Big Bad Wolf

by Jose Ma. Montelibano

I first thought it was a strange name to use for a company, much less an advocacy. I heard about a group, and a program, named Big Bad Wolf, last year. The owner is Malaysian married to a Singaporean, and their chosen advocacy cum business is all about books. Yes, they sell books, and that is all that is usual or normal. They sell books to underdeveloped or undeveloped countries, deliberately, knowing fully that there is only a small percentage of book readership (if at all) in those places. And they sell the books at the lowest prices they can manage, usually 60-80% less than their regular commercial value.

Wow, strange, really strange, I first told myself. That’s a crazy business, selling to countries with very small book readership and with very small mark-ups. Most of the books are in English, too, and challenging to places where English is hardly spoken by the general population. I am not talking about Kuala Lumpur or Singapore where the couple is from, but countries like Indonesia and Cambodia. Yet, knowing there are no economies of scale, Big Bad Wolf still drops prices at levels unheard of in the book business.

Then, I learned about the advocacy. Big Bad Wolf wants to encourage more people to read books, especially children. That is where the name came from, Big Bad Wolf being a famous character in the Little Red Riding Hood tale. The owners are radical optimists and have been putting big money where their dreams are – and now see that what seemed radical to many is proving to be good business beyond being a noble advocacy.

As a Filipino that has been exposed to many cultures and commerce around the world, I had come to realize decades ago that the creativity of the Filipino is not only world class but desired by many in the fields of service, entertainment, beauty pageants, call centers, seafarers and overseas workers. But the concept and advocacy of Big Bad Wolf are simply amazing, and its prime movers quite courageous, too. Mounting a week’s activity requires big money and a lot of faith in the wisdom of the advocacy. Now that the Big Bad Wolf book sale is actually in the Philippines, in the World Trade Center, and reality is truly stranger than fiction. But one needs to go there to appreciate just how awesome the book sale event is.

In the first place, the World Trade Center is hardly big enough when one has an inventory of two million books to display and sell. Big Bad Wolf’s events in other countries used bigger venues, about one hectare of floor space. Imagine one hectare of floor space and two million books to sell in a country that has only a few hundred thousand people buying books that are for reading pleasure more than school purposes. Then, holding a book sale are drastically reduced prices for ten days twenty-four hours a day! Not even all Jollibee outlets are open 24/7! But Big Bad Wolf says that is precisely what has to happen first if one is serious about building a book reading advocacy.

If the scale is not crazy enough, imagine the advocacy of reading going against the tidal wave of technology. The print publication is being wiped out by IT devices and the Internet. Even television is threatened by mobile phones. And here is the Big Bad Wolf going against the grain, so to speak, by moving around two million books in the flesh and needing a hectare of display space so tens of thousands of people can browse and buy books twenty-four hours a day for ten straight days. It is a logistical nightmare just as it is a totally risky business proposition. Or is it?

There was a preview day last Thursday for special guests before the ten-day event opened to the public the day after, Friday, February 16, or the 2018 Chinese New Year. This Sunday, February 25, the Big Bad Wolf book sale will end at 11:59 pm. The event was strange enough to motivate me to actually go for a few hours every day. I wanted to understand the sense of the business. All the more, I wanted to understand the sense of the advocacy. That the chosen beneficiary of a generous portion of the profits is Gawad Kalinga, my favorite movement of all time, motivated me all the more.

Well, one week later and more than a hundred and fifty thousand visitors to the book sale, I smelled success, not a failure. It is, indeed, a world that has a special space for people with seemingly strange ideas. Life is not about being crazy, especially if one’s money is put in one’s ideas, but history can show us that the world thought many things were crazy until they were, in fact, proven sound. Man can fly. The moon is reachable. Submarines are not just from novels of centuries ago. And the Internet was unimaginable just a few decades ago. Dreams can come true, and Big Bad Wolf is dreaming big.

I was very fortunate to have had a short chat with the Malaysian founder of Big Bad Wolf, Andrew Yap. I left that conversation with a lot to chew on. While I was thinking of how a newcomer can barge into established markets, or build where there is none at great expense, Andrew was telling me about his dream. He said that only a few percent of the human population was reading books, that more than 95% were not. He told me that 95% or more can learn to love reading because reading books is always an experience. One can touch and smell a book in ways he cannot a modern device. And children must have the opportunity that some of their elders have had so they, too, can dream of the wisdom and creativity of others.

Andrew just flipped the pyramid. He thought of the general population more than the elite. I wish him good hunting.

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