Interview With A Bookseller
The BW INSIDER SERIES: Part 2
"I think the main thing for me to accept a manuscript is to question what sort of ripple effect is this publication going to have once it is published.”
In Part 2 of our series, we meet Kenny Leck, a successful bookseller and publisher all rolled into one. In a candid interview with BW, Kenny gives readers an honest insight into the secret, madcap, world of the book buying business.
How did you become a bookshop owner?
In a nutshell, I grew up with too much books, a lot of them borrowed from the neighbourhood library, and most of my working experience has been in bookstores, namely Tower Books, and Borders.
In a sense, it was a very clear cut "career" choice as I wanted to run my own business, and the idea of selling books (whether they made money or not) seemed like a bright idea at that time.
Our name, BooksActually was borne out of frustration. We started our bookselling days at the National University of Singapore (before we had a brick & mortar store). We'd rent two tables from the Faculty of Arts and Social Science and we'd display a copious amount of books. And for reasons unknown, we would have students coming up to us, asking what we were selling. I think at one point when we were actually frustrated enough, I simply answered, "Actually, we sell books."
So that is how we eventually settled on the name BooksActually.
We understand that you dropped out of school and overcame many challenges in order to fulfill your dreams. What was the greatest challenge you faced as a budding bookshop owner?
To know and understand that nobody owes me a living. Everything is attainable as long as you work for it, well almost :D And nothing is fair in this world.
B is for...book. What is your favourite childhood book?
My favourite would be the Mary Poppins series of books by P. L. Travers.
A is for… animal. If you could transform into one animal for one week, what would you be?
I'd definitely want to be a crow.
N is for… necessary. If you were banished to a desert island and could only bring two items, what would they be?
My spectacles and pocket knife.
A is for… authentic. How would you describe yourself in three words?
Grumps, foul-mouthed, and idealistic.
N is for… novelist. Which writer do you most admire?
No surprise, it'd be George Orwell.
A is for… appetite. What is your favourite banana themed food?
Banana Ball, a local Malay snack, good for tea time - in fact, any time when one is peckish.
In Singapore, there are many well-known poets but fewer novelists. Why do you think this is?
I think it was generally a generation of poets who were practising the medium and it resulted in a "influence" on the later generation. For all we know, it could have been a generation of comic artists, and we would be very strong in the area of this genre. And it certainly wasn't a school or education thing. We'd like to shift the blame to the education policy but that would just be simplifying the problem, if it was a problem in the first instance.
And I don't think there is anything to improve. It should be as organic as much as possible. Any form of intervention, even from an academic institution or even a private entity like the bookstore should be discouraged. After all, I had brought this up before as a question, and it is not rhetorical.
Would it be intensely painful if Singaporeans were recognised as a "Poetry Nation"? And so painful that prose or any other form must be heavily promoted to counter this strong Poetry base?
As well as a bookshop owner, you head up a publishing company called Math Paper Press. How did you start up this company?
After running the bookstore for about a year or so, we became acquainted and made friends with local writers. And after the passing of time, we saw that we have access to all these local writers and content. So it was like a 1 + 1 equation and we went into publishing.
My struggles? The madness of running both the bookstore and the publishing arm. It is INSANE hahaha!
Our first publication was Cyril Wong's The Boy That Grew Out of His Ass. We simply asked if we could publish something from him and he simply emailed it to us :D It was that simple :D
How do you decide which books to publish?
Historically, I am a very lousy "gatekeeper" when it comes to publishing. I think the main thing for me to accept a manuscript is to question what sort of ripple effect is this publication going to have once it is published. If I can find a compelling factor of why the book should exist (of course, the writing has to be competent) then we will start the process with the author.
If you look at the bestseller list in many SE Asian countries the majority of the books are from overseas. Is there a wrong perception that local authors are not as “talented?”
Ermm, I think it is generally a booksellers or bookstore's fault. The perception, the presentation of the books in a retail environment is controlled by a bookstore. If a bookstore fails to carry the local content or Asian content per se, then of course nobody will know that it exists.
Singapore has often been criticized by western media for having overly tight censorship laws. Is the reality worse than people think or is it just the western press making a big deal over nothing?
I think I will let the actions answer this question.
We have published Elangovan's The Good, The Bad, The Ugly. Too much exaggeration in the press sometimes, possibly a slow news day :D
There are a number of books about the hilarious experiences that bookshop owners have with strange customers. Share with us your best story.
Well, we still get customers coming in at least twice a year asking what are we selling, and that is after doing a cursory walk round the bookstore. We do classify this range of customers as strange and it continues to justify the name of the bookstore.
What is the next “sonnet” in Kenny’s life?
The "sonnet" that we are most pre-occupied with is certainly trying to buy a property to house the bookstore permanently. We’ve had enough of this renting nonsense and the only way to get out of it is owning a property.
We are working on this now - 2015 and we project to be able to purchase a property possibly in mid 2016.
And finally, what tips would you give to someone who wants to start a publishing press?
I am not going to do a gamut of realistic advice. But rather I part with a question.BW
"How many lives does an individual have?"