What started off as a mission to make affordable books accessible to the public and to promote the joy of reading among Malaysians has now become the world’s biggest book sale event.
The Big Bad Wolf Books (BBW), the brainchild of founders Andrew Yap and his wife Jacqueline Ng, has been a landmark event in Malaysia since its first book sale in 2009. The fair, offering around the clock, 24-hour sale of brand new books at discounts as high as 50 to 80 percent was a runaway hit.
“What we really want to achieve is to change the world one book at a time. We have this amazing opportunity - nobody else was doing it. So, we took the chance and went for it,” says Yap.
What we really want to achieve is to change the world one book at a time.
The pair’s first foray into the books business began in 2006. They started BookXcess, a small bookstore dealing in excess or left-over books from international distributors, before taking a leap of faith with BBW three years later.
“The most memorable book sale will always be the first one because we had no clue what we were doing. But we learnt so much,” says Yap, a petrolhead who operated a car workshop before giving up the business when BBW took off.
In 2016, the pair decided it was time to spread BBW’s wings and reach out to other South-East Asian cities, sensing there was an unique opportunity to introduce BBW - which only sells English-language titles - in countries where English comprehension is low.
“We wanted to share the joy of reading to other countries, “ says Yap. “So, it was one of the reasons why we decided to go overseas.”
Since 2009, the BBW sales has been replicated elsewhere and enjoyed success in countries like Thailand, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, the Philippines, Taiwan and Dubai.
It was an unprecedented and financially risky move to bring the idea overseas, admits Yap and Ng. The logistics of moving millions of books was a costly affair.
“The logistics is very interesting and is probably a world record by itself. For instance, in Indonesia, we transport almost a hundred 40-foot containers by sea,” Yap explains. “It all goes by ship because it is just way too expensive by air.”
“We have to ship it all at one go and can you imagine, unloading hundreds of containers within 48 hours? So, logistically it’s huge challenge.”
"It is a very cash intensive business. That’s why we don’t have many competitors," says Yap. "If you had the money, there’s a lot of other businesses you would do."
During BBW's first five-day event in 2009, it only featured some 120,000 books. At its latest Jakarta tour, over five million books were on sale. “We are like a traveling circus, you know. We bring our books from one country to another,” Yap jokes.
We are like a traveling circus, you know. We bring our books from one country to another
Getting into new markets is not an easy feat, particularly in navigating around the varied cultural and language barriers. Therefore, having a local partner is key to BBW’s operations overseas.
“There’s still a lot of question marks because nobody has done a book sale in this magnitude before. The countries that we go to (are countries where) books are not widely sold,” says Ng.
“For example, Indonesia is such a big country but they do not have a lot of bookstores. English books are very limited. So, when they want to buy English books, they have to buy from overseas,” she adds.
Another challenge that the couple faces is knowing what kind of books that would sell well, and what won’t. Mistakes were aplenty, the couple admits.
“(We end up) buying the wrong books, that are either at the wrong price, a little bit too expensive or buying too many books but not selling them. And because all of our books are not returnable, there’s a risk that we take.”
“Jacqueline and I have probably spent more than 10,000 hours buying books, making a lot of mistakes as we went along,” says Yap, drawing reference to Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers, a book that he is currently reading.
Gladwell popularised the 10,000-hour theory, stating that one needs to have 10,000 hours of practice in a subject to be an expert. “At this moment, what makes the company successful is also because we have really good books,” says Yap confidently.
The couple considers their work to turn Malaysia into a nation of bookworms as a work-in-progress, they felt there was a whole new market; the rest of the universe, waiting to be conquered.
"World domination!” Yap exclaims in a joking manner, while holding his fists in the air when asked about what's next for BBW.
“We intend to be in 30 countries, 45 different cities by next year. By 2020, we want to be in 100 cities and then, 150 cities by 2021.”
“We never expected to be where we are today but somehow things just fall into the place. I think it has something to do with the company's advocacy and what we stand for.”
“Sometimes I wake up and ask myself - are we really here? Are we really doing what we are doing?,” he says, slightly disbelievingly yet modest of the accomplishments he and Jacqueline had achieved thus far.