When one of Singapore’s beloved bookstores, BooksActually announced on its website and social media channels that it will be closing down its brick-and-mortar shop at Tiong Bahru and will transform fully into an online store, it sent shockwaves across the island.
When doors were forced to shut in April due to the Circuit Breaker measures, BooksActually went digital, operating from a home basis where fans could still order their favourite books via their website. Despite not having a physical store to hold literary events, the BooksActually team held Instagram Live chats instead, providing a platform for readers and authors to interact.
In the post, Kenny Leck, owner and co-founder of BooksActually shared with fans and supporters: “As horrible as the pandemic has been, it has also given BooksActually its “Online Store Sea Legs”. After nearly half a year of being solely an Online Store, we are now ready to make it a reality.”
BooksActually has been operating for nearly 15 years, playing a major role in Singapore’s literary scene. Leck also mentioned in his post that when Singapore moves into Phase 3, BooksActually will return with its weekly literary events.
“I mean what is BooksActually without its annual #BuySingLit street party, and the truly maddening but iconic 24 Hour Bookstore and The World’s Loneliest Bookstore,” he added in his post.
Surge in E-Books during the Circuit Breaker
We spoke with Ethos Books, a local independent publisher of literary fiction, non-fiction, and poetry. The publishing company also manages an online bookstore since 2015 selling physical books, E-books and teaching resources.
“What COVID has done is that it impacted publishers and booksellers differently on their logistical arrangements. Most are unable to send out books because it was deemed as ‘unessential service’. However, we were already working with a third-party logistics company that prints bank statements, which could continue operations as they are deemed as an ‘essential service’,” shared Kah Gay, a publisher at Ethos Books via a phone interview.
He added: “Some publishers depend on themselves to pack and send out books but were only able to deliver the orders after the Circuit Breaker. I would say we were lucky to be able to continue our deliveries during that period.”
Apart from physical books, Ethos Books also saw an increase in demand of E-books and audiobooks during the few months of people being cooped up at home. “During COVID-19, our library loans shot up,” said Kah Gay.
“Our titles were on OverDrive, which can be loaned out via the National Library Board (NLB). That became another source of revenue of us. The library bought a lot of digital copies during that time.” Titles such as Teo You Yenn’s “This Is What Inequality Looks Like” and “Air-Conditioned Nation Revisited” by Cherian George were maxed out with 300 digital copies each.
OverDrive is a digital distributor of eBooks, audiobooks, and magazines that has partnered with NLB. Patrons who have an existing membership with the library can loan out e-books via the app.
“It Won’t Be The Same”
Singaporeans are adapting to the ‘new normal’ with frequent check-ins, general social distancing measures and most of us working from home. Though Phase 2 gave a little bit of our sanity back, for businesses like Ethos Books, the impact goes far beyond that.
“I would say that up until July, we did very well but seeing the progress for the last two months, I am no so optimistic for now.”
He explained: “We are in the period of transition. Right now, there are limits to physical movements, and nobody can tell how long these limits will last. From a business standpoint, this means you cannot invest in growth, such as hiring more people or not being able to invest in new equipment or technology. When I say I am not optimistic, I mean to say that because the general level of economic will decrease, it affects the spending of things, including books.”
The pandemic has affected all of us in many ways. While books may be seen as a temporary escapism or an additional tool to educate ourselves, the fact that our spending habits have changed is undeniable.
When asked about the plans for the future, Kah Gay shared that Ethos Books will not be ramping up production in 2021 and will instead be more specific in terms of the titles that will be pushed out, and hopefully be able to ‘contribute to existing causes’.
However, literary fans will be able to look forward to the release of “The Orchid Folios” by Mok Zining in November, along with “Raffles Renounced: Towards a Merdeka History” edited by Alfian Sa’at, Dr Sai Siew Min and Faris Joraimi.
“Our plan for 2020 is to contribute to the reckoning of the global moment to get people to be sitting upright that yes, the world is unwell, but we know that this means we have the desire to change and so our books want to contribute to that.”
Balancing the New Normal: