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From reading her first borrowed book at 14 to being the co-founder of the world’s largest book sale, Jacqueline Ng’s life is nothing short of a fairytale.

 

“I grew up in Singapore,” said Jacqueline Ng, co-founder of the Big Bad Wolf sale. “My parents were Chinese immigrants, and their focus was always to put food on the table. Spending money on books or inculcating a reading culture in my siblings and me was never a priority for them. It is very common in Singapore to visit libraries and have accounts there. However, even in such an environment, I didn’t have access to books. You only go where your parents take you. My parents didn’t understand the importance of reading. So, I was one of the very few among all my classmates to not have a library card. The only thing I used to read were Chinese newspapers and my school textbooks.”

 

Jacqueline was speaking to Khaleej Times over Zoom from Malaysia, after returning from Dubai where the third edition of the Big Bad Wolf sale is running till April 25 at the Sound Studios.

Even though she was an academically bright student, Jacqueline lacked general knowledge. “I was 14 and in secondary school,” she said. “I did poorly on GK tests, but I didn’t know how to fix it. By this time, I was already past the age where a reading habit could be inculcated. In my opinion it is easier to introduce reading to a child than a teenager. One day at school, I asked my friend to come play with me. She was so engrossed in a book that she refused. And when she finally finished it, I could see the contentment on her face. I was curious as to what was giving her so much happiness. She gave me the book and asked me to read. That was the first book I read. It was written by the Sidney Sheldon and titled If Tomorrow Comes.”

 

Once she was bitten by the reading bug, Jacqueline just couldn’t stop. “My mother would be calling me to dinner, and I would beg her to give me a few more minutes to finish a page,” she chuckled. “I started reading more fiction books. It was an escape for me. It could transport you to a street in the UK. It could take you to a different era. It felt magical to me. Imagine if my friend had not given me that book! That book was a trigger to ignite my passion for reading.”

 

The next big change in Jacqueline’s life took place when she got married to Andrew Yap and moved to Malaysia. “We were a young couple trying to get a foothold,” she said. “I didn’t have the necessary permits to work in Malaysia. So, we decided that the best thing would be for me to start a business. We began a store selling magazines in a small and sleepy mall. We didn’t have the money to afford a shop in a busier location. Right across the street from the mall was a book rental shop from where I would rent books for 5 ringgits (Dh4.29). Since the books were cheap, I could explore different writers and genres. I was going through a book every 2-3 days.”

 

As if she had been pre-destined for it, the supplier of her magazine shop asked if she and Andrew would consider selling books. “He was offering us English books,” she said. “These were books of good authors like Jeffrey Archer and James Patterson but they were books that were either not sold or the printers had printed extra copies of. So, they were available at a bargain. We took up the shop next to our magazine store and set up the business. For us, this was a huge risk. In Malaysia, English is learnt as a second language. A lot of Malaysians are not fluent in the language and only 2 per cent of the population reads English books. We were one small stall, and we were on a mission to change an entire country. It was a very daunting task. It was one book at a time.”

 

That is when the couple’s marketing skills kicked in. “We tried to make the books as cheap as possible,” Jacqueline said. “We also tried to promote books to be given as a gift. So, we gave free gift wrapping with no minimum purchase. Even then we were struggling. That is when we thought, why not make shopping for books an event. People don’t go into a bookshop unless they are a reader. And even if they do go, they go in alone. On the other hand, if there is an event, they’d go as a family irrespective of whether they were a reader or not. It was a gamble. But one that we were willing to take. And that is how the Big Bad Wolf sale was first held in Malaysia in 2009.”

Jacqueline and Andrew soon found out that parents in Malaysia, whether they could read or not, were willing to give their kids a better life. “Parents want their children to have things better and this is something we saw first-hand at our sale,” said Jacqueline. “They wanted their child to learn English and be fluent at it. They were willing to invest in English books to improve their language and we wanted to give them the opportunity to give them books as cheap as possible. At that time, we were such a tiny team. We had no resources. All we had was a mission to make sure people read and a willingness to learn from our experiences.”

 

The first few years of the Big Bad Wolf sale was a sharp learning curve for Jacqueline and the team. “We learnt pretty early on that children’s material were what sold the most,” she said. “We worked to source the best kids’ books and material that we could. And it felt rewarding to see so many parents coming in and buying for their children. However, we still wondered whether the plan was working. Were these children actually reading what they were buying? We are not a big corporation. We don’t have the money or means to do huge surveys and market studies. We just did what we thought was right and ran with it. So, the doubt lingered.”

 

The answer came a few years later. “I distinctively remember the sale in 2015,” said Jacqueline. “Usually, our children’s books fly off the shelves and the Young Adult section remains pretty much untouched. But in 2015, I started noticing that the YA section was being replenished ever so often. We started wondering what was happening. However, it wasn’t until a few days after the sale when we began reflecting that we understood. The children who had begun reading when we first began the sale in 2009 had now graduated on to Young Adult literature. Our plan was working. For me this was probably one of the most rewarding moments of my career.”

 

The success in Malaysia then prompted team BBW to spread their wings to other parts of the world including Thailand, Taiwan, Bangkok, and Philippines. “Every market was different,” said Jacqueline. “In Thailand, the habit of reading was very minimal for even Thai language. In Taiwan, they had good spending power, but people didn’t see the point of spending on English books as they read only Chinese. In Philippines, they were hungry for knowledge, but a lot of people couldn’t afford the books. Even in Malaysia, people told us we couldn’t sell books for this cheap or the venue couldn’t support our requirements. We hit roadblocks every step of the way and we turned those challenges into victories.”

 

However, their story in Dubai is different. “When we first came to Dubai, we were surprised with the kind of support we got because we were not used to it,” chuckled Jacqueline. “Here, everything we asked for, we got a yes. The government was completely on board with our mission. It was like a breath of fresh air.”

 

“Dubai is an affluent market,” she said. “But it has a huge working class. A lot of people are just trying to make ends meet. So, we didn’t want to bring only expensive books here. We wanted a good mix so that it was affordable for everyone.”

 

Even as the Big Bad Wolf book sale is preparing to expand to new markets, Jacqueline admits that things aren’t always sailing. “It is not easy to do what we do,” she said. “So much risk is involved. If something happens and customers cannot come, we face huge losses. That is exactly what happened during the pandemic. There was so much uncertainty. During that period, it took us a lot of commitment to be dedicated to our mission. We are different from huge corporates. We don’t have big profit margins; we don’t have a large taskforce. We do everything by ourselves, learn from our mistakes and rectify it. Whatever we do, our mission remains the same- change the world, one book at a time!” 

Co-founder of Big Bad Wolf went from not being able to afford books to running world’s biggest book sale

20 APR 2022

DUBAI