How he started up BooksActually

Kenny, 43, hailed from a low-income family — his father was a taxi driver, and his mother a housewife.

Despite their tight pursestrings, his mother would still set aside some money to buy him books.

His love for books is reflected in his career choices: he used to work at Tower Books and Borders, before starting up BooksActually.

Karen Wai (left) and Kenny Leck (right), co-founders of BooksActually / Image Credit: Rediscover Singapore via Flickr

BooksActually was first established in the second storey of a shophouse in Telok Ayer Street with his ex-wife Karen Wai (after divorce, they remained as business partners) with less than S$25,000 — out of which, S$20,000 was borrowed from Karen’s mother.

At that time, they only had savings of S$1,000 in their bank accounts, so they had to borrow from others.

In the early days, there would be days when they did not generate any sales. This happened a few times within that first year.

He later sold a three-room HDB flat that his late mother left him and with the S$200,000 he made from it, he set up a second outlet at Club Street, but it failed.

I miscalculated. The there was huge and we had to buy stocks from scratch. We had to buy a lot to fill up that huge space we had. And the money burned faster than you could ever think.

– Kenny Leck, founder of BooksActually in a 2018 CNA’s On The Record interview

He ended up having to close it down. The final location BooksActually shifted to was its outlet at Yong Siak Street in Tiong Bahru.

With the rising rental and operating costs, coupled with “bad business decisions”, BooksActually was forced to raise funds in June 2018 to sustain themselves.

Called the “BooksActually Shophouse Fund $50 Brick”, it has a target goal of S$2 million, in which they sold each handmade brick at S$50 in hopes of ‘building a home’ for the literary community.

The aim of the campaign is for BooksActually to secure enough funds in turning the outlet into a permanent space.

In a month, they had raised S$20,000, which was still not enough for a downpayment. Other fundraising events, such as the Rabak Auction in August 2018 and opening the bookstore for 24 hours, were held to make up for any shortfall in the sale of bricks.

However, the store finally shuttered in September 2020 amid the Covid-19 pandemic. Many had mourned the loss of the store, which had carved out a distinct feel, with various knick-knacks and vintage items, displayed alongside paperbacks and hardcovers.

Following the store closure, BooksActually said that it will “transform fully” into an online store.

Prior to this full shift, close to 1,800 of the 9,000 books in its store have already been ported online. In a way, the pandemic served as an “impetus” for it to upload books for sale regularly despite having an online presence for years.

Sales had dipped by more than 50 per cent due to the pandemic, but Kenny had assured then that they had around two months’ worth of emergency reserves set aside.

What’s also encouraging is that Covid-19 has propelled more consumers to turn to online shopping, which helped boost their e-commerce sales.

Are they raking in money?

booksactually
Image Credit: BooksActually

Being a small independent bookstore with no big financial backer, it’s really no mean feat for them to survive for so long.

In 2017, the business had raked in a profit of S$80,000, which Kenny felt was “quite okay” for a single bookstore.

Moreover, he had been investing heavily in the bookstore’s publishing arm Math Paper Press, through which he regularly publishes local work that may not always be lucrative.

He also shared that he drew enough salary to just cover food, transport and rental for an apartment near the Tiong Bahru bookstore, which doubles up as its publishing office, storage area for its book stocks and bookstore supplies.

Then in a separate 2019 interview with CNA, he cited high rental cost as one of the biggest business challenges. He revealed then that the monthly rent at his Tiong Bahru store costed S$9,500 — it was the highest he has paid over the business’ 14 years of operation.

He’s not complaining though, because “the location works”, and “the numbers are proving right”.

From 2014 to 2019, Kenny said that BooksActually has seen a yearly growth of two to three per cent, and its online sales comprise five to seven per cent of their gross sales.

Separately, total book sales for Math Paper Press comes close to S$380,000. This makes up about 38 per cent of gross sales for the BooksActually store, with the rest coming from international and local titles from other publishers.

What’s also interesting to note that for Math Paper Press does not undertake any grants. Kenny reasoned that he wants to ensure that his business does not become overly reliant on funding through government grants.

Instead, he wants to focus on simply selling books. In previous interviews, he has mentioned many times that the reason why some bookstores fail is because they sell non-book merchandise such as stationery, movie posters, gadgets and even snacks.

He was guilty of committing this same mistake, but has since dedicated himself to just selling what they set out to do in the first place.

The key (to making money) is to sell the right books — the ones you think will sell as opposed to what the publishers want (you to sell).

– Kenny Leck, founder of BooksActually in a 2016 interview with The New Paper

What’s the future of the local literary scene and book retail industry?

The Singapore literature scene faces prejudice, as there’s a common perception that Singapore literature is not on par with the standard of overseas literature like in United States and United Kingdom.

Moreover, not many Singaporeans want to pursue an artistic career in creative writing. Instead, many choose to go for the safe and stable route, with a huge focus on STEM education and careers.

Over the years, sales of locally-written books have improved, but it is by a marginal amount. In Singapore, 90 per cent of the time, the bestselling book is a foreign title.

However, writers are not fazed and are continuing to write. When Math Paper Press first started in 2011, it received one or two submissions a month, most of which were poetry. In 2017, it has since increased to between five and seven submissions a month.

In a year, it receives 100 manuscripts and out of this figure, about 10 per cent gets published.

We should try to carry as much Singlit (Singapore literature) as possible, because it is our narrative at the end of the day. If we don’t carry our stories, who will?

– Kenny Leck, founder of BooksActually in a 2017 interview with The New Paper

However, it remains a fact that there are currently not enough access points for local books. To foster a nation of readers, Singapore needs to do more to promote local literary works.

Looking back at this entire BooksActually saga, it is reminiscent of Naiise‘s — it had a really bad management, but at the heart of it, the business had a good intention to support local.

Although BooksActually has had a change of hands, this does not exactly inspire confidence among its customers to continue supporting the brand unless a real change has been made, and that sincere apologies (versus an online statement) and proper redress are given to the affected ex-employees.

Similarly, several writers and artists have already called off work with BooksActually until Kenny can fully address the allegations. This is as good as saying that its good work of supporting local literature so far has gone the drain.

Whether BooksActually will survive in the long run also lies in the long-standing debate of book retail being a sunset industry. Are physical books starting to become obsolete?

A 2018 National Reading Habits Survey conducted by the National Library Board survey found that a growing number of people prefer e-books, with an increase from 41 to 55 per cent.

Over the same period, the proportion of people who bought books from a physical store fell from 53 to 48 per cent.

As e-books grow in popularity, it’s getting harder to convince people to buy physical books.

Admittedly, the increasing competition from e-commerce retailers such as Book Depository and Amazon, has made it even harder for bookshops to survive.

In Singapore, we are one of the small minority of countries that charges standard GST on books. This is why buying a book online is slightly cheaper than in physical bookstores.

If Singapore continues to lose this market share to overseas book retailers, more bookshops would have to scale down their book selection, or maybe even exit the book business entirely.

On the flipside, such competition can force them to keep on their toes and stay innovative.

booksactually vending machine
BooksActually vending machine / Image Credit: Storypick

For instance, besides regularly hosting events with authors and the literary community in Singapore, BooksActually has also experimented with a novel vending machine concept that dispenses “mystery” books.

These books are fully wrapped, so there’s an element of surprise in not knowing what you’re going to get. Each of these machines carry up to 150 books, with a focus on titles by local publishers and authors.

Some of its past locations include outside its Tiong Bahru store, the National Museum, and arts venues like The Substation and Goodman Arts Centre. Now, it only has one location at Tiong Bahru Bakery’s outlet at Dempsey.

Ultimately, BooksActually has to constantly reach out to its consumers and with zero physical presence and the current events restrictions, doing so will be a challenge.

Bookstores also need to keep their title selections fresh and new, and have a wider range than just bestsellers, to stay relevant.

Featured Image Credit: DestinAsian

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