How BooksActually Actually Makes Books
Posted on May 13, 2013
It seems that if you’re a bibliophile and you live in Singapore, then you can’t help having a crush on BooksActually.
BooksActually is probably the most innovative indie bookstore in this small country. In the past few months, they’ve pulled off some charming feats of marketing. They organised a string of pop-up stores, including ones at Hotel 1929 and Blackmarket (Orchard Central). In April they held their “24-Hour Bookstore Event”, featuring discounts for books, free drinks sponsored by Red Bull and an overnight programme filled with literary bohemianisms. And before that, they hosted the Monocle Season Shop, a retail event that was part of the magazine’s The Monocle Asia-Pacific Tour.
BooksActually also promotes its own gutsy catalogue at these events, a selection of quirky books produced through its publishing imprint, Math Paper Press. Current titles include Red Dot Irreal, a collection of “equatorial fantastika” stories by Jason Erik Lundberg; Sonnets from the Singlish by Joshua Ip, basically an exercise in writing 44 sonnets in Singapore’s street English dialect; and Ayam Curtain, edited by June Yang and Joyce Chng, a compilation of bizarre microfiction inspired by local culture.
Math Paper Press doesn’t have a building filled with editors and designers and editorial assistants, tasked with putting these books together. Instead, the publishing enterprise is a lean one, run by BooksActually founder Kenny Leck with assistance from a pair of energetic young designers, Sarah Tang and Alison Schooling.
Sarah and Alison were graphic design classmates at LASALLE College of the Arts. They tried out various jobs before coming together as Sarah and Schooling, a graphic design firm that they co-founded with Kenny himself. We talked about how the trio came to produce some of Singapore’s most surprising literary works.
START WITH AN ASS
How long have you been doing this?
KENNY LECK: I run both a bookstore, BooksActually, and a publishing arm, Math Paper Press. For the former, we have been at it for seven and a half years while the latter is turning two years old. Math Paper Press actually had a premature birth way back in 2007 when we published a chapbook by Singapore poet Cyril Wong, called The Boy With The Flower That Grew Out Of His Ass. We went into hibernation after that as we realised we hadn’t enough experience to make it as a publisher. So for a while we concentrated our efforts on building the bookstore instead.
SARAH TANG: Kenny and I have been friends for some time now. While studying for my diploma I also worked part time at a restaurant opposite his bookstore, when they were still in Ann Siang Hill. While I waited for my shift at the restaurant, I’d be chatting with Kenny at the store or helping them stamp paper bags.
Initially Alison and I thought we did not have the financial resources to run our own design firm, so we thought of doing it on the side while we worked a full time job. But with Kenny’s support, Alison and I managed to drop everything else and do this. Sarah and Schooling is run independently, but we work in the Math Paper Press showroom. Kenny’s role is to market our firm. So he’s both our co-founder and main client.
Self-taught or professionally trained?
KENNY: Self-taught! No training whatsoever other than the love of books.
SARAH: Alison and I have degrees in Graphic Design. Kenny might have no background in design, but before we got involved he was the sole person in charge of the art direction of the books, using freelance designers to execute his ideas.
What is it about books and authors that fascinate you?
KENNY: Ten individuals reading the same book will come away with different lessons, feelings and experiences. This is what fascinates me. Also, the ability to trigger a change in a person is always a powerful drug for me.
SARAH: I appreciate any form of expression. Writing is something that I especially love. It takes a lot of talent to capture someone’s attention through the choice of words and the tone of voice, and that’s something I wish I have the ability to do.
Why Math and not Maths?
SARAH: Kenny has to answer this! I want to know the answer too.
KENNY: Good question! Could have been a typo error when we first constructed the name. Or might not.
WORK IN PROGRESS
What are your main tools and resources?
KENNY: Seven days a week. Time, my colleagues, my laptop, my email and my mobile are all I need to make things work.
SARAH: Our ideas are our main tools. The beauty of the work we do is in our ideas. The knowledge of basic design principles is also very important, as well as a good eye for visual balance. The design has to please not just the designer but also reflect the author’s tone and language, help the publisher sell the book, and make it convenient for the bookseller in terms of displaying the books.
What has been your most interesting work to date?
KENNY: I would say Twenty-Four Flavours. It is a 24-issue literary journal around the theme of food, each with 24 flash fiction pieces by 24 writers, with a word limit of 240 words each. We have just released the first issue, and the theme was “Sushi”. The next one will be “Century Egg”.
How do you manage the business side of running Math Paper Press?
KENNY: Imagine ourselves on a sinking ship but kept afloat by the constant bailing out of water with a pail. It is still working for the moment.
In your opinion, how is the Singapore publishing scene different from other countries?
KENNY: I think it’s not very different other than that an author deals directly with the publisher, and not through an agent.
What have you learnt from working with global publishing brands like Monocle?
KENNY: The best lesson is to always stay humble no matter how big the publishing arm becomes.
What inspires or motivates you?
SARAH: Kenny inspires me, and Alison motivates me! I’ve seen Kenny struggle through this journey, and the fact that he keeps his goals simple and clear makes him a real inspiration to me. Both Alison and I are really appreciative and glad that we were given an opportunity to start this with him.
SELL BOOKS OR DIE
What’s your biggest entrepreneurial ambition?
KENNY: Just to run a thriving bookstore until the day I rest my bones.
SARAH: Alison and I think it would be great if we can venture overseas, just so we can experience different cultures and learn from them. But first, we’d like to conquer Singapore, which is tough. We want to create something that the majority of people here can relate to and love.
What advice would you give to someone considering a similar path?
KENNY: You crazy or what but do it anyway.
What is the future for books in Singapore?
KENNY: It has got to be awesome, what else?
Which upcoming project are you most excited about?
SARAH: We’re working on a new bunch of books that are more arts related. One is by a well known local illustrator, Speak Cryptic, and another by some young School of the Arts graduates. We are now compiling their years of research, development and work into a book.
KENNY: Our Literary Micro-Map series. It will be a series of A3-size maps with a story by a local author on one side, about a particular area in Singapore. The reverse will be a map of the area featured in the story. Besides the things described in the story, we’ll also add useful information for the intrepid traveller, such as landmarks or famous food stalls within a half kilometre radius.