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The IOBA Standard is the journal of the Independent Online Booksellers Association and covers the book world, with a special focus on the online used, out-of-print, and collectible bookselling markets.


William Knox, The Penang Bookshelf, Penang, Malaysia

William Knox, The Penang Bookshelf, Penang, Malaysia

The Penang Bookshelf specialises in buying and selling fiction and non-fiction, both new and old, principally about Malaysia, but also about the rest of Asia.

“Hello bro, do the book ‘kongsi’ n ‘darurat’ still available?” So ran the text I received on my phone one day last week. Four years ago, I wouldn’t have known what the sender was trying to say. Now, however, I understood right away that my potential new customer was enquiring about two of The Penang Bookshelf’s more popular titles (not stocked by any other Malaysian bookseller), written in Malay, a language I don’t understand. The whole deal was concluded by an exchange of texts, and the books were soon on their way to the customer.

The next day, I was conducting negotiations with a bookseller in the U.K. to buy what is probably the most expensive book written in English about Malaysia. The day after that, I was in the middle of negotiations between another new potential customer in Shanghai and my client in another part of Malaysia for the sale of a rare book on Chinese ceramics.

Those three transactions give a fairly accurate picture of what life at The Penang Bookshelf is like – serving both the general public and the more rarefied collector. Although I started the business as a retirement pastime, selling in a once a month local street market, I soon realised that the response to what The Penang Bookshelf had to offer was sufficiently strong that I decided to either make a serious go of it, or give it up.

When I made that decision, I didn’t have any bookselling or business experience, but books had always been an important part of my life. The first present I can ever remember receiving from my parents was a reward for being able to read a few sentences, heaps of members of my father’s family were published authors, my father himself was a journalist, my grandfather was a renowned magazine editor, and my aunt was a Booker Prize winner. So a passion for books, and a lifetime as a consumer of books (and dealing with booksellers of all sorts), had given me some ideas about the type of bookselling business I’d like to set up.

In my last two careers, as a lawyer and then as a community peace worker, my most enjoyable, and usually more successful, moments were when I allowed my anarchic tendencies to show themselves. I took a similar approach when setting up The Penang Bookshelf. I looked at what I didn’t like about bookselling in Malaysia and bookselling online and tried to do something different.

Within Malaysia, most in-print books are sold through national chains, which concentrate on what sells quickly, i.e. popular fiction and self-help books that transform your life before you’re halfway through the book. Any substantial selection of books about Malaysia in these stores is rare, and if a book is difficult to get hold of there is seldom anyone to help you find it. In contrast, at The Penang Bookshelf I try to stock as wide a range of stock about Malaysia as I can afford; a significant portion of my inventory is unavailable in the chain bookstores. If a book appears to be out of print, there’s a more than reasonable chance I can find it with the help of my network of supportive customers, publishers and distributors.

To date I have sourced most of the used books sold by The Penang Bookshelf from online booksellers in the U.K. and the U.S. Sadly, it wasn’t too long before I realised that I was often dissatisfied with online bookselling practices. Few book listings included pictures, very often there was only a meagre description of the book’s condition, and a description of a book’s contents was a rarity. There was an assumption that the buyer knew what s/he was looking for. But when I visit a bookstore I seldom go in knowing what I’m going to buy — so my reasoning was: shouldn’t an Internet bookseller be trying to cater to similar customers?

So at The Penang Bookshelf, I have tried to do this. All book listings have pictures, descriptions of condition, and some description of contents. Of course, this limits the amount of stock that The Penang Bookshelf can have online, but that hasn’t proved an obstacle to the success of the business. A year ago sales averaged one a day, but in the last eight or nine months that has increased to five a day. Although it’s probably a temporary spike, this February the average has been more like ten a day.

I’m not sure that decent descriptions, etc. have been the main reason for The Penang Bookshelf’s success. It may well be because my business splashes about in a small pool and is a bit of a rarity. However, I would like to think that The Penang Bookshelf gets noticed because it’s an antidote to more common curmudgeonly bookseller. (I have a theory that there are so many grumpy booksellers because they have to wrestle with a split personality: they love books, but also have to continually let go of books they love.) Facebook, Google+, a blog and a newsletter have all been a great help, but direct communication with every customer has been even more helpful. I’ve noticed that most times when I buy from a website, whether it be the bookseller’s own or via a third party site, I never receive any direct communication from the bookseller. And yet I have found that establishing such communication with my customers, more often than not, results in increased sales.

A Chinese New Year parade passing by the original street market location of The Penang Bookshelf.

The only real drawback to being an online bookseller is loneliness, particularly in The Penang Bookshelf’s unusual environment. Joining IOBA was a must and has made me much more comfortable with the business. Although most members are in the U.S. and U.K., and have issues to deal with that are alien to me, there is enough common ground to cure my isolation and, more importantly, to improve my education.

Despite being principally an online seller, I would immediately give up the business if I didn’t have a chance to meet my customers in person. I am fortunate enough to have an average of a visitor a week to the apartment from where I work, and I still religiously return once a month to the street market where The Penang Bookshelf began. The profits from sales there are negligible, but the camaraderie with customers and friends gives me a boost to launch into the next month of my online existence.




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