Friday, August 17, 2007

More Book Fair Musings

Since the list of participants in the Manila International Book Fair is out, one question on people’s minds is why isn’t -insert favorite bookstore- participating? For me however, the question isn’t why they’re not participating but why should they in the first place. Allow me to explain.

Internationally, book fairs are usually for the industry people. They do sell books but they don’t sell them individually: they sell the rights to the book. Book fairs are usually where publishers get to meet other publishers, where they showcase the titles they have and entice you to license them for your country or order them in huge quantities. It’s also a great time to get a peek at the books that will be released in the future as well as see what publishers in other countries are doing. It’s not a consumer-friendly event but rather a convention for book publishers both big and small.

Now what we have in the Philippines is different. When you say book fair, it’s synonymous with book sale. The Manila International Book Fair, on the other hand, seems like the biggest book bazaar of them all. Now I don’t know what’s going in the minds of the organizers, at why they set it up in the first place and why it’s designed that way. But I have seen the results. A large open space is rented and various publishers and bookstores have booths to sell their goods. It’s also like a convention in which events are being held on the side and it’s also lately been where the awarding of the National Book Awards is held.

In the past three years or so however, there’s been some interesting developments when it comes to the Manila International Book Fair. The first of which is the re-branding. I don’t know why but it’s only recently that they added the “International” to their title. Before it was simply the Manila Book Fair. Likewise, the location wasn’t at the World Trade Center but rather at the more accessible Megatrade Hall of Mega Mall. For most people, the change might appear superficial: new name, new venue. How they conduct their business remains the same (selling books at a discount). Not being part of the organizers, I don’t know for sure if that’s true but for me, I’ve observed some significant changes thanks to the re-branding.

As a kid, there was really only one reason I went to the Manila Book Fair. It wasn’t to see all the various bookstores present there, it was just to visit one: Goodwill Bookstore. Now that might sound bizarre to all of you but the fact of the matter is, as a kid, the rest of the other stalls simply didn’t interest me. I didn’t care about the university presses or the local publishers. Honestly, a lot of the booths at the time seemed like losers to me. Aside from Goodwill Bookstore, the only other booths that might have interested me was Emerald Headway for their magazines and Warner (before it was Time-Warner) for their comics. And the reason why Goodwill Bookstore attracted me was because they had a big shelf of SF&F books, bigger than what most bookstores had at the time (as the years would pass however, this shelf would shrink and dwindle). So the book fair was easily the only time I’d get to see Goodwill Bookstore’s most complete stock of books at any one place.

How about the other bookstores you might ask. Well, National Bookstore wasn’t interested in participating in the book fair at the time. As for the independent bookstores that’s made their presence known today, they didn’t exist at the time. Certainly there were other independent bookstores back then but whether they could participate or want to, I’ll discuss later. So to sum it up, the Manila Book Fair was easily a book bazaar of virtually unknown bookstores and publishers with the exception of Goodwill Bookstore. And in retrospect, look where Goodwill Bookstore is today (not that it’s dead but it’s branches have dwindled).

And then the re-branding came. Coincidentally, this happened during what I call the bookstore boom, when Powerbooks was quite popular and still had their 3-floor flagship store in Makati, when Page One was about to debut, and when A Different Bookstore was surviving their first few years. Anyway, I’m sure the other bookstores were skeptical at first of new variation of the book fair but apparently, the re-branding was enough to entice them. National Bookstore was on board and when they showed up, their space easily rivaled that of Goodwill Bookstore (which previously dominated the book fair). What would now be known as Fully Booked made skirmishes, first as a small both under its other bookstore names and then finally, last year, a full-blown area (and not just one tiny booth). A Different Bookstore has been aggressively expanding in the past few years and they took the risk last year at the book fair.

Branding, I think, played a big part in the other bookstore’s participation. There’s the location for starters. I can’t imagine how someone can say that the World Trade Center is easier to get to than Mega Mall. It isn’t. But that fact can easily be a feature not a flaw. The World Trade Center is still accessible however, so it’s balancing itself between the line of accessible but not-too-accessible. That’s my polite way of saying the book fair is targeting a different market than those that frequent Mega Mall. And in many ways, the target market of the newer bookstores are the upper class. Look at where Powerbooks’s flagship store used to be located: in the urban comforts of Makati. Both A Different Bookstore and Fully Booked both have their flagship stores in the equally not-so-accessible area of Bonifacio City at The Fort. The only one who really caters to the masses is National Bookstore but everyone eventually visits National Bookstore, rich or poor, if only to buy notebooks and other school supplies. There might be less foot traffic in The World Trade Center but the various bookstores are probably thinking there’ll be more people walking out having bought something. But that’s just speculation on my part.

Of course my theory above is easily invalidated if Goodwill Bookstore managed to acquire an exclusive lock-out before the re-branding. The only way to know for sure is to have insider info from either Goodwill Bookstore or the organizers of the book fair but I have neither. Perhaps I’m a fictionist at heart so I hope you don’t mind if I stick to my more interesting and presumptuous theory.

Now let’s look at the other publishers present in the book fair. While the bigger bookstores might give a modest discount of 20%, it seems like the local publishers are more willing to lower their prices, going as high as 50% if not more. To me, participating in fairs, any fairs, seemed ludicrous. I mean not only are you paying the organizer for the booth, you’re selling your wares at lower-than-normal prices. But I do understand the concept of a sale and any business owner will know how important it is to get rid of old stock. Conventionally however, most local publishers sell their books via retailers such as National Bookstore. Unfortunately, these retailers do charge a high consignment fee. Since the publishers are selling direct and this is the book fair after all, the 50% discount doesn’t sound so big—the profits that would have gone to the coffers of the retailers instead translate to savings on the part of the consumer. But that doesn’t make it any less horrible to witness books by national artists like Nick Joaquin selling for half the price.

Now let’s move on to the bookstore’s who aren’t present in the book fair. Well, gist of it is that attending the book fair is an expense. You’re paying for the booth, you’re paying for the transportation of goods and an employee to man the booth, and you have to do it for five days. That’s not including the bureaucracy that plagues any similar event, and how everyone jocks for a good position in the location. (Again, I’m not the organizer so I’m not privy to bickering if any at all exist but I’m sure there are publishers and bookstores complaining why they’re set up in this location and will ask if they can be set up in a more optimal place. The organizers might even use this as leverage to “who pays first gets first choice”.) There’ll also be restrictions such as only having a few tables or electricity outlets. And then there’s keeping your goods secure when the day is over (either locking it up at the location or bringing it home). These factors might be minor inconveniences to bigger bookstores but if you’re an independent bookstore with a staff of less than half-a-dozen, it might become a problem. After all, do you have enough staff to optimally man your actual store and the booth in the book fair? Better yet, can they sustain this for five whole days, in addition to ingress and egress devoted to setting up the booth and dismantling it? The last time I visited Aeon Books for example, I think they have a staff of three. They may have made-do with a skeleton crew at the Read or Die Convention but the Read or Die Convention had a relatively cheap fee/ex-deal (and perhaps participated as a favor to the organizer which is a factor when dealing with smaller businesses) and was just two days long, a big difference compared to the mammoth book fair and the various hoopla that surrounds it.

At the end of the day, participating in the book fair is pretty much like any business decision. Where’s the profit in it and what’s in it for me? For the consumer, the book fair seems like a good deal but one man’s blessing might be another man’s bane. The book fair is easily a different world on the side of the bookstores and publishers, everything from loss-leader to logistical nightmare to a public relations stunt. I have no vested interest in any bookstore however which is why I’m encouraging every consumer to participate in the event.

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