How would you price a hard cover art book? You know the ones, movie concept art books, photography books, or books on landscaping that have all the pretty pictures in them. Given the quality of the paper, the size, and the fact that it’s a hard cover book, you’d assume a price of RM100 and above right? Well, this writer bought one such book at BookXcess recently for RM35.90.
Full disclosure: we asked for a discount because the cover had scratches on it (The original price was RM39.90).
Suggested retail price of USD60 or RM242. The scratches are there we swear!
We couldn’t believe the prices of books at BookXcess and to top it off, we found another book, Humans of New York, by Brandon Stanton at their annual box sale. Again, full disclosure, we received a free box courtesy of BookXcess and found that book (Writer Certified: 100% shameless) so this book was free, when its suggested retail price is USD29.99 or RM120 at the date of writing.
How in the world are they pricing books so cheaply, and more importantly, how is any of this sustainable for a business?
To answer that, we spoke to the founders of BookXcess themselves, Andrew Yap and Jacqueline Ng who are also responsible for the annual book sale Big Bad Wolf and its smaller counterpart, the Big Bad Wolf box sale.
Remainder Books Industry
"A normal business man would go, ‘This is my cost, these are my expenses, this is the markup I need, this is what I need for the company to grow, and funds set aside for a rainy day.’ So there’s so much that goes into the margin.
“For us, it works like this: What would the price of the books be that would make you (a generic you), go into the sale or the store without thinking of the price, and just buy (the book). Everyone should feel like they’re rich enough to buy (books),” says Andrew.
Jacqueline, his wife and business partner, puts it like this: "We start with the selling price first. This book (she picks up a coffee table book on their actual coffee table), at what crazy price would get you excited (again, a generic you), not just to buy for yourself, but to buy for someone else. We start with a selling price in mind first, then we start negotiating for a price at that cost."
Do you absorb the cost then?
“It's not about the money; this business has a lot of heart in it”
“No, no we have the support from the publishers and distributors to do what we do,” Andrew says. “To kick this off the ground it first has to start with us, wanting to work with small margins but going on a much bigger volume and also having the publishers and suppliers understand what we do and why we are doing this. It’s everyone coming together to do this. We can’t do this alone. It’s not about money; this business has a lot of heart in it.”
The BookXcess warehouse in Shah Alam reminds us of the warehouse in 'Raiders of the Lost Ark'
The idea is simple: price books affordably, with accessibility, as its main focus. Clearly, this isn’t how most – if any – do business. If you've wondered about their prices before you probably know that they are in the remainder book industry.
BookXcess buys excess books at lower prices.
But if remainder books were so easily accessible, why aren’t more players in the industry purchasing the same books for cheap as well? What is their clout that they can negotiate so heavily with publishers?
Andrew explains: “If there’s a particular book we’re interested in carrying, I’ll negotiate for a price I want, and I’ll specify that the books won’t be returnable. Then the publisher will agree because he wants to clear the books from storage. Every time the book is sitting at their warehouse it costs them money. And we buy in bulk, which helps their storing problem."
The strategy is simple: be the solution for excess stocks and bear their cost of warehousing.
But that’s not all.
“All our publishers need to understand who we are. To every single person that we meet we need to educate them about why we need to sell a book at that price. We are trying to convert a non-reader to a reader through our selling price, it’s about attracting a non-reader to a sale and to a book and to be able to pick it up and pay for it.
“So, that (the price of the book) is that magic number that we want. And the moment that person reads that book, he – hopefully – will be converted to a reader. It has to be a certain price point for you to try a new genre or author where you find it’s worth it. If you spend RM70 in a bookstore, you’ll always have that reservation ‘What if I don’t like it?’” says Jacqueline.
The heart behind the business, as Andrew says, is a heart for readers. A mission to convert non-readers to readers.
And here's another fun fact: BookXcess actually began its life as a 500 sq ft magazine shop in Amcorp Mall. The shop was called Reissued and they sold backdated magazines for RM9.90.
The store was barebones and came with a free carpet and a borrowed cash register. The pair had no investors to speak of (even to this day).
This was the magazine shop owned by Jac and Andrew in 2004 before they started selling books
It would take another two years for a supplier to approach Jacqueline with the idea for remainder books but the catch was, she had to buy the books in pallets of about 1,000 books at a time and she could not choose the books she would buy from the supplier.
Buying books in bulk had arrived, and with it, a new idea. An idea for a book sale so large and so audacious that it almost inevitably became a cultural phenomenon in Malaysia.
The Big Bad Wolf's Origin Story
The origin story of BookXcess is proudly displayed at the entrance of their office
First things first: why the name Big Bad Wolf?
“Number one, we didn’t have much money for advertisements and promotions and we needed a name that will travel very far; we needed a very bold name and we only had RM5,000 for one ad in The Star, black and white in The Star Metro, so we were banking on just one ad and we had to make sure this ad goes as far as possible.
“We needed a name that sounded foreign, so if [for example] we had a name like ‘Book Sale’, people who were non-readers would stay away, so we needed something different that would spark a lot of curiosity,” Andrew says.
And then, Andrew came up with Big Bad Wolf.
“Initially everybody shot it down,” Andrew says.
“Well, you know, because it’s a villain right?” Jacqueline replies.
“When he says everybody, he means only the three of us, because our company at the time only consisted of three people.”
Three being Andrew, Jacqueline, and a member of their staff. Despite fierce opposition, Andrew pushed for the name, and it stuck.
The pair then recalled the first sale in Dataran Hamodal. Jacqueline was the cashier while Andrew packed the books. They did everything themselves; from hanging banners to pricing every single book. That year they bought 160,000 books to be sold and 90 – 95 per cent of the stock was sold.
The Wolf was a hit!
The next year, they increased the amount of books to 235,000, and every year, they increased the amount of books at the sale and in 2011, the number of books reached 1.5 million books and still 90 per cent of the books were sold at Big Bad Wolf.
That figure rose to three million books in 2012 and in 2017, the Malaysian Book Publishers Association came on board, which brought the total up to more than four million books.
Their idea for the increase in books was so that even on the last day of the sale, you would still be able to attend the sale and buy books.
In 2016, the Wolf went abroad for the first time, landing in Jakarta. The team booked one hall at the Indonesia Convention Exhibition, in its first year with 50,000 sq ft of space for the sale.
Within the first 30 minutes, the hall was full and they had to close the doors. On top of that, a queue had started to form up to 2km outside of the convention centre.
In 2018, they shipped 5.5 million books to the sale in Jakarta and it was even covered in the news.
This year, the Big Bad Wolf sale is going into 10 countries around Asia. Some are confirmed, while some are in the planning stages.
The countries include: Bangladesh, Indonesia, Thailand, Philippines, Sri Lanka, Taiwan, Dubai, Malaysia, Myanmar, and Iran.
The Sheep In Wolf's Clothing
Throne of books? Make books your throne? Whatever it is, it's a cool chair.
Off-handedly, Andrew remarked about the heart behind Big Bad Wolf. Countries like Bangladesh, Myanmar, and Sri Lanka, aren't typically the places you'd go to make the big bucks. Logistic costs are high and if they were out to make a quick buck with cheap books, the 'Wolf' can easily hunt in Singapore to make a killing.
But that's not what the Big Bad Wolf is about.
"We want to change the world, one book at a time," says Andrew.
According to a study conducted by the Central Connecticut State University on the World's Most Literate Nations, Malaysia was ranked 53rd among 61 countries.
But the study found that the problem isn't that we're unable to read; it's that most of us choose not to.
Our own National Library conducted a survey which found on average, Malaysians read two books a year. The National Literacy Survey conducted in 1996 found that Malaysians read two books a year and when the study was repeated in 2005, we still only read two books a year.
On top of that, a study on Reading Trends and Improving Reading Skills Among Students in Malaysia conducted by the International Journal of Research In Social Sciences found that only 20 per cent of Malaysians read regularly.
If you've read this far, you're part of that 20 per cent... or you're this writer's editor. The rest of the 80 per cent are identified as "reluctant readers" who only read to pass exams.
The consequence, the study argues, is that "Malaysia will eventually be directed by reluctant readers".
The impact of reading was not lost on Andrew and Jacqueline and it informs almost every decision that they make. Take the name BookXcess, for example. If you've got a keen eye, you'll realise that the name is a portmanteau; blending the words book and excess, but also the word access.
They're in the business of excess books and are providing access to books and for the most part, they've provided more access to books than any other book sale ever had in Malaysia.
To that point, Jacqueline shares an observation she's had, having seen the trend of buyers coming to the sale since the first sale in 2009.
"When we started the business, the Young Adult category don’t sell at all because teenagers don’t read. Then in 2015, our Young Adult books started to sell, even sell out. That's when we realised when we started in 2009 to 2015, six years had gone, and we realised our young readers that were six to seven years old at that time have become young adults and they have become readers on their own and they are now our Young Adult readers," she says.
“When we started the business, the Young Adult category don't sell... in 2015, our Young Adult books started to sell, even sell out”
Her observation, if true, would mean that an annual book sale had the power to usher in a generation of readers who would – in another five years – move on to more sophisticated reading. And who knows, they might lead Malaysia one day as well-read individuals.
Bill Gates reportedly reads 50 books a year, Elon Musk taught himself to build rockets by reading, and the comeback king himself, Tun M, reads at least three books at any one time.
We're sure there are many Malaysian CEOs who read a lot, we just can't seem to find a story about them online. If you're a CEO who reads and have read this story to completion, write to us! We'd like to hear more from you.
Book covers turned postcards are displayed on the wall in the office
This is the part where we write a call to action, a plea for non-readers to seek out a book. If you've made it this far, thanks for reading, now go share this story with a friend.
If you're looking for some inspiration to start reading, here's a punchy quote for you to ponder:
“There is no such thing as a child (adult, youth, human) who hates to read; there are only children (adults, youths, humans) who have not found the right book.” – Frank Serafini (whoever that is)
Now go out into the world and read a book.