Those new to TNPS may be wondering if Big Bad Wolf has lost the plot taking a million English-language books to an Arab country when everyone in the western publishing world knows “Arabs don’t read”. But one of the reasons we launched TNPS was to challenge these faux narratives about international publishing that pervade western industry thinking.

Big Bad Wolf is slowly making its return to in-person book sales after the long Pandemic-induced hiatus and at this stage is juggling its now proven-successful online sales with the gradual resumption of its traditional live events.

As I write this the Big Bad Wolf Bangkok event, which ran from March 23 and was extended until April 6, has just wound up. Watch out for updates to this post and the previous Thailand post as and when any details emerge on the numbers.

The Bangkok event of course was timed to coincide with Thailand’s simultaneous National and International Book Fairs, which also wound up yesterday.

For its Bangkok event Big Bad Wolf took one million print books, 90% in English, 10% Thai.

While we don’t know the exact break down we can expect a similar pattern for the one million print books being lined up for the Dubai Big Bad Wolf event in the United Arab Emirates, which will kick off April 14 for an eleven day run.

Those new to TNPS may be wondering if Big Bad Wolf has lost the plot taking a million English-language books to an Arab country when everyone in the western publishing world knows “Arabs don’t read”, and for the handful that do they will be reading in Arabic, not English.

But one of the reasons we launched TNPS in 2017 was to challenge the faux narratives about international publishing that pervade western industry thinking.

Nonsense ideas like Arabs don’t read, for example.

Here’s the thing. The Algiers International Book Fair lately wound up in Algeria after clocking 1.3 million visitors to its first in-person even since the Pandemic hit. That 1.3 million footfall was actually way, way down on the two million plus visitors the Algiers fair is accustomed to seeing.

In 2019 Algiers managed to pull in “only” 1.1 million, barely half its usual numbers, but in the same month the Sharjah International Book Fair in the UAE broke its own record with 2.52 million people turning out.

These numbers may seem staggeringly large to those used to western book fair visitor numbers where 25,000 (London) and 35,000 (Bologna) are the norm, and even the mighty Frankfurt Buchmesse has yet to reach 400,000 visitors.

Of course London, Bologna and Frankfurt are primarily trade-facing fairs, not public-facing events. That said, only a handful of western public-facing book fairs come even remotely close to the visitor numbers many Arab book fairs pulled in in pre-Pandemic times.

Riyadh (Saudi Arabia), Baghdad (Iraq) and Muscat (Oman) are among many Arab countries that have been seeing over 1 million booklovers turn out to their book fairs.

While others can easily clear a half million visitors.

Yet all these pale beside Egypt, where the Cairo International Book Fair in a good year pre-pandemic would be the largest book fair (in 2021 that crown went to Sharjah), in 2018 clocking 3.5 million visitors.

While not strictly within the remit of this post, just to add here for newcomers to TNPS that one to two million visitor book fairs are by no means unusual around the world beyond our western publishing bubble. Let me briefly mention here numerous Indian book fairs (New Delhi, Kolkata, Chennai, etc) or Pakistan’s Karachi fair or Iran’s Tehran fair or Argentina’s Buenos Aries fair or Turkey’s Istanbul fair or…

No North American book fair comes close to these visitor numbers and in Europe only Spain can compete (the Madrid fair pulling in 2 million visitors most times around, but this an outlier for Europe).

But back to Big Bad Wolf to wind up this post.

Big Bad Wolf operates out of Malaysia, and pre-pandemic was shipping books by the millions (plural – many events would have 2-3 million books lined up, while in Indoensia the Jakarta Big Bad Wolf event in 2018 had 5.5 million books on offer at one eleven day 24-hour sale.

This from TNPS in August 2019 is indicative of the remarkable scale of the Big Bad Wolf English-language books sales machine.

Nor did the Pandemic dampen Big Bad Wolf’s enthusiasm. Jacqueline Ng and Andrew Yap simply shifted their operation online to keep up with the phenomenal demand for English-language books in countries where most English-language publishers don’t give a thought to. Hit the search button on TNPS for more on Big Bad Wolf online.

Here just to summarise the breadth of the Big Bad Wolf’s global reach by noting that as well as in the aforementioned countries (UAE, Thailand and Indonesia) Big Bad Wolf is a regular in the Philippines –

and also in Pakistan, Myanmar, Cambodia, Taiwan, South Korea (2 million books), Hong Kong, Singapore, Sri Lanka, TaIwan (2 million books) and of course Malaysia.

Sometimes Big Bad Wolf does return visits to these countries in the same year, such is the demand.

The political situation in Myanmar may have put Big Bad Wolf’s Myanmar plans on hold, but in 2019 it ran an eleven day event with one million books that sold the USD equivalent of $1.8 million.

In Cambodia Big Bad Wolf took one million books to its first Phnom Penh event and pulled in 50,000 visitors in just its first four days.

It took a million books to Pakistan.

And repeat with varying million numbers (1, 2, 3 million) for the other Big Bad Wolf countries.

We started with Dubai so let’s finish with Dubai by noting that the one million books being shipped to the UAE this month is a fraction (one third since you ask) of the three million books stacked up at Big Bad Wolf Dubai 2019.

As a final aside, those who are familiar with Big Bad Wolf will be thinking “inexpensive remaindered books – we publishers cannot compete”, and of course that’s true at the level of shipping physical books around the world. Digital books on the other hand…

The real lesson here for western publishers is as we see in the headline of this analysis from TNPS: that publishers need to look beyond the remaindered titles and grasp the opportunity Big Bad Wolf is demonstrating.

Because while there are over 5 million people online around the world, most of them are not in our western comfort zone markets, and fewer than 6% of them are in the USA.