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Thursday 3 November 2011

The Penang Bookshelf Internet Anniversary Newsletter

The Penang Bookshelf
Internet Anniversary Newsletter
From The Penang Bookshelf

Dear Friend,

Excuses, Excuses 

Of course, the hastitly concocted title is a cover-up for the fact that I protected you from receiving a newsletter last month. It was busy both thanks to increasing sales - the best month yet - and my own fumblings to provide you with a better service, a wider variety of books and a whole lot more of which I'll write later.

I do have a couple of other excuses for not writing in October. Like many other members of my family, I've always lived by the adage, "When something can't be done at the last minute, it isn't worth doing at all," which is all very fine until something else squeezes into that last minute. So when APD Singapore called me on the morning of 31st October to say they wanted to see me, they provided me with the perfect excuse to procrastinate - just a little bit longer. l hosted them at the shop and think they were a bit mesmerised by the sight of this large old European of sorts ensconsed amongst piles of new and old books. They were slotting me in between more normal customers such as the big chain bookstores, Borders, Popular and MPH. (No, you're not getting any links to their sites!)

I could possibly have finished the newsletter immeditaley after that but then a publisher,
Editions Didier Millet - Hmm, I wonder how those words slip off an Asian tongue - butted in touting this book, Traditional Chinese Toggles (even I would stutter on that title.) As I have
a handful of customers on the look out for all that's fine and delectable in the Chinese art world, I bundled out another special newsletter. If you're upset that you weren't included and could be interested in the book, do have a look at The Penang Bookshelf Blog (link above) where I've deposited a copy of the newsletter. There's an excruciatingly amazing offer too!  

Reading Doesn't Have to be Cosy  
Those customers to whom I sent the special bulletin have specilialised interests, which are essential for any book selling business, but I do hope they find time to read more widely. I was a bit depressed this month when one customer said to me, "Oh a Vampire (for which insert any age, class, economic group, gender, race or religion that takes your fancy) would never read that."  Another customer asking for recommendations on a particular subject was surprised when I offered him fiction as well. Last month I highlighted the work of the novelist Chuah Guat Eng. What I like about her work is at least its trying to shake off labels.     
I suppose my parents were keen to give me an early introduction to living adventurously as this pic of me aged one and a bit in Dublin demonstrates. I hope that willingness to step into areas where others might be a little more cautious to tread serves you well too. I started this business to provide you with a broad range of reading matter - maybe not all of it literature - about Malaysia.  I hope you can maybe first take a sip and then a huge gulp of the variety on offer. October was another good month for putting up new stuff onto the web. So why not take a look and maybe even surprise
yourself by trying something that you may have done your best to avoid previously?  

My favourite customer of the week, after spending a good few minutes in the shop looking at various worthy historical and sociological works, ended up buying just one book, Barbara Cartland's Paradise in Penang. "She never came to Penang, did she?" he asked.  No, of course she didn't, but she or her minions read widely enough to convince many readers that she did.   

I've often heard people recommending books that changed their lives, but never films or TV shows. So if you feel like a change, why not wander somewhere new? All liabilty for mishaps, and even exciting developments, are disclaimed by The Penang Bookshelf.  

How About a Bit of Manipulation? 

In my last newsletter I mentioned that November always seems to be special for me - my birthday, my first anniversary as an internet bookseller  and, this year, the thirtieth anniversary of an event that changed my life. Oh! I just remembered - a book I never would have dreamed of reading before played a significant part in that life changing event. 

I had thought of celebrating this month by offering discounts left right and centre, but have dreamed up a darker alternative - loyalty points and prizes! As from the first of November, if you're already a subscriber to this newsletter, every purchase whether online or otherwise will earn you 10% of the book price. Of course, there's a catch - you can only apply these points - each one of them worth a whole ringgit, really! - against future book purchases. Needless to say, as a recovering lawyer, I've also hedged  this 'incredible' offer with all sorts of conditions.The main ones are that the points won't apply to books I have already discounted or to books specially ordered  for you, where I charge a small finder's fee. The points will only last for six months from when they've been earned. If you don't use them by then I'll snatch them back from you and distribute them as prizes to all and sundry. 

Yes, what about the prizes? Well, every month I will dole out additional points to subscribers for all sorts of wild and inane reasons. This month there are at least One hundred points (RM100) to be earned by the subscriber(s) whom I judge has purchased adventurously, i.e. strayed from his or her regular reading matter in their purchases from The Penang Bookshelf. Offhand I can think of three of you who always purchase adventurously, but don't worry, I won't exclude you!  

Let's see how it goes anyway.

Coming In From the Cold 

Although the biggest benefit of this business is very definitely the varied range of people I meet and the friendships that develop, I often do feel that I'm ploughing a lonely furrow. It's kind of my customers to say The Penang Bookshelf is unique, but that does have its downside too. Although my family is my biggest support, I do have to remember with them that there can be topics of conversation other than books.  

My first anniversary on the internet qualifies me to apply for membership of an international booksellers' association, so that's just what I have done. If I'm successful, the benefit for you will be that I'll have an external body monitoring the standards of service I provide you. As for me, it'll mean I'll have additional support from a group of fellows in the trade.

Old Books, New Books  

I noticed that most of the members of the association which I hope to join appear to sell only old books, yet in this newsletter most of the books I write about are those in print. In reality most of the books I stock are out of print. I suppose there is a sort of logic in it. I more often have more than one copy of an in print book, but am lucky if I can say the same for an out of print one.   

Nevertheless this is something I'll make an effort to redress in future newsletters. For now, I'll point out that about two thirds of the books I added in October are second-hand. I also was reasonably successful in a postal auction last month, so have a look at Books Ordered in October on my blog where you'll see them. There's even one fairly rare book in French about Melaka for the three or four native French speakers who read this newsletter.

More Paroxisms About Pricing

Back to this perennial topic. Much of last month was taken up with cataloguing the large collection of rare Malay language  books in
the Jawi and Rumi scripts which fell into my lap in the last month or so. (To customers who've reserved books in the pictures - I have received six out of seven boxes of books, so your book(s) may be delayed until the seventh box appears.) I have had tremendous asistance from three customers including this one pictured with me during a five hour stint in a KL coffee shop when we zapped through 300 or so Jawi books!

However one area where I have been given minimal assistance - you are such a coy lot! -  was on how to price them. I mean how do you price a book when you have no comparisions from your own past trading history or anyone else's? In 99.9% of the cases The Penang Bookshelf will be the only seller on the internet offering a copy of the book. I'm trying to find a price that is fair to both me and my customer

In the absence of advice to the contrary, I've decided to be brutal and adopt my usual policy when I come upon books which have no comparisons. In most cases I will charge a minimum of  RM150 (£30) (US$50) and take the consequences. However, I'm still open to sane reasoned advice, if there's anyone out there willing to offer it.

The Penang Bookshelf Goes Viral, Sorry, Global.
A growing side of the Penang Bookshelf's business comes from special orders, i.e. where customers don't see the book in stock, but want me to find it. In my yet to be published interview with the Star newspaper, I was asked why customers ask me to get the book when they can, theoretically, get it for themselves. I guess it's mainly because I take the bother out of it all. Also, as a bookseller, I can often get trade discounts, which I pass on to you, or can reduce postal costs because I buy additional books from the seller for my stock.

It's also because I have agents, possibly even willing ones, outside Malaysia. My family in the UK, don't have a choice, poor things, but this month I even managed to dragoon an ex-colleague and friend - thanks again, Rita! - in the US to help. A UK customer was missing one volume from a three or four volume set. I found the only copy of that one volume on the internet, but the seller wasn't willing to post outside the US. So, thanks to Rita, I hope the book has now arrived in the UK.

I Am Who I Am 

One of my continuing fascinations has always been language and how we use it. I suppose that's one of the reasons why the Language & Linguistics section of the Bookshelf keeps growing. (I do have my own prejudices too, you see.) 

So I'm also conscious of the fact that, although most of the readers of this newsletter are not native English speakers, I write in a style with which native English speakers would probably find more comfortable. Of course, I have agonised over this. However feedback I've recieved from all sorts of native language speakers has revealed that even if you don't like my books, my newsletter works. It'd probably because you get a reasonably uncensored picture of the person behind the business, which has only blossomed in the way it has because of plain old personal contact. However, if you do have problems with anything I write, please do let me know.

The Penang Bookshelf with Knobs On   

Thanks very much to all who responded to my plea for help in finding someone who could, I hope, produce a more effective main website and also a more meaningful logo design. As a result, I have found two lots of people I'm happy with. I'm told that the website will be more exciting, even 'interactive,' if the mood takes you. My design guy tells me that my identity 'needs adressing,' but I suppose most of you knew that anyway. 

I guess there may be some teething problems  as the web design team unscrews some old knobs and replaces them with new and extra ones. If you experience any difficulties as a result, you're always welcome to email me or phone me on 012-972-6485. At least these two means of communication won't be affected - for now.  

Longer, Shorter, More, Less Newsletters?

Today, November 3rd, is actually the day The Penang Bookshelf started poluting the internet, so I'd better wind up before another day passes and get back to what this business is really about - finding and buying books and then offloading them onto you.   

I enjoy writing these newsletters, but I am sure they do ramble on. I wondered whether it would help if they were shorter and more frequent or less frequent. No, I don't dare propose that they are longer although there's masses of earth shaking developments that I have missed out.  

For example, I haven't yet told you about my first real link up with one of Malaysia's major publishers and distributors Gerakbudaya/SIRD  or, less importantly the beginnings of my venture into non-Asian titles, Amok Amongst Books. This was actually the name I was most attached to when I started this business, but most people I tested the name out on in Malaysia, looked at me as if I'd just stepped off a Martian spaceship. So I'm now, in a very minor way, giving it a test run. One last thing - I've added a Shop on Facebook. Phew! Done. 

I think this means, if the heavens are unkind, you may get another newsletter this month.

Enjoy yourself till then, unless you've made other plans   

William Knox
The Penang Bookshelf

It's Raining  
(Picture Books)

There are two things you can be sure about in Penang at the moment. Firstly, it's sure as hell going to rain today and, secondly, there must be a new Penang picture book in the offing.  

In September  I worked myself up into a mini lather about one picture/guide book, Penang: An Inside Guide. Even though I only sold a couple   
of copies last month, it will probably take some time  ML719
before the speediness of its sales is matched by any other book. However the pictures presses have been far from silent since I last wrote.

Actually, I have a bit of a personal attachment to this next one as I and my Penang family helped choose the cover. The distributor had a nice little selling ploy - I hope I'm not maligning him - when, prior to publication, he sent me a couple of choices of cover. Having fallen for that one, of course, I couldn't say no to ordering a box of the books to fling in your direction. 

What am I jabbering on about? Well, it's Images of Penang by Alvin Loh. Yes, the cover is a bit
corny. (When will photographers discover something more photogenic than dilapidated rickshaws in this city? Nevertheless you have noticed that on the first cover the umbrella is open while on the second it is not. Originality still lives!) It's certainly got its work cut out to make an impact in this already cluttered market. Unbelievably, I do think it has a chance because, like many of these books, it covers bits that others miss out. If you're looking for a book to give to someone who doesn't know Penang, who does know the place, but misses it or just wants to remember Penang in its entireity, this is the book to get. It isn't as specialised as many of the others and is also up to date. It's also cleverly priced at RM60 a copy.    

But That's Not All - They Still Keep Coming

Almost as soon as I'd recovered from coming to terms with these two, yet another one turned up in 
the shop. I haven't had the energy to put it up on the website yet, but I liked the feel of the paper - not glossy. There's only one problem. They haven't quite caught onto the trend pioneered by Streets of George Town, i.e. keep both the price and bulk manageable.This one's RM 85 and is for the coffee rather than the bedside table. In my limited experience there's only one book of that size and price that's a regular seller, Penang Sketchbook, but I suppose it doesn't have any equal.

Me, Any  Publisher's Poodle

I do cringe sometimes when I imagine you thinking  that all a publisher has to do is soft soap me a bit and the next moment I'm all over their latest book to scrape in a few extra dollars for both them and me - at your expense, of course. Well, it's not quite like that. Nothing's perfect. For example I think Hocton & Tan know by now that for their next edition of Penang: An Inside Guide, they had better find a better proof reader. I was also a bit put out that Images of Penang appeared to be carrying some unsubtle bits of advertising for one or two Penang establishments without actually owning up to the fact. It's far from being excessive, but slightly annoying - to me, anyway. 

Niggles like these don't seem to affect sales all 
that much either. Take  a look at this book, Malayan Spymaster, a tale of adventure and skulduggery where exasperated Brits first 
have to tackle hordes of Japs and then the infuriating Commies. It's been a good seller, but at the weekend a customer told me it was 'rubbish' and had been lent to him by a friend who had the same opinion, but they both read it!

This Month's  Top Selling Categories
(In order of sales) 

A few copies of this book, Singapore - 150 Years have been dozing on my shelves for a year or more, but this month two of the remaining ones moved on leaving one left behind. The book's now quite rare. I think the Penang Bookshelf is selling the only copy of this revised edition on the internet at present. Other  booksellers are offering a later reprint.

 Andrew Barber's  Penang Under The East India Company made a surprise re-appearance in the sales lists this month together with other books about this formative period in Penang's History       

Yixing TeapotsYes, you guessed it. Copies of the late Lim Kean Siew's book  
are still selling. Stocks are disappearing, but we're still keeping the price the same - lower than anyone else, of course - for the time being.

I also got a filip when both copies of Becoming Yellow: A Short History of Racial Thinking disappeared this month. I stocked this on pure speculation as I thought the subject so fascinating. Who would have thought that neither Chinese nor Europeans considered Chinese to be 'yellow' until European anthropologists of the 19th century, avid to fit every one into pigeon holes, decided that's the box into which they'd put the Chinese. I am replenishing my stocks this month

Malay Letter 
At last another of my scrummy books moved, one copy of The Legacy of The Malay Letter/Warisan Warkah Melayu sold and my other copy looks as if it's about to disappear too. However, I have managed to locate a stock of them, so, although the book's out of print, there will be more in stock soon.      

This is not a section in which there's a wide selection of books but I was pleased that one of the books from this section sold last month was a fairly rare book, the first edition of Paul Wheatley's The Golden Khersonese. for a second time. I have managed to find another copy which should be in stock before the end of the year.      

I think a bit of overzealousness here has managed to produce two categories, with slightly different titles, on my website for the same type of books. I hope I get around to fixing this soon.


About which no more need be said. 
This section
has been surprisingly sleepy this month, although, of course, some books that were sold in the Literature section could appear here as well. When in Kuala Lumpur last month, I managed to fufill a long neglected ambition - to start stocking some of the publisher Buku Fixi's titles. Here is the first one I've put up on the websites so far, Gina Yap Lai Yoong's Ngeri. It's in Malay as, I believe, are all of Buku Fixi's titles. 
China - Fiction       

Malaysia - Nature & Wildlife
Heritage Trees
For me Heritage Trees of Penang has been a slow seller, which surprises me, but it  made a re-appearance in sales for this section last month. I had a chat with the authors once upon a time and the results are still on The Penang Bookshelf Blog.

Malaysia - Gender

Malaysia - Religion

whistled off my shelves this month which didn't surprise me as I haven't come across all that much written about the subject in English. I was pleased to be able to pick up a couple of more copies of this rarish book during the month, so it's still in stock         

This is a section which is quite heavy in my full catalogue, but not really adequately represented on my websites, I have just noticed. Another area for improvement!

This charming collection of anecdotes, recipies and other memorabilia is a regular steady seller. I suppose it's because it's a scrummy book  in many senses of the word. It also comes at a scrummy price, RM35! 

This category is always dominated bPenang Sketchbook but has been a bit quiet of late as I've been struggling to re-stock. Anyway they arrived at the end of last week and were selling again by the weekend.

An Apology  

Yes, I know in places - too many to mention - the formatting of my newsletters is all over the place. I do apologise.  Please bear with me as I'm not a particularly techie guy. I find that  trying to fit all the bits together takes at least twice as long as the writing. I suppose I could write less and spend more time on beautification. What say you? 

About The Penang Bookshelf
The Penang Bookshelf specialises in providing book lovers with a broad range of new and second-hand books, both fiction and non-fiction, primarily about Malaysia, but also about other parts of Asia as well.


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