Since the launch of TNPS one of the regular features of our global publishing industry coverage has been the phenomenon that is Big Bad Wolf, the Malaysia-based reseller of remaindered English-language books that astonishes at every turn by selling said books, by the million, in countries where English is not the first language.
Take Indonesia for example. Since its first event in 2016 Big Bad Wolf has been taking typically 5 million books at a time to Jakarta, and millions more to smaller Indonesian cities, stacking them high in huge halls, and attracting hundreds of thousands of eager buyers.
And doing the same thing, with millions more books across, in 2019, more than thirty cities in ten countries, from Taiwan to the UAE, from Pakistan to the Philippines, from Sri Lanka to South Korea. And also Thailand, Myanmar, and home land Malaysia, in addition to Indonesia, for those curious.
This year started with high expectations to far exceed that. A debut event in Phnom Penh, Cambodia kicked off the 2020 Big Bad Wolf calendar, quickly followed by visits to Yangon in Myanmar, Manila in the Philippines, and Pahang in Malaysia before arriving in Indonesia in March.
But despite having thermal scanners at the entrances to check visitor temperatures, the Jakarta event was a race against time as Covid-19 spread across the country, and in fact the event was wisely called off early when it became clear the virus was gaining ground in Jakarta.
And then the Big Bad Wolf fell silent, with no events lined up in April or beyond, and with the home country Malaysia under a strict lockdown.
At this stage there is no possible timetable for when – or indeed if – Big Bad Wolf can resume its events, even on a much-reduced scale, let alone the multi-hundred-thousand-visitor events of recent years.
But from April 27 through May 3 Big Bad Wolf will be holding the first of what is likely to be many online book sales.
For the Indonesia event the usual massive discounts will come with free delivery across the country, and an additional 5% discount for those of the Bank of Central Asia..
There’s a lot to digest here.
It’s not clear yet just how many customers the online sale might attract, but against the drawback of not being able to handle the goods in person comes the incredible additional reach this event potentially has.
At peak the Jakarta real-time events were attracting upwards of 750,000 visitors over eleven days. While the online event is only six days it will be accessible to anyone anywhere in the country with an internet connection, rather than just those who can make it to the city on the day.
Those new to TNPS might be thinking that can’t amount to much. After all Indonesia’s internet penetration is at just 62%.
But in fact that 62% amounts to 171 million people online, making Indonesia the fourth largest country on the planet by internet users.
For this first online event things might get off to a slow start, as word spreads, but the potential is there to dwarf the physical events.
But there are three key problems here, that will become increasingly challenging with time.
Based in Malaysia, Big Bad Wolf has to ship these books to the destination countries. It would seem there were a lot of books already warehoused in Indonesia such that makes this event possible.
But for future events in other lands, shipping to a given country may not be an option, even if there are enough books in storage. And physical distribution may be increasingly challenging amid lockdown conditions.
And therein lies problem number three. Sourcing new supplies of remaindered books will become increasingly difficult as the global crisis continues, with publishers and booksellers alike in limbo.
And all this against the backdrop of a global recession the like of which we have never seen in our lifetime.
It was only a few months ago, in November, that Big Bad Wolf had ambitions to ship 1 billion books to emerging market cities over the next five years.
Today those ambitions are shelved, possibly forever, unless this pandemic can be brought to a clear conclusion with a globally available vaccine.
Given the resources being flung at the problem that may be sooner rather than later, but we have yet to find a cure for the common cold, let alone lone mass-killer diseases like cancer.
And even if a vaccine does materialise soon, the fear will linger, and publishing, like most other industries hit, will never return to the old normal.
For Big Bad Wolf, with its mantra of changing the world, one book at a time, the Indonesia online book sale might be the start of something new for the Big Bad Wolf team.
Because as above, remaindered print books will not be as easy to come by hereon.
Might Big Bad Wolf turn to digital books? That seems so very unlikely right now, but it would be one way that founders Jacqueline Ng and Andrew Yap can keep the wonderful idea behind Big Bad Wolf thriving, and pursue the billion books dream even as the supply of physical books dwindles.
That may perhaps seem a step too far right now for Yap and Ng, but consider this: the eleven current Big Bad Wolf countries alone have a collective internet reach of 521 million.
Big Bad Wolf has proven that it can connect with and entice readers in non-English-speaking countries to turn out in the hundreds of thousands to buy books.
Imagine what Big Bad Wolf could do if it turned its focus on these same, and new, emerging markets online, with an unlimited supply of digital books at great prices, and the power of the Big Bad Wolf reputation and social media savvy to publicise the digital stores.
Such an unlikely scenario is probably not even on Ng and Yap’s radar right now, but a global pandemic changes everything, making the implausible the new reality and the unthinkable the new solution.
Global publishing will never return to the old normal. But it’s in all our interests to explore every avenue to make the new normal the best we can.