As one of the world’s largest travelling circuses of book fairs gets underway in Dubai, co-founder of the Big Bad Wolf (BBW) tells Al Arabiya English how the heavily discounted books are able to make their way around the globe for readers who cannot afford to pay retail.
Andrew Yap pointed at “affordable and accessible” books as the solution to a growing gap in education and knowledge among the youth between different classes of society.
“Kids are hungry. The faster we can educate the world, the faster we can solve this problem,” an optimistic Yap said in the interview.
Having started in 2009 with a mission to provide English-language reading material to children without the means to acquire books, the operation has since grown into a trans-global affair that attracts thousands of readers.
The journey hasn’t been without challenges.
In December last year, the primary warehouse that held millions of BBW’s books was submerged in floods after severe rains battered Malaysia.
At least 4.5 million books were lost to direct flood damage or mold from the adverse conditions, in addition to damage to the building and equipment.
The recent floods in Malaysia have caused considerable loss and disruption. Our thoughts and prayers are with everyone whose lives and livelihoods have been impacted by this disaster. Big Bad Wolf's operations were among those affected. ... pic.twitter.com/CBpvboX1bH— Big Bad Wolf Books (@bigbadwolfbooks) December 21, 2021
“We were preparing for Dubai, we were preparing for so many events since the pandemic was becoming an endemic and opening up,” said a downhearted Yap as he recollected the flood damage that nearly put the mission permanently out of operation.
For the 2022 edition, Yap said he was equal parts nervous and excited. The event has been widely shared and eagerly awaited by many Dubai residents as evidenced by the strong interaction on the company’s social media platforms.
The event opened with an exclusive preview late Wednesday. The expansive space was throbbing with the sounds of rapidly flipped pages and excited murmur from attendees who felt the crushing weight of the large venue’s offerings.
The 11-day-long event is reportedly displaying over one million books and offering discounts between 50 to 80 percent.
In 2019, BBW reported a 50 percent sell-through rate, while this year, they are expecting up to 80 percent.
Adaptive business model
As a traveling book fair that relies on volume sales, the founders have a significant feat of logistics to consider.
Following a disruptive pandemic year that unsettled global logistical routes and rates, the shipping routes are severely backlogged. Further shortages on container availability have raked up the freight prices per cubic meter of space required.
This is a “mission-based business,” said Yap. “We put the people first. We put our customers first in the hopes that they will come and support us.”
Yap said that BBW relies on “economies of scale” and volume sales to breakeven with the rising prices of essential services.
He is almost adamant about not increasing prices of books, regardless of the impact on profit. BBW’s customers are undisputedly attracted to the limited-timed fair over the prices.
Yap said the secret to low prices lay in the unique purchasing pattern they follow – buy overstocks, acquire brand new returns, and strike deals with publisher reruns or reprints.
Most of the titles are not on the trending or best-sellers lists, but they are evergreen, said Yap.
In addition to the competitive source pricing, the traveling fair means no investment in a brick-and-mortar store or full-time employees. Sister initiative BookXcess, also owned in part by Yap, has physical stores that sell affordable titles.
Yap said that BBW’s goal was to go “even further” and offer the cheapest digs.
Every time BBW sets up one of its signature fairs, Yap said that they aim to reach yearly sales figures set by the physical store within the 11-day event.
BBW’s efforts are supported in the region by the Sharjah Book Authority, according to Yap, in addition to the host of the event in the emirates, Dubai Studio City, among others.
Praising the Sharjah Ruler Sheikh Dr. Sultan al-Qasimi for “helping the world change through books,” Yap said that the emirate’s book authority’s presence as a government body in the Middle East and Africa has greatly helped break into markets that were previously considered out of bounds.
Sheikha Latifa al-Maktoum, chairperson of Dubai Culture, was present for the opening of the 2022 edition.
As for the name itself – Big Bad Wolf – it was purely to attract young readers with the iconic fairy-tale character and intrigue adults in the minimal advertising that BBW does, the co-founder clarified.
Yap revealed in the interview that his company was in talks with Saudi Arabia’s authorities to expand the traveling fair into the Kingdom from this year.
The Sharjah Book Authority, which is working with BBW to expand operations in the region, is reportedly helping the team with the Saudi push. Two parties are interested in helping the team setup the Saudi operation, said Yap without naming them.
With serious expansion plans in the MENA region, BBW has established a warehouse that is supposedly bigger than their primary operation in Malaysia. This storage center will house millions of books and become the hub for the region as BBW expands further, explained Yap.
During a two-year sabbatical owing to COVID-19 restrictions, the team took their million-large inventory online.
In the UAE, the switch was eased with the Dubai-based noon.com stepping in for hosting the books on their platform and simplifying delivery.
Despite “record sales” many of BBW’s loyal followers took to social media compelling the initiative to return to their physical shows, said Yap.
“They still want the physical interaction with books. The government here [UAE] really knew how to move things forward,” Yap said as he compared the contrasting governance between the Gulf and Malaysia.
“Back home in Malaysia, events are not happening [at this scale]; people are still fearful,” said Yap.
The UAE remains one of the top jurisdictions in the world when it comes to vaccination rates and has managed to report low numbers of cases and deaths in recent months while remaining open to business.
Over 97 percent of UAE residents are fully vaccinated against the virus, while over 50 percent have received the booster dose. Strict adherence to safety protocol in addition to wide availability of vaccines and healthcare helped the tourism and oil-dependent economy to stay open.
Events like the book fair reap the benefits. The BBW co-founder places his appreciation on the passionate readers who spend large amounts of time and money on purchasing discounted books from the fair.
“We are taking a hit on the logistics end, higher labor costs. But this is in hopes that customers will support us…,” said Yap. “We don’t have any competitor globally,” he said, pointing at the diminishing rate of return from the time and money spent on such a venture.
“There’s hundreds of restaurants and fashion brands to every bookstore. If you feed the stomach, you also have to feed the brain,” said the 46-year-old, concerned with the dwindling number of readers.
“People have to realize how important reading is,” Yap said, recollecting his decade-plus drive that helped reshape the simple hobby that he hopes will have a lifelong impact that transcends generations.