Monday, July 30, 2007

Why So Expensive Ah?

Elizabeth John and Nurris Ishak asked the post-HP7 question on everyone's lips here in the NST yesterday: just how are book prices determined here? :
For locally published books, about a fifth of the RM30 or so a reader pays goes to paper, typesetting, cover design and printing, says Raman Krishnan, who runs independent bookstore Silverfish Books.

Another 20 per cent is shared between the author and publisher, though the publisher shoulders all the risk if the book flops.

The lion’s share, about 60 per cent, is generally shared between the distributor and retailer.

The distributor takes care of transport, warehousing and marketing the book.

The bookseller keeps the books on the shelf and in the public eye in their inviting stores.

Distributors and bookshops aren’t paid. What happens is they buy the book from the publisher at a discount –– of up to 60 per cent of the cover price.

But every publisher has a different cost structure, says MPH’s Donald Kee. So the percentage taken varies from one to the next.

“Publishers and booksellers don’t earn much after paying for the high cost of paper, printing, rental and store set-up.

“Readership in Malaysia is low, as is our turnover. It’s not like the US or Britain where a far larger number of readers helps reduce cost,” says the corporate affairs manager.

If imported, the price is set like this: The cover price, noted on the book in pound sterling, US or Australian dollars, is converted using an 90-day average exchange rate.

Another 30 per cent is added on, explains Kevin Sugumaran of the Malaysian Book Exporters and Importers Association.

“So a £10 book could come up to RM60 after applying the conversion rate and reach RM78, when the 30 per cent is added.

“That percentage is a gross margin that covers freight, warehouse costs, distribution and the profit that goes to bookshops.”

The exchange rate is controlled by the Domestic Trade and Consumer Affairs Ministry and importers have been charging the same rate for the past three decades, says Sugumaran.

“Since 2001, the fuel surcharge, shipping, air freight and security charges have all increased but we live with it because we try and depend on volume of sales."
All well and good, but what happened with the latest Harry Potter? - which Raman reckons that it isn't just a book but:
.. a fashion statement, a product, a must-have toy.
Ouch! (Quickly grab the anti-Muggle antidote!)
Chia Thye Wee acknowledges these problems but points out that the RM109.90 price for the latest Potter book wasn’t something booksellers pulled out of a hat.

The figure was negotiated with publishers. The discounts booksellers received depended on how many they bought and how quickly, says the president of the Malaysian Booksellers Association.

Their margin was shared with customers through discounts and was also used to cover the events for children, heralding the arrival of the book.

“Books like this come by only once in a while and stores have been waiting two years for this book. They ordered large numbers and paid a long time ago.

“Then hypermarkets slashed the prices. And if the big bookshops had trouble managing, what more the smaller ones. There was no way they could fight back

“It’s not that hypermarkets can’t sell books but to do this to booksellers on the launch day is simply taking away their bread and butter.”
Tesco, one of the hypermarkets selling the book for RM69.90 says: .
... it just wanted to make the book more affordable.
Sure. In Britain and the US supermarkets/hypermarkets slashed prices in the same way so that:
... small bookshops struggled to keep up with discounts offered by the big players but did sell it at a loss anyway. ... Big chains like Waterstones were forced to follow ... because they did not want to appear uncompetitive. How on earth can you get so many retailers selling a product they make no profit on at all, and may even be selling at a loss? Cock-eyed logic for sure!
That aside, one of the reasons for higher book prices in Malaysia is the low volume that can be sold. And beneath that lies the problem that Malaysians are not reading a great deal.

People don't read because books are expensive. Books are expensive because people don't read. Chicken egg chicken egg chick-

In a related piece, however, the assistant director of the National Book Council, Roselan Zainal Abidin, talks about Malaysian reading habits being:
not so bad any more lah ... Some local magazines and books have a 15,000 print run. School books sell by the thousands as do the popular Bahasa Malaysia romance novels.
We are much consoled.

Also interviewed is:
Self-confessed book addict Sharon Bakar ... (who) forces herself to stay focused in a bookstore for fear of suffering a deep and irreparable hole in her pocket
She (whoever she is) reckons the key lies in reader education and also believes that there is no use any one interested party pointing a finger of blame at any other ... teachers, booksellers, writers, parents, librarians, friends of books ... because we are all in this together.

So here I have to agree with Raman:
... Stores need to start employing people who read. Knowledgeable people can advise buyers and organise activities that really connect with people ... Engage schools and school-children. Do whatever it takes. ... It’s time to walk the extra mile.
Baby, that means you.


Chet said...

>> For locally published books, about a fifth of the RM30 or so a reader pays goes to paper, typesetting, cover design and printing, says Raman Krishnan, who runs independent bookstore Silverfish Books.

I'm not sure if a local publisher like Silverfish books uses the same paper for its books but there could be a saving there because they would then buy the paper in bulk and negotiate for discounts. Using the same paper for all its books would also help establish a unified look for books from the same publisher.

As for typesetting - it's electronic these days, so there would be less printed copies of the different versions for proofreading. And there's absolutely no need for retyping as the writers would (or should) provide soft (digital) copies of their manuscripts.

uncle said...

These are the facts many do not know

dreamer idiot said...

I wrote something to the Star about the Harry Potter saga, of how most of the people complaining about the pricing of Harry Potter were hardly readers or supporters of the bookshops in the first place, and how they fail to appreciate the difficulties of the book business. Unfortunately, it wasn't published.

About hiring of bookshop staff who reads, I agree wholeheartedly. Never mind not knowing the authors or books, but not knowing how to spell a simple author's name properly is really bad.

Erna said...

Some of Kinokuniya's staff are knowledgeable about products - but in a retail sort of way. Knowing whether Book A or B is stocked but most (large) bookstore staff know little about books. Once, I had to answer a Kino customer's question whether or not a certain edition of LOTR was abridged.

I don't think that Kino person even knew what abridged meant.

Madcap Machinist said...

I was browsing the arts section of MPH BV2 when I overheard a customer asking someone in the staff for "Animal Farm". The employee--and the customer--clearly did not know the book because they were looking for it in the reference section!

Of course I wrote "George Orwell, 'Animal Farm'" on a piece of paper and pointed them both to the right direction.

Can't fault the workers; some just happen to work there. We shouldn't be shy to help.

But I do wonder about their (the bookshops') database.

The other day at Times BSC I was looking for Marisha Pessl's "Special Topics in Calamity Physics" and found a copy each with the masculine red and black US cover, and the feminine one with the pastel rose on it (like on bookgila's blog). So I was naturally wondering if they had in C-format, or even a hardback with larger type... so I went to the counter to ask for a list all editions of the book (title and author written on a piece of paper.)

After a while they came back to me and said they don't even have the title in stock (!)...then I showed the two books I was holding to them. Tsk tsk.

Now that is unforgivable.

Occasional Reader said...

I bought my Rome Series by Colleen McCullough online as the bookstores around Kota Kinabalu have never heard of her (although they may have 1 or 2 of her books around). I downloaded HP7 online a day after the launching! Maybe I'll buy the whole collection when the price drops again... I have stopped dreaming of opening my own bookstore and getting rich a long time ago.

kam raslan said...

I'm a huge fan of Kino and find it hard to say a bad word about them but they might (gulp) have a few people who don't know everything. But they have many who know quite a lot. There's a guy who works there called Arthur who seems to have read almost every book ever written and is always able to point me toward something interesting. Today he pointed out the New York Review of Books, which is terrific.

bibliobibuli said...

kam - oh yes, arthur! he's great! am constantly impressed with kino.

occasional reader - hope you enjoy your colleen mccullogh's. and thank goodness for online bookstores

machinist - aiyah, horror stories lah. was just wondering why kam's book is listed (in readsmonthly)as a best selling title - in non-fiction??!! did anyone else notice the booboo??

erna - i guess if you know a whole lot you get a high paid job somewhere and don't work in a bookstore. that's part of the problem - retail wages are low but we expect a whole lot from assistants.

dreamer idiot - i think that most people either can't or don't want to get their heads around understanding the problems faced by the book industry ... i guess in a way i don't blame them. but of course it bothers those of us who care about the long term future of reading and the availability of books.

uncle - glad to have been of some use lah

chet - tell uncle raman lah!

bibliobibuli said...

oooh kam - there are older copies of mags like new york review of books at
Reissued in amcorp mall. must go there soon for a stash.

Chet said...

Kam's book in non-fiction - that happened on two bookstores' lists.

At Borders, when he was reading, I noticed the book at #2 on the non-fiction bestsellers' list and asked him why it was there, and he turned and asked the Borders people and they had no answer for it.

Last Friday, on NTV7's Breakfast Show (I was watching because Tinling Choong was on), they featured MPH's Top 5 International Fiction and Top 5 Local Non-Fiction lists. Kam was in the latter. I guess there aren't enough local fiction to make up a bestsellers' list.

As for the book being on the wrong list - in Singapore, Dato' Hamid is listed under Southeast Asian History in Borders there and under Culture & Tradition in Kinokuniya. I have a picture on my blog to show the former. He was nestled next to Karim's book and with the likes of Pol Pot.

bibliobibuli said...

kam and pol pot? strange bedfellows ... or rather shelf-fellows. and again i'm wondering how the authors on my bookshelves are getting on with each other!

kam raslan said...

I deny being or ever having been a member of the Khmer Rouge and if anyone says that I'll sue.

I've mentioned to MPH people about my book being in the non-fiction list and I've been consistently assured that something would be done but so far nothing has been. When I asked one of the staff why this was he said that my book was catergorised as a local book and therefore non-fiction. Go figure. Still, at least it's on a list, so I didn't want to complain too much.

On a seperate issue, it's really hard writing posts on this blog without spell check.

bibliobibuli said...

seperate? yeah can see the problem!

i actually have spell check on my comments. how come ah? i think it's a later tweak of windows

anyway don't worry about it. i have dyslexic fingers and make loads of bloopers

my book was catergorised (sic)as a local book and therefore non-fiction. this is really crazy!!

kam raslan said...

Sory. Very embarasing.

Anonymous said...

This is very useful.


MunyeE said...

For those of you who didn't know, it's not easy being a staff in a huge bookstore.

1st of all, customers only know every details of books they like and hence, when the staff couldn't answer a question about the book they want, customers start thinking that staffs lack of knowledge.

Instead, have you ever thought with the staff? Not every staff has reading capabilities like the staff "Arthur". Staff too, only read books they like and the books they read, might not be the same interest as the customer's.

Staff have to know about a million books in the store which I can assure you is more than any of you here have read, which includes of local & non-local, fiction & non-fiction, professional books and everything else.

Customers only need to know about what they like and not every book on the shelf.

You can't blame the staff for a little lack of knowledge, perhaps when the staff ask you back about the book that he likes, you wouldn't even have a clue, or have not even heard about it.

As for the Harry Potter issue, I am glad you wrote out the truth. Many are unsure of the truth and pointed fingers blindly to the bookstores. While, the bookstores are only protecting their rights and reputations in the market.

bibliobibuli said...

thanks a lot, munyee and a very good answer ...

it's a tough trade. what other kind of shop stocks this much variety? shop assistants aren't paid wonderfully (i once worked in a toy shop and i know how awkward customers can be!)

Anonymous said...

I agree with Mun Yee. One should never jump to conclusions that just because of one book, that person is ignorant. Everbody just has different knowledge on different books. One should also learn to see in the other person's perspective, be in their shoes for once. Being in a customer service line is hard enough as it is. Customers always think their right. Imagine one day there aren't anymore people to serve us because of too many complaints. It'll be all self service! ;D Hah! Go look for the book yourself and see if you can find it!

animah said...

Munyee, thanks for your comments. However you can't compare what a customer knows and what staff of a bookstore should know.
We are each specialists in our own fields. A mechanic is expected to understand the car better than the owner. A doctor is expected to understand your body better than you. A tailor is expected to understand how to make a dress that fits you better than you do.

Why do bookshop assistants in the UK know the books they stock, or at least know how to find out. Why not here?

The problem is the culture of shop assistants in Malaysia in general. They are just not interested in what they are selling or what the customers want. Of course there are exceptions. But unfortunately they are rare.

Chet said...

anonymous said "Go look for the book yourself and see if you can find it!"

I think that's what all those signages in bookstores are for - to direct customers to the right section to look for particular books. However, it has happened that books are wrongly categorised and that's why customers approach bookstore assistants for help. For a bookstore to wrongly categorise books is just plain ... wrong.

animah said "A doctor is expected to understand your body better than you."

I disagree. Doctors are expected to know the medical field well enough to diagnose their patients' complaints and help them get well.

nel said...

After reading all this comment, here is mine 2cent worth ... heh, heh, ...

1. Books that is printed in bulk will reduce the cost per unit. The cover is usually in color but the content is basically printed in one color and on a cheaper paper material. Depending on the thickness of pages as well. Type of binding is the one that really cost.

2. It is not really true when a writer has given their works in a soft copy like text or words, it can actually reduce the cost of typesetting. There is always layout to be concern when coming to produce a decent layout for a book. What I am trying to say is that there is still insertion of text to layout, then to production of a book.

3. There is always a database to point a customer to the correct section. It is the initiative of a worker to be pro active and customer focus. This apply to any industry in general. Happy customer always point to happy business. Anyway, customer is very demanding these days, just don't make havok if it not neassary. I do pity them when they are actually very helpful as well.

4. There are certain books that fall under both section, such as harry potter can fall under a older audience under fantasy section and young readers as well for the teens and children. Others are, Oregon and His Dark Meterials, depending on the bookstores layout plan.

... :)

nel said...

oh yeah, there something else ...

1. A good book cover is necessary to suit the category of audience because some readers are also book collector when they actually hunt for new stuff in their favourite genre. Bad book cover only shows the writer's seriousness towards his or hers readership. If a writer is not serious about his/her readership experince in reading and owning the book ... hummmm ... you "sendiri beli lah" ... :)

Chet said...

"Books that is printed in bulk will reduce the cost per unit."

But publishers may not want to take the risk of printing too many copies of a book by a first-time author, as the book may not sell well.

nel said...

well chet,

=> But publishers may not want to take the risk of printing too many copies of a book by a first-time author, as the book may not sell well.

... correct, that only show that a seller has no confident or believe in it's own product that he or she is selling or investing. Then, why start selling to others something that you don't have believe in it ...

... anyway, I am not the "study-book-kind-of-guy", so I can't really give any know how. It's really my 2cent worth and maybe there is someone here that can better in giving the light ... :)

Madcap Machinist said...


"... correct, that only show that a seller has no confident or believe in it's own product that he or she is selling or investing. Then, why start selling to others something that you don't have believe in it ..."

This is a terribly misguided idea!

nel said...

Madcap ...

... care to explain, please ... don't really mind if it is constructive ... :)

bibliobibuli said...

misguided because you can't predict how a book will sell very often and if you print too many you will have a lot of money tied up in a commodity that can't be sold. some books may sell very few copies e.g. poetry, specialist text books, even though the author may have every faith in the quality of the product.

MunyeE said...

Like what animah said, bookstore staffs are suppose to know about the books more than the customers. That is correct, in genenral, they know more than you do, but if very specifically, customers may know more than the staff do because staff won't actually read every book available.

For example: A doctor is expected to understand your body better than you.

Bookstore staffs do know more about books than customers do, but they most probably won't know about George Orwell's 'Animal Farm' more than the customer, if you get what i mean. =p

Also, normally the bookstore will take books in bulk quantity even though they are unsure of it will be sold off completely a not. They normally take it so that customers are aware of the new book. Customers tend to observe books that are displayed, especially those that has hundreds of copies.

Chet said...

Actually, bookstore staff don't need to read all the books in the store, they just need to know if the books are available. But it would be good if staff take the initiative to "specialise" in specific sections of the store. "Specialise" as in know what are the books in a particular section.

nel said...

... tks sharon ... :)

Madcap Machinist said...

chet, specialising is a good idea, when you know when to call which specialist when you get a query

that's when you need somebody with at least a faint idea of what it is to call out the right section...make informed guesses.

And this should be everybody.

Maybe bookstores should train their staff in library skills, introduce books to the staff, the ones which say, a clueless parent might have come to buy 'Animal Farm' because its on her kid's school reading list. (I think everyone should you to know what ISBN numbers are for--even customers. Put ISBNs on reading list books and teach kids what it is for, when the list is given to them.)

I am very impressed with all of Kino's ground staff I've met so far. "Hold your book for a few days? No problem."; "Not in stock. We can have it for you next week."--right away sir; The book you want is misplaced from the shelf? I wandered off once while I had a rep look for a missing book, and she came looking for me across the aisles. One guy can even spot books on packed shelves in a split-second. Super-browsers themselves?

I go to the nearest bookshop whenever it strikes me, no favourites. But a trip to Kino, even if its out of the way, always makes good day for both the shop and me.

nel said...

... can go with madcap on kino statement but i never really have bad experince in all the bookstore so far ... trust me, any bad experice ... i would be the first one to be weed out walking around with my type of dressing and natural "Construction-Gangster-Ah-Pek" looks ... roflol ... :)

bibliobibuli said...

i must say nel i haven't had a bad experience either. i've found the assistants to be very good at locating stock (even if it has taken a little time sometimes). kino though is in a different class with excellent personal service.

books sometimes do get put in the wrong part of the store which makes it harder to find them.

i will look out for the construction worker ah pek in bookshops from now on!

bibliobibuli said...

come to think of it though, i've had no problem because i always know exactly what i want before i go bookshopping 'cos i've been reading online!

Sufian said...

People who know about books can;t afford to work in bookshops.

You people want to blame someone?

Blame society.

bibliobibuli said...

and also people who know about books are generally better educated and can get jobs that pay more elsewhere

the only way out of it is to pay bookshop staff higher wages

but then that increases costs which get passed on to the consumer.

and meanwhile everyone heads for the places selling cheap books where there is no-one to help and advise anyway

nel said...

well sharon,

... I don't quite agree with the statement educated in a way, because I have seen the demand for bookshop actually advert for staff with high degree of qualification as well in news paper. It might be that they are there to fill in the gap of getting experince until a better opportunity comes along. Maybe the books industry here may not be big enough for advancement. I have seen people with extreamly good qualification and not having the correct passion in the field, and some with low qualification but you can see they have fire in their eyes. There must be a right balance here ... :)

bibliobibuli said...

thanks nel - i think it depends on the bookshop and the member of staff. certainly some bookstore people are v. well qualified and clued up. there's loads of others who give me blank stares when i ask for a well known author (although they are fine when they consult the computer). there are even some who don't speak english!! (tried to strike up a conversation with one yesterday)

other times i have come across assistants who may not know about books but do have a passion to find out more and i've enjoyed chatting to them

at the other extreme there was one young man working temporarily in a chain bookshop who had a total passion for books and was spending all his earnings from the job acquiring first editions!! we had a long literary conversation.

sadly he was there only temporarily

what you say about opportunities for advancement is very true - this needs to be in place

you know what i'd like to see? more staff with passion walking the shop floor talking to customers, offering suggestions, helping them find stuff - people want guidance!!! this expertise is even more necessary when there is so much competition from warehouse sales and yes, even hypermarkets.

on many occasions i've struck up conversations in bookshops with other customers and recommended stuff. ("if you like that then you'll love this? and this one is great!") they've picked up a pile of books to buy so i've helped the bookshop shift their product and i don't even work there. surely this is a job for the sales assistants?

okay there are customer service staff but how many people approach them if they want recommendations as to what books they might enjoy??

i reckon bookstores could greatly increase turn over if they were a bit more proactive in this way

after all if you go into the independent bookstores like silverfish or skoob you often end up buying much more because of the personal recommendations!!

bibliobibuli said...

also nel - i have to say that the bookshop where you work rates very highly on my clued up staff list. (i always chat to those guys stocking the shelves)

nel said...

=> ... i have to say that the bookshop where you work rates very highly on my clued up staff list ...

... maybe I may have misunderstood your sentence of "where you work" ... if you mean to say that I am actually working in a bookstore ... no, i don't and haven't work in any bookstore before in my career life ... if that is what you meant ... :)

bibliobibuli said...

oh dear ... thought you did. ... realised i got the wrong person ... *blush* nanyok already lah

nel said...

... lol ... no worries ... i will take that as a compliment ... ;)

Anonymous said...

To chet: I'm not sure if you notice, but in MPH especially those bigger ones, they have lots of service counters, right? Actually, the location of those counters are basically what they are "specialising" in. Take the Mid Valley one for example, there's a counter in each of the departments judging from the colour code headers. If you want to know about children books, go to the counter at the children section. They can tell you more about the children books than other staff from other counters because they specialise in it. But the downside of this is when you ask them about other department books, they may not necessarily know and instead direct you to a counter that does. I understand they can't possibly remember or know about all the books, that's why I'm usually very patient with them. But sometimes you may be surprise that they can actually tell you about the book anyway because it's so famous. So you see, they do know some other kinds of books as well. :)

bibliobibuli said...

thanks for pointing that out anonymous. i've actually found MPH's customer service folks very helpful esp for locating a quickly needed copy of a hard to get book over several stores.

we find it easier to complain about the bad experiences and harder to praise the many more good experiences perhaps.