i ended up with about 9 Word Pages of material from Andrew Yap and Jacqueline Ng (founders of BookXcess, the company behind the Big Bad Wolf booksale, and Miguel Mercado, Big Bad Wolf Philippine’s Marketing Head. The article had to be heavily edited for the news site’s short form format.
I didn’t really ask much questions. Each short question was met with enthusiastic, eloquent answers. It was a pleasure and privilege to talk to them.
Publishing it here in its somewhat raw transcript (with typos and the occasional annotation) is the of the 40-ish minute interview with the hardcore, hardest-working book geeks behind the biggest book sale in the world.
VVB: Tell me about Big Bad Wolf. How did it all start up?
Jacq: BookXcess started 10 years ago and we started with a bery tiny bookstore. 500 square feet. It’s all about one thing, it’s too increase readership in Malaysia by providing affordable books. It’s a very simple mission, but with one bookstore, we couldn’t do much. So in 2009, we decided to create an event called Big Bad Wolf where people come and bring their friends, because when you go to an event, you don’t go alone. So that’s how we see the positive impact of how a big bad wolf event will have a very positive impact of increasing readership, by converting non-readers to a reader.
VVB: Tell me about the growth from Malaysia and going to other parts Southeast Asia.
Andrew: We started in 2009. It was only in Kuala Lumpur for 2-3 years. There were a lot of requests to go out of kuala lumpur. So we did quite a few stints, about 7-8 different locations around Malaysia. It was about two years ago in 2016. We did our first overseas event in Jakarta, and then a a few months later in August 2016, we did one in Bangkok.
Jacq: What happened was that the motivation that we get from organizing Big Bad Wolf, even from our first event which had only 120,000 books at the fair. We saw people coming in when people say that there is no market for English books. When they say that there are no people reading in their country. But we saw people streaming in for Day 1 despite it being the first time. The positive comments that everybody was talking about was that we allowed them to try new genres, we allowed them to try new authors. They’re so excited to buy to give to friends to try to spread the joy of reading and promote reading. So many people buy as presents, they keep a stack to give as birthday presents, as Christmas presents. So we realized that this model can work. So when we borught the sale to Penang, Johor, CHingganu, Ipo, We bring it out to people in the rural area, not in the big city where books even less accessible. They basically don’t have access to books. There are no major bookstores there. So where we are kind of stable in Malaysia especially when we knew that we had succeeded for the past 6 years, we have saw a very positive growth. When we started, Young Adult books didn’t sell in Malaysia because first of all, readership is low and teenagers don’t read…. At all.
So children’s books always sell because the parents will buy for the kids. So young adults are always a tougher sell. But after 5 years, the young adult books sold out. And we started to realize that it was because of our 5 year effort. For the past 5 years, our younger readers when Big Bad Wolf started have become teenagers.. So they have become readers themselves, and now they’re coming in to Big Bad Wolf and now are buying Young Adult Book. So we could see the positive progression and this gave us a lot of comfort that it works.
So when we are stable in Malaysia and the team has also grown from just two of us, so now a big team of us with management staff and we think we are ready to go overseas to demographics similar to Malaysia, English is not the firtst language. Books are generally expensive due to a weak currency, readership is low, also because of prive and accessibility to books. That’s why we chose Indonesia, Thailand to go in first.
And now we’re in the Philippines
Andrew: I think what Jacqueline mentioned, going to countries where people don’t even read English and creating such an impact there. It’s amazing. If you see the pictures of Big Bad Wolf Bangkok. It’s really something to behold.
Jacq: Normally the crowd comes in midnight. Most of the time, the hall is most packed almost around midnight because people come in after 10.You can’t even go in anymore. Tyou literally close the door because you cant fit in persons anymore.
Andrew: Philippines happened really quick. We met Luis from GK (Gawad Kalinga) about 7 months ago. And somebody introduced us, he was in Kuala Lumpur for a conference. He met us, we sat down, and we shook hands right after that meeting saying that “no matter what happens, it’s going to happen in the Philippines”. He did ask why we have never thought of goping to the Philippines which we actually wanted to do but we just never had the correct partner. I mean the Phlippines is not an easy market to get in. We had no friends here, we didn’t know anybody. Btu we knew that it was a market we wanted to go in to, not because we think that we will do well here. But because we knew that the Philippines needed something like this. And so luis was saying that, if you come to the Philippines, you don’t have to worry about any problems, you don’t have to worry about any fears.
We are disruptors. SO when we come, a lot of people in the industry misunderstand us. And then it can be a negative thing in the beginning. Without friends, we can’t do that. So he said, whatever fears you have, let GK Take care of it.
So we formed a partnership, the whole reason why we have a superstar team here. Theya re all from GK.
Miguel: Well GK has a big network from the people who work in HQ to GK partners. We all just have the same mission and advocacy. The advocacy aligns for both Gawad Kalinga and Big Bad Wolf so it was very easy to get together. Second, yolu also see how much people work so hard here. Everybody is really focusing on the advocacy.The heart of the advocacy plus the joy of seeing people as they enter, it’s like they’re kids in a candy store. They’re jumping up and down, and like you, they say “”Ahhhh… the smell of new books.” And they start running up and around the corridors and start buying. What it hink is clear here is the advocacy, the heart of how it started, how it continuies to grow, and how people also come and realize that they are building a nation, improving the way we do critical thinking not only for us bhut also for the next generation. Whenever you have something like that, it just pushes forward and we’re very happy that Big Bad Wold has come here. And the plans really, are how we can bring this to more places in the Phlippiunes.
Q: Sot here are plans to go to other parts of the Philippines?
Miguel: There are plans, and I think it’s really about finishing this sale. BNut to dream with an advocacy, and to dream with a mission, it’s always there. It’s nice to see how people with the right, similar values are just going to come and will be coming. I think what’s more magnified in the Philippines is how appreciative the customers and the other partners are. I think if we can measure the amount of THANK YOUS, THANK YOU FOR COMING, THANK YOU FOR DOING THIS on the scale in the PHiluippiunbs. I think it will continueto drive the mission.
Q: What kind of groundwork to prepare for the coming fort the Big Bad Wolf?
Miguel: What was good about Big Bad Wolf was that they already knew what to do. So the transfer of knowledge really became a sprint for everybody. As soon as we got confirmation, our teams got together and just started to run in terms of getting the venue, getting the markets, getting FB marketing up, making partnerships with people who also want to make a nation like ABS-CBN. All of that became a sprint to get Big Bad Wolf Phlippines happening. And we contrinue to sprint. Maybe after the sale, we’ll rest for a few hours (laughs) and then Im sure we’ll be working on the big ones already. As long as people share the same value, then it’s so much easier to work. It’s not perfect, but once everyone has the same value and same direction, it makes it easier.
Andrew: What makes it very meaningful, this event has so much PR mileage. And with a partner like GK and what GK stands for, we are able to maximixe the PR Mileage to the very end. Like getting more people to read, getting more partners involved, and also helping GK. To us, it’s not just abnout selling books, it’s not just about getting people to read more, but the whole reason we’re doing this is we want to change lives, and this is what GK does. You know they change lives. So us being able like a magnet to bring people together and gk being here and getting more, it’s another arm of rgk, literacy, that will value add to whatGK does. To us that is very very important. To have the right collaboration. We never had any collaboration this in any other country. Yes we have great partners.In any country we have grest partners, They never see the commercial aspect, it’s always one thing to make a change in their own way, in their own country. But here, working with an organization like GK makes the whole event to the m,aximum what we can do and moving forward.
Jacq: When we talk about Big Bad Wolf even back home. I always remind the team that there are only three words that we care about. We are here to CREATE, to INSPIRE, and to EMPOWER. Everything we do, we move towards that objectiove and that mission. And GK is the same, the book that they gave us is HOW TO CREATE DREAMS, When we furst met GK and the first gift they gave was that book, you marry someone so perfect. So identical. Books are the same. When a child gets the correct book, that child will be next president of the country through dreams and being inspired. And only by briging the book here, and I’m not talking about cheasp books, but very good quality books and at prices everybody can afford and let them be acceissible. Reading and books should not be a luxury item and to certain upper class people. It’s more important to the lower income people. They resally need thsat inpsirtation and that power. When you inspre them, when you emporwr them, it’sd a totally different story. And that is what GK does everyday. It’s just a perfect marriage and we were so excited, which is why when we visited the philppines for the firsty time in july last year, we saw the amount of the country where the pobveryt of the people even in metro manila area, and we were quite surprised that Malaysia being pretty privileged compared to here. And the venue said that this is the only slot we have, Chinese New Year. Chinese New Year is a very big thing back home. “How are we gouing to do Chinese New Year?” We asked our project manager. What do you think? And he said, I would do it but I will ask my team as well. And she went back. The first thing she did was she spoke to her team about our visit here, and the special unique thing we are trying to accomplish here in the Philippines. The majority of the team said yes so everybody will sacrifice their Chinese new year to be here. We won’t do it for any special unique reason except for the special unique collaboration with GK and the additional meaning it carries for the Philippines, that’s why we are here despite we had to sacrifice the new year to be here.
Miguel: To emphasize that sacrifice, Chinese New Year for Chinese, for Malaysia. It’s basically like giving Chirstmas up for Christmas. It’s when reunions happen. Where you go home to families and families come home to you.
Jacq: It’s also a duty to our parents that we have to be home,. It’s very hard to tell your mother that I won’t be home this year. IT’s very hard to do that.
Miguel: Just for that sacrifice the team has gone through, they gave up Chinese new year plus nobody sleeps here. It’s not a written rule. People just come. For us, we don’t have a time. The Filipino group. We see how much they work. We try to equal. But it’s amazing how much people work
Andrew: Half the time, we need to go home and sleep.
Jacq: There’s just so much work. Every country we go to, I think we’re the only event to do 11 days straight 24-hours non- stop. People have never done it bvefore. The convention center has never done it befiore. Everything is first time. But why did nobody do it? It’s so hard to even organize something like that. To get the staff. To get the commitment of the organizer to commit to an event like this. 11-days 24 hours nonstop.
Andrew: The Cost
Jacq: and the cost, excluding the setup and the teardown. And we are the only person in this event. We are not a book fair with lots of people and exhibitors.
Andrew: There;s only one reason why we started 24-hours. That is so customers will not have the excuse “I got no time to come.” When we first multed the 24-hours, the managers were saying that ‘you’re going over your head because overheads will be doubled and it’s not worth it.” As long as one customer comes in after midnight, the battle is won. That is how we should always look at it.”
Jacq: In the part of the world where we are, where a lot of us is a dual income family. A lot of them work dual jobs. Nobody has time to go out after work. And if we open the usual hours, close at 9 or 10pm. They will never come. After work, it’s already 8 or 9pm. We are just here for the first time in Metro Manila. People drive here. Like there was a customer the other day who took a jeepney for three hours to come here. If we do have a closing time, it’s going to be hard for you to plan your trip. Like, what time do I reach there, do I have enough time to shop? Oh I don’t think so, IMaybe I go tomorrow, it will never end.
But if the door never closes, you are free from that burden.
Andrew: and here there are a lot of call centers, and these people who work at the call centers sleep during the day and work at night. And they will never get to come here if we don’t open 24-hours. And Manila is a city that never sleeps
VVB: Can you tell me about your relationship with the publishers? How do you get the prices so low?
Andrew: Not just the relationship with the publishers. How we are able to get the books so affordable is a combination of many things. Number One: It starts from us having the mission before the commercial sense of it. Numebr two: having the right partners who understand where we are coming from. We all have the same mission and then, the publishers. Everyone coming together to make this event successful. Everybody playing their parks. Publishes see a role that we play in the whole book industry. The book industry is a complex business. They understand that we are not here to destroy the market. If we wanted to destroy the market, we would probably do this three times a year, maybe quartery or four times a year. But no, we are only here4 once a year. This is just to boost the industry. To injext some excitement into the industry. To get people to startr reading. People who have forgotten the joy of reading, and those who have mnot experienced the joy of reading, this event enables all to read. So the publishers see the role that we play and they work with us for the prices that we need and we have the support of over 100 publishers. IT is a very special position so to speak
JN: We also started the business very small ten years ago. Our suppliers had a chance and the time to get to know us.They seen us grow from very small, a two person company, to what we are today, and they see the dedication and the effort we put in. You know go through every book, we negotiate every book. No buyer buys books like that. Just to buy five books, we go through every effort. We don’t miss books. We cover every book they have available. We choose what we want for the market. Some of them were curious, top management and business owners themselves. They say that you two are so hardworking and of course they want to know more.and when they learn about our mission back home and especially our sale has grown to a certain size, in 2011is when we started the biggest sale. 1.5 million books at that time. I have UK and American Publisher who came and witnessed the sale. Thinking “are you going to sell at the price you bargained so hard for?” “Are you really going to sell that price that you told me?” They flew all the way to see. “Like you say you’re going to sell at this price, are you going to sell at this price because you keep on haggling the price?” And then when they came, they were going through our tables and looking at the prices tag and of course we sold at the agreed price. And they keep on saying to them
Andrew: They literraly said “ You can’t do this. You can’t make money because it’s so cheap” They know the cost.They know the operations because some of them are resellers too.You’re going to crash and burn”
Jacq: You have no margin at all. And of course our books are non-returnable. But when they saw the door open and when they saw the custimers walk in, they got so inspired. They were nonstop taking pictures and videos on the phone. And the moment they went home, they have big operation back home. They have hundreds and hundreds of staff and they showed the photos and videos to their staff to inspire them. This is where thebooks go, this is who he books are benefitting.
Andrew: So now they support us even more. Sometimes when we negotiate price, I say “I nreally need this at this price.” And they say, ”aggghh” they know they’re going to lose money. They say it’s ok because it’s for the war effort. I mean literally, Those are the words they used. Because they know that to countries, especially developing countries like the ones in Southeast Asia, it’s really a war against corruption, poverty, and so many other issues the majority of the world is going through oppression. We know that books and education is the key to get out the change.”
VVB: I’m sure you’ve travelled around the world. How do you compare the readers of Asia to the rest of the world?
Andrew: very different. Initially, if you think KL and Manila. Is probably the closest compared to Thailand and Indonesia because they don’t really speak much English. Children’s books will do well because they can’t really read English. The older generation. If you are above 20, normally you don’t read much. It’s a burden for parents to get kids to start english. Naturally the childrens books do well.
Well here is a mature market similar to Malaysia, the difference that we see here compared to Malaysia. Is that You guys are so much more, how would you say, deeper readers? Let\s say like Biographies. In Malaysia, the biography readers are surface (?) but you guys go deeper into politics, history. In Malaysia, readers would go to a general history book. In the Philippines, readers would go right down to a particular person. That’s one of the diffence
Jacq: We go to countries like England and the US where we get the majority of our books. I mean it’s a totally different culture. In southeast asia probably because of the culture of wehere aour grandparents and parents are, we have never been a society that reads. I have not. He has not. Been in a family where our parents read to us.We grew up in a home where there are zero books. But idf you go to a british or American family, it is quite normal for their kids to be in bed by 8oclock. We sleep at 12oclock since young. Ive never slept at 8oclock. They put their kids to bed, They have a certain lifestyle. Our lifestyle is our parents work until 9-10pm and we sleep at 12am. So it’s a totally different thing. You know they read to put their kids to sleep. Our parents couldn’t even speak a word of English. There is a portion of us that is into reading but a majority of southeast Asian families, we never had that luxury or that environment, For education wise in school, it’s all about academics, how to passs your exam, how to get good grades, how to make sure you go to university, it was never about reading for pleasure. So when we were growing up, reading was for passing an exam, it was never for entertainment, it was never for pleasure, so thast is the current environment that we grew up with whish iis very different from those who grew up in more developed countries like the US and the UK. The challenge of changing that in Southeast Asian countries is to inculcate that habit. And you need to start 1 generation, that’s all. Because if you become a reader, you will automatically impart that habit to your kids. And when your kids become readers, your kids impart that to your grandkids, their kids. So we juut have to start with one genewration but we have to start somewhere. And to start the habvit is not a one event effoirt, it’s not even a two year effort. To me, a minimum 5-10 years.to change a certain majority of society to have that impact and for that to spread. Because if you are a reader and you come here, you might have 10 friends that did not come here. But because of you might have bought books and gacve it to them, and it’s because of you that they started reading. You will be picking books that they like. For example, if you ahad a friend who loves cars, and yuou saw a beautiful book about cars, and you thought of him, and you buy and give it to hgim because the price is so affordable. So Through one customer, it litereally not just impacts him and his family, but it impacts his circle of friends and family. Imean this is what big bad wolf is all about. What the advocacy is all about. Why we make our lives so hard and why we price the books so low so it is easy for you to give?
VVB: In your few days here, what are your observations on the Filipino Market/Customers/Readers?
Andrew: For us, it’s been an emotional journey. The cultures are very different. Yes, we are ASEAN. Yes We are neighbors but honestly it’s very different. Sometimes we think how small our world is, but when you start learning about a totally different culture. Learnung and understanding our new friends, Initially, we were quite disappointinged that there were a lot of stray books. Meaning customers when they come in they get all excited and pick a lot of books and they find out they have a certain budget and they go to acorner and they just put the books that they want and it can be 80% of the books which is a nightmare. We have 200,000 books at the back. Now, If i give you a book right now and I tell you to put it back in the table, how long will it take you?.. How do you put back 200,000 books? It’s an impossibvle taks and that of course will hurt the sales. You notice that some of the tables are empty, some people are saying im looking for this bhook. Wehre is this book? It’s actually in that 200,00 books that we are working day and night. We have increased manpower to try to sort it out. But the tide of books that are coming in, we cant control. But we realize that this is why we’re doing this. And then they to get books will change people.l Get them to understand, to get them to empathize more what other people are going through, mutual respect. And all that kind fo thing. We also realize that we shouldn’t be disappoiunted but we should just take it in stride. This is one of the challenges and this is why we are here. Its not that that the public is purposely doing this or that they are inconsiderate. It is just how things are and how we can work to I prove it. Rather than get frustrated and channel our energy
Jacq: Its about education. It’s about educating them to let them see.ohhh, it’s a different perception that they didn’t realize that it costs so much problem.
Andrew: we do it too.sometimes you just don’t want one item. But here it’s 30,000 people doing it. We gotta understand their part. That is the only downide. The upside, there are a million upsides. Seeing the crowds, the response, the crowds are very appreciative of what we do. It’s probably 1% of bad and 99% of good
Jacq: I mean the true motivation, every customer I met, whether they are a journalist like you, or a stranger, or a partner, or one of the VIPs who were here during the launch. Every single person I was introduced to say Thank you for being here. For bring the sale to pHilippines. I mean for the past 10 years, we do receive a lot of appreciation and thank you notes, but never have I for once, receiecved thank you as though every single customer. You get 10% appreciation for any business, it’s a very strong adovacay already. Customers don’t have to say thank yuou to them it’s a transaction. For us for the past 10 years, we get thank you njotes, FB Posoticive comments, but never had I onece have repeated appreciation from every single person that we met and until today when I go to the bank, the bank officer, when they know I am big bad wolf, they are like, thank you coming to the Philippines. That really touches me
Andrew: The Filipinos are really genuine people.
Jacq: And also we saw the comments, one thing about the stray books we realize it was to meet a budget. And the rich can alkways affor the tyhings that they need, they can buy books and accessibility is not a barrier. But the people who are not travelling or who have limited budget are the ones, thjat big bad wolf is all about. It is only through us, that is the only way they they can get books.
Andrew: the more stray books that we get, that means that we are attracting the correct crowd, the people who really need us. Those that can afford books, they will come natureally on their own. But our market is those who cant afford books.thgos that don’t have books around thgem. What happens when you attract them? This is what happens, the stray books,m the orphan books. The more orphan books that we get, the better. But it hurts us very badly.
Jacq: It’s just education. Sooner or later, when they realize it. They will know that by knowing their budget, even if they don’t want it, they’ll kow how to put it back. Both parties have to learn how to respect each other. But the fact that they are here, with a caertain budget and knowiung that they can bvring home four or five books, that is for us the biggest success of big bad wolf manila. I mean there are people who buy in trolleys, they can afford it. But the people who touch me most are the people who come with limited money, but they bring home with big smile four books and even two books.
VVB: What books are doing well?
Andrew: Very different. Fiction is doing very well. Business and Self-ghelp. But this is a testament as to what a mature English market is But of course, we are pshing very hard childrens section.Getting the kids to readm that is our priority.
VVB: Any Last words?
Andrew: We would like to say to tell everybody. We are here until this Sunday. Do come and visit us we’re here until Sunday. Admissions is free. It’s 24 hours. Even if you’re not into books, just come over and see. It’s the world’s biggest book sale. It’s airconditioned, get away from the heart. For those who have come, thank yuou, let the wordget around and tell all your friends. And we’d really appreciate the media for all the coverage thast they ahvegiven us. We could never ever have done it without you guys. This is evcerybody contributing and making this event successful. All out partners.