A novel idea: Selling "mystery" books to customers who don't know what they are buying

Customers have no idea what book they are getting when they pay for one whose cover is wrapped up

Mr Adam Tie with his mystery books at the Enchanted Cafe in Rangoon Road.
Mr Adam Tie with his mystery books at the Enchanted Cafe in Rangoon Road. ST PHOTO: JONATHAN CHOO

Imagine a blind date, but with a book instead of a person.

Mystery books, which are wrapped and sold to customers who have no idea of what their contents are, are taking off.

The Novel Encounter, a start-up, takes the idea of not judging a book by its cover to new heights. The year-old business sells mystery books for $29 each online, with the book's identity hinted at only through a phrase or two.

One description, "Corset, Knuckles, Lipstick" suggests a historical romance with fisticuffs, while others state the genre more clearly, such as "Intellectual Romance" or "Detective Thriller".

Founder Adam Tie says he has sold more than a thousand books in this fashion and, so far, nobody has asked for the 100 per cent refund he offers.

"I think to some extent, people do still want to read, but they've lost the novelty of it," says the 26-year-old, who started the business with an artist friend last year.

"Books take us to places when we are forced to stay where we are, and the mystery adds to the element of adventure. You don't know where you're going, but that's the fun of it."

Mr Tie, who is also a freelance writer, got the idea for The Novel Encounter while he was close to completing his master's degree in publishing and communication from Melbourne University. In farewell, his lecturer challenged him to "keep the romance of the literary scene alive".

He curates the books, which are lesser-known works published in the last 30 years, and stocks around 14 titles that are sold online, at cafes such as The Enchanted Cafe in Rangoon Road and stores such as Naiise and Gallery & Co.

Customers can discuss their preferences with him to help him better recommend a book.

He declines to reveal the titles he has in stock, but gives an example of a title that is no longer in circulation: The Lover's Dictionary (2011) by David Levithan, which was described with the phrase "Love: it isn't always what you think".

Established bookshops and publishers have also been getting in on the mystery book game.

Independent bookstore BooksActually began selling wrapped books in its vending machines last October and has since sold close to 2,000 copies this way.

Owner Kenny Leck, 39, estimates the bookstore has earned more than $36,600 on mystery book sales to date. "So far, we haven't had a single complaint," he adds.

Local publisher Epigram Books offers a Surprise Me! bundle of books for $55, which includes two fiction books, a children's book, a graphic novel, a play or poetry book and a book on food. Books are selected by staff and no exchanges or refunds are available.

Readers such as therapist assistant Crystal Han, 23, are drawn by the enigma of these books. "The idea of not knowing intrigued me because I don't get to judge a book by its cover, literally," she says.

Account executive Julia Tan, 26, has bought three books from The Novel Encounter, encouraged by her consultations with Mr Tie.

"The books I bought from him are not my kind of genre, but are still engaging enough for me to finish reading them," she says. "They offer me other perspectives, which I think is refreshing."

Mr Tie has reinvested his profits from the year into three upcoming events, including next month's Singapore Coffee Festival, where he will be exhibiting.

"We live in a noisy kind of world where you don't have time to sit and read," he says.

"But I believe the love of reading is still out there and any way to make people think of reading as more than just a chore is worth a shot."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 11, 2017, with the headline A novel idea: Selling "mystery" books to customers who don't know what they are buying. Subscribe