Results tagged “books” from VANTAN.ORG

A Life without Borders

September 27, 2011 10:26 PM

Borders, as everyone should know by now, has closed its chapter in Singapore.

Many of us took for granted that it would always be there, and it was said that this branch was more profitable than the stores in the US. What happened? I have a few theories:

1) Too many “Read-only” users

Borders’ closure was heavily covered in the media and I can’t recall exactly where I saw this, but what a little boy said when interviewed, summed it all up. He said he would miss reading books at Borders.

If you only want to sit around and read books, go to a library. And if your fingers have already indented every page in a magazine, just buy it and stop blocking the aisle so that other customers can get to the titles they want.

You see, the US model of allowing customers to browse books while sipping coffee, which Borders attempted to export, doesn’t quite work in Singapore. The US has a tipping culture, more active volunteerism, and people feel that they should give back to a cause or an institution. Over here, the mentality among the majority is still very much ‘take all you can’, photocopy all your textbooks and only pay the minimum, if you really need your own copy.

This is why some local bookstores go to the other extreme and wrap up all their books - which make me feel like not buying any of them, either, unless I already know the contents of the book and it’s selling at a good price.

2) Lack of focus

Other factors were more within Borders’ control, such as the selection of non-book items, which was said to have diluted the focus on its core. I found the stationery items suitable as gifts for others, but not worth buying for myself on a regular basis.

Similarly, I am a music lover and an avid supporter of copyright but I hardly purchased any CDs from Borders because they were simply more expensive than other stores. It was ‘neither here nor there’ for me. If I wanted variety, I would go to HMV; if I wanted a more upmarket selection and personalised service, I would go to That CD Shop. At Borders, I could sample some albums but not all of them, and I was pretty much left to my own devices if I wanted to explore a new genre.

3) More affordable alternatives

The Amazon mobile app was also a huge dissuader of purchases at Borders, on my part. Scanning the bar codes of books, I would look at their marked-up Singapore prices and decide not to buy most of them. The discounts at Amazon were so great that even with shipping costs factored in, I would save money. Offline, local bookstores like Popular would sell the same business titles but at a much cheaper price, and for me, the choice was clear again. I would not buy at Borders. Not unless someone gave me a gift card, or I desperately needed the book (which was seldom the case).

Yet the Straits Times cited industry sources who felt it was Borders’ price cuts which did them in. I still feel there was a big markup. Obviously something along the value chain wasn’t quite working. Meanwhile, e-readers like the Kindle, Nook and even the iPad have become popular as substitutes to physical books, and they are here to stay.

Perhaps Borders’ high prices and low margins were caused by expensive rent, which is to be expected if you are situated along Orchard Road. In fact, many things in Singapore are expensive largely because of the high rentals (a discussion on which can warrant a thesis on its own) and the fact that many desirable objects are not made in Singapore, but imported from distant lands. Stores have to make a profit too, so these high prices are passed onto the Singaporean consumer.

4) No more oomph in the service

Last year, a senior executive wrote in the papers about how he enquired about books on two different Presidents of the United States, but the young Borders assistants did not know who they were. When he expressed his surprise, their response was that it was not taught in school. This may have arisen from a rigid adherence to learn only what comes out in exams, and a lack of curiosity about anything outside of one’s immediate concern.

If this is any indication of what the future of our workforce will be like, then we in Singapore (and not just Borders) have something to worry about.

And if paid human labour isn’t adding much value to the customer experience of a physical store, I may as well turn back to Amazon’s intuitive interface, which at least tells me what other titles I may be interested in, and makes me want to buy more.

On a similar note, there’s a reason why customers in the US make appointments to see a Genius in the Apple Store, and why they continue to buy from Apple. There’s quality assurance in there, together with personalised service. But Apple’s margins, as an innovator and not just a retailer, are surely fatter than a bookseller’s.

5) It’s the industry, stupid

Let’s face it: The physical book retailing industry isn’t particularly creative. Local bookstores like Times and MPH have long been marginalised, downsizing their own flagship stores over the years and selling their wares at relatively low local prices. The only worthy big players left, in my opinion, are Kinokuniya and Page One, which have a more discerning selection of titles, and, from my experience so far, more knowledgeable service staff.

Local online stores such as Opentrolley may also have whittled away at the customer base. Popular Bookstore will remain a behemoth in the low-price and textbook market, with its staple audience of students and other mainstream local customers, and it has cleverly diversified its portfolio through its middle-class Harris and higher-end Prologue stores, while passing on the benefits of membership throughout all 3 segments of its customer base.

Interestingly, boutique stores like Books Actually may be on their way up, as they differentiate themselves through niche selections and clearly focus on a very different audience from the mass market. I particularly like how it supports local authors.

I believe we must support retailers that dare to do something different. Otherwise, what we will have left are stores that only stock mainstream products. It can be a slippery slope as more business decide to play safe, and plunge deeper into the red ocean.

What I say is entirely my own opinion, through my own experiences as a customer; I do not have perfect knowledge of what actually happened behind the scenes to Borders or other retailers. But this surely has to be a wake-up call, not just for the book retail industry but any other institution that has failed to adapt to change.

Reading list 2008

April 12, 2008 8:33 PM

This is the latest list. My tastes have veered towards non-fiction - namely business, strategy and marketing books.

Currently reading:

  1. Made to Stick by Chip Heath & Dan Heath
  2. Know-How by Ram Charan

To read:

  1. Authenticity by Gilmore Pine
  2. The Breakthrough Imperative
  3. An Army of Davids by Glenn Reynolds
  4. Competing in a Flat World by Fung, Fung and Wind (hmm their last names sound the same to me, I’m Chinese)

Already read

  1. The Global Business Leader by Frank Brown, INSEAD Dean. Very insightful and frank, just like his name.
  2. The Undercover Economist by Tim Hartford. Interesting examples. Met him at his talk in Singapore (blog entry).

Any more good books you’d like to recommend me? Post a comment.

His father's dreams

November 19, 2007 8:47 PM

I picked up Barack Obama’s book, Dreams From My Father, and started reading it this evening. The story of how a smart Kenyan man met a shy American girl in the University of Hawaii is in itself remarkable, considering it was not the most tolerant of times. I came to a section where Obama, as a child, returned from Indonesia (where his stepfather lived) and had trouble fitting in at his new American school. Here is an excerpt to share with you.

While waiting outside school on his first day, Barack met a Chinese boy called Frederick. Up to this point, he calls himself ‘Barry’…

We sat at a table with four other children, and Miss Hefty, an energetic middle-aged woman with short gray hair, took attendance. When she read my full name, I heard titters break across the room. Frederick leaned over to me.

“I thought your name was Barry.”

“Would you prefer if we called you Barry?” Miss Hefty asked. “Barack is such a beautiful name. Your grandfather tells me your father is Kenyan. I used to live in Kenya, you know. Teaching children just your age. It’s such a magnificent country. Do you know what tribe your father is from?”

Her question brought on more giggles, and I remained speechless for a moment. When I finally said “Luo”, a sandy-haired boy behind me repeated the word in a loud hoot, like the sound of a monkey. The children could no longer contain themselves, and it took a stern reprimand from Miss Hefty before the class would settle down and we could mercifully move on to the next person in the list.

I spent the rest of the day in a daze. A redheaded girl asked to touch my hair and seemed hurt whe I refused. A ruddy-faced boy asked me if my father ate people. When I got home, Gramps was in the middle of preparing dinner.

“So how was it? Isn’t it terrific that Miss Hefty used to live in Kenya? Makes the first day a little easier, I’ll bet.”

I went into my room and closed the door.

Masterful storytelling that makes me want to read on.

This chapter has a happy ending. Later on, his Kenyan father visits him and turns the situation around by showing up in class and telling all the students about the history of Kenya and how its people longed to break free from colonial rule. After that, the kids who used to tease Barack treat him with more respect.

Ivan tagged me, so here are the science fiction books I've read so far. Not very many. According to the meme I must bold the titles I've read, so here goes:

  1. The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien - er, can I half-bold this? I haven't finished reading it and probably won't in a long time
  2. The Foundation Trilogy, Isaac Asimov - I read Nemesis, if that helps. Another half-bold?
  3. Dune, Frank Herbert - My favourite Science Fiction novel by far! Started with the computer games first and loved it to bits.
  4. Stranger in a Strange Land, Robert A. Heinlein
  5. A Wizard of Earthsea, Ursula K. Le Guin
  6. Neuromancer, William Gibson (heard of it, never read it)
  7. Childhood’s End, Arthur C. Clarke
  8. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, Philip K. Dick
  9. The Mists of Avalon, Marion Zimmer Bradley
  10. Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury (Is that where "Farenheit 911" was derived?)
  11. The Book of the New Sun, Gene Wolfe
  12. A Canticle for Leibowitz, Walter M. Miller, Jr.
  13. The Caves of Steel, Isaac Asimov
  14. Children of the Atom, Wilmar Shiras
  15. Cities in Flight, James Blish
  16. The Colour of Magic, Terry Pratchett (Such a famous book ... yet I can't remember if I read it before, borrowed from a friend who's a major Pratchett fan)
  17. Dangerous Visions, edited by Harlan Ellison
  18. Deathbird Stories, Harlan Ellison
  19. The Demolished Man, Alfred Bester
  20. Dhalgren, Samuel R. Delany
  21. Dragonflight, Anne McCaffrey
  22. Ender’s Game, Orson Scott Card
  23. The First Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever, Stephen R. Donaldson (Seen this at bookshops so many times, flipped through the books yet never actually read one.)
  24. The Forever War, Joe Haldeman
  25. Gateway, Frederik Pohl
  26. Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, J.K. Rowling (Flipped through, never properly read)
  27. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams
  28. I Am Legend, Richard Matheson
  29. Interview with the Vampire, Anne Rice (Ah ha! I have read this one.)
  30. The Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula K. Le Guin
  31. Little, Big, John Crowley
  32. Lord of Light, Roger Zelazny
  33. The Man in the High Castle, Philip K. Dick
  34. Mission of Gravity, Hal Clement
  35. More Than Human, Theodore Sturgeon
  36. The Rediscovery of Man, Cordwainer Smith
  37. On the Beach, Nevil Shute
  38. Rendezvous with Rama, Arthur C. Clarke
  39. Ringworld, Larry Niven
  40. Rogue Moon, Algis Budrys
  41. The Silmarillion, J.R.R. Tolkien
  42. Slaughterhouse-5, Kurt Vonnegut
  43. Snow Crash, Neal Stephenson (I ordered this book and it's sitting on my desk. Looks very cheem. Anticipate difficulty completing it but will try my best. )
  44. Stand on Zanzibar, John Brunner
  45. The Stars My Destination, Alfred Bester
  46. Starship Troopers, Robert A. Heinlein
  47. Stormbringer, Michael Moorcock
  48. The Sword of Shannara, Terry Brooks (Another popular series but nope, haven't read it)
  49. Timescape, Gregory Benford
  50. To Your Scattered Bodies Go, Philip Jose Farmer

I tag these people: Kristen (she may team up with Husband-man), Andrea, Shin, A L. OK that's enough punishment. Go forth and meme!

Technorati Tags: science fiction, books, memes

Books I'm currently reading

August 23, 2006 10:50 PM

I was asked today what are my other hobbies apart from techy stuff and music. I was like, ermmmm .... hmmm .... reading? But I haven't completed reading anything for a while.

You see, I am reading the following books at any one point in time, skipping chapters to wherever I see fit:

The Paradox of Choice by Barry Schwartz
The Paradox of Choice Is choice really all that good? It actually depends on how many options people are given. Beyond a certain number, they may not actually feel like making a decision at all. I chose this particular hardcover edition because I liked the cover photo. See, I didn't have too many version to choose from :P
Likelihood of completion: High.
Globalization and Its Discontents by Joseph E. Stiglitz
Globalization and Its DiscontentsThis looks like a frank discussion of the problems faced in the World Bank and other institutions. The author has a Nobel Prize in Economics. I didn't know what I was in for when I bought this book. Too dry for me - I think I'll switch to Freakonomics.
Likelihood of completion: Low.
A Church At War - Anglicans and Homosexuality by Stephen Bates
A Church At WarA sore topic that has split the Anglican/Episcopal Church apart. Good discussions and interviews with both camps (ie the Church versus the "Happy" Campers). But ultimate I wonder: is one sin worse than another? None of us are perfect. Or is it the symbolism that one is continuing to live in sin yet serving as a priest, the main issue?
Likelihood of completion: Medium
The End of Poverty - How We Can Make It Happen In Our Lifetime by Jeffrey Sachs
The End of PovertyThe idealistic title caught my eye. Bono wrote the Foreword, rather poetically. But beyond that, it is a serious book. I'm not good for economics but the cost of having poor health is something I can understand.
Likelihood of completion: Medium. But not in time for IMF ;-)
Collapse - How Societies Choose to Fail or Survive by Jared Diamond
CollapseI started off excitedly but after reading about the dearth of the mining industry in Montana, I thought of Brokeback Mountain. I skipped to the chapter on "China, Lurching Giant" which was more relevant considering the region I live in.
Likelihood of completion: Low. I will only read the chapters that interest me.
The Da Vinci Notebooks
The Da Vinci NotebooksThis is a collection of Leonardo Da Vinci's thoughts. His thoughts are in no particular sequence or structure, but they give me an insight to the great man's mind. It also inspired me to jot down my own ideas and sketches in a Moleskine notebook.
Likelihood of completion: Medium.
Ambient Findability by Peter Morville
Ambient FindabilityThis is the book of the future. Covers the long tail theory and more. You can even see it as a marketing book, in an oblique way because things shouldn't just be built and left lying around, they must also be easily found.
Likelihood of completion: High.

In short ... I need more RAM in my head for reading!

Ambient Findability

July 24, 2006 12:54 AM

Ambient Findability Just picked this interesting book up. Considering how impressed I was with Adam Greenfield's SXSW presentation and book, Everyware, this was another extension of the theme.

Flipping through Ambient Findability, some extracts reminded me of the thought process I currently undergo at work when planning information architecture (at a more basic level): In a sea of information overload, how do we stay afloat?

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