One-stop website for local reads

Localbooks.sg's co-founders Callie Chong (far left) and Julie Hyun.
Localbooks.sg's co-founders Callie Chong (far left) and Julie Hyun.ST PHOTO: SEAH KWANG PENG

Started in July last year, localbooks.sg aims to shine the spotlight on local writing

The first Singapore novel Ms Callie Chong read changed her life.

It was Suchen Christine Lim's 2013 novel The River's Song and she fell so hard for it that two years down the road, when she was asked to help start Singapore's first one-stop online store for local print books, she agreed at once.

"I did not know until then that we Singaporeans could have books like this," says Ms Chong, 30, now the co-founder of start-up localbooks.sg. "That's a feeling I wanted Singaporeans to have - that our stories are not in New York or London, but here. Everyone needs his or her own River's Song."

Localbooks.sg was started in July last year by Ms Chong and her friend Julie Hyun, also 30, and bank-rolled by publisher Edmund Wee, 64, of Epigram Books.

I did not know until then that we Singaporeans could have books like this. That's a feeling I wanted Singaporeans to have - that our stories are not in New York or London, but here. Everyone needs his or her own River's Song.

MS CALLIE CHONG, co-founder of localbooks.sg, on Singapore author Suchen Christine Lim's 2013 novel The River's Song

Ms Chong had been working at Mr Wee's page-setting firm when he approached her with the idea for an online bookstore that would shine a spotlight on local writing.

Together with Ms Hyun, they pooled $100,000 of their own money and started localbooks.sg.

Their website is a one-stop online shop for 1,500 home-grown titles - poetry collections, memoirs, cookbooks and more - from several Singapore publishers, such as Ethos and World Scientific. They plan to double this in the next two months.

Though they have been in business for seven months, sales are still slow and they hope to make a splash during the #BuySingLit campaign later this month.

The industry-led movement was launched last Thursday to get Singaporeans to buy local books and will feature activities over the weekend of Feb 24 to 26.

Localbooks.sg is holding a week- long pop-up store featuring children's books at VivoCity from Feb 21 to 26. It is expecting 8,000 to 10,000 visitors to its Kids' Singlit Town. "We've realised it's much harder to sell books to 30-year-olds than to children," says Ms Hyun. "You need to build that affinity early."

She estimates the site has seen an increase of 20 per cent in sales every month, but has yet to break even.

The founders sell an estimated five to 10 books a day, but believe they need to reach at least 50 a day to be sustainable in the long run.

Though they save on rental - they work out of Epigram's Toa Payoh North office - most of their costs stem from logistics. Their books are delivered by courier, which costs between $6 and $12 each trip. This would leave very little profit margin on a book sold for, say, $6.90.

 

Many publishers have their own online stores, as do bookstores such as Books Kinokuniya and BooksActually. But Ms Hyun says the company wants to give Singaporeans an easier platform to find local titles across the board.

Once, she went looking for a book she had chanced upon at an Ethos event at Gillman Barracks, but because she could not remember the title, she was not able to find it later despite searching through several online stores.

She admits dark days are on the horizon, with e-retail giant Amazon set to enter Singapore this quarter.

They already face competition from Book Depository, an online book seller based in Britain that ships free worldwide, and Singapore-based online bookstore OpenTrolley, which carries mostly international titles.

Last November, Mr Wee put up for sale his personal collection of 10,000 books, raising $30,000 for the store. Ms Chong and Ms Hyun estimate this bought it another eight to 10 months' survival.

National Book Development Council of Singapore assistant director and writer Adan Jimenez hopes it will not follow the fates of previous local online bookstores.

Singtel's e-books store Skoob folded in 2013 after two years. That same year, rival telco StarHub launched its own e-book service Booktique, which closed 1½ years later. Mediacorp's ilovebooks.com lasted less than a year.

Mr Jimenez says: "The fact that localbooks.sg offers physical books over e-books is already a leg-up, as Singapore doesn't have a big e-book market due to territorial restrictions.

"But Amazon's entry could make its focus on local books a handicap. Its next step should be to build a community around its brand, like what independent Tiong Bahru bookstore BooksActually has done."

Watch the video: Selling books for 80 years http://str.sg/4sTE

For more information, go to https://buysinglit.sg/

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 07, 2017, with the headline 'One-stop website for local reads'. Print Edition | Subscribe