Coming Up For Air: Grey, Grizzled But Still Going (November 2018)

Below is our November 2018 edition of ‘Coming Up For Air’, a monthly column we write for Ming Pao’s English language section, reprinted here in its entirety with the permission of the folks at Ming Pao.

Coming Up For Air: Grey, Grizzled but Still Going

by Albert Wan
November 16, 2018

【明報專訊】This past October we quietly celebrated our first birthday. It was around this time last year when we signed our lease to become what we jokingly refer to as the world’s first and only 27th floor bookshop. Since then we’ve learned a thing or two about the book-selling business.

One is that appearances matter. Before we opened our bookshop we believed that as long as we stocked good books — crudely defined as literature and non-fiction that has stood or will stand the test of time — sales will follow. To borrow from the great anonymous prophet of Iowa: “If you stock it, they will come.”

To a great extent that is still true. Good books sell themselves. Period. Full stop.

But being on the 27th floor also means that the bookshop is, for better or worse, largely hidden from the gaze of the passing pedestrian — the all-important marker of retail success, or failure.

We realised very early on then that there was no getting around social media as a platform to promote the bookshop and our books. Call it bookselling in the age of screens and high rents, but it’s become a core part of who we are and what we do. We have become social media junkies.

If you’ve seen our Facebook or Instagram posts, however, you know that we don’t take the “kitchen sink” approach to social media.

Rather, when we come across a book we want to feature on social media either because it has interesting content or nice cover art, or, ideally, both, we work hard to create an eye-catching and well-written post that we hope will evoke in our followers the same warm and fuzzy feeling we had when we first came across the book at issue.

To us it is about featuring the book in its entirety, rather than just, say, its cover, which can be a very easy thing to do in today’s age of high definition cameras and Instagram filters. It’s no surprise then that the copy in our posts has become lengthier and more detailed as we’ve tried to strike the right balance between aesthetics and content. A caption we wrote for a recent post featuring the English translation of Hsu Hsia-k’o’s(徐霞客)— China’s Thoreau — travel diaries came in at 127 words!

Another lesson we’ve learned is the importance of “showing up”. Sometimes we go days on end and don’t see another soul walk, or even waft, into the bookshop. Even so we continue to show up, plough through our backlog of unpriced books, and wait for the next customer to appear. The tide always changes so that we will start receiving visitors at a steady clip. Getting to that point, however, can sometimes be a challenge, physically and mentally.

It helps, of course, to have supportive customers. Once we had a customer visit the bookshop on what was a particularly quiet day. He browsed for a while, picked out a $40 paperback, and paid for it. As he got ready to leave, he said to me “you will sometimes have days like this, but when you do, just know that there are people out there who know what you’re doing for the community.” Even though he ended up buying a book, I secretly think he came to the bookshop just to send us that message. It was like manna from heaven, and I’ll never forget it.

Starting Bleak House Books is one of the best decisions I’ve made in my life. Yes, we’ve had our share of challenges, and I have definitely become more grey and more grizzled. It is hard to imagine life without the bookshop though. To me it represents the perfect combination of labour and literature. Only with the former can one have the latter.

Available from Ming Pao via direct link here.

What We Talk About When We Talk About Pricing (Books)

We’ve noticed that folks may be wondering how we price our used books. So here’s a rough and dirty guide to what consumes a lot of our time at Bleak House Books.

First, it is important to remember that prices for commodities are almost always arbitrary. That’s true for cars, vegetables, houses and even books (new or used). There is no all powerful pricing authority that dictates what one can charge for say a 2010 orange Honda Civic or a 1949 first edition of George Orwell’s 1984, and even if there was the prices set by such an outfit would themselves be arbitrary.

The general rule of thumb is that one charges what the market will bear, and used book shops like ours are no exception.

There are important caveats to that rule, however. The most important being that the prices we assign to our used books are ones we think are fair and reasonable given the current marketplace.

That means that when we price a used book we almost always look to see what a book of the same edition is fetching on the open market. Our go-to source for that is, which is a robust, respected online marketplace for used books made up entirely of independent sellers from all over the world. We won’t do that for a 2012 mass market paperback edition of The Hobbit, for which we are well equipped to price without reference to the market. But we estimate that around 70 to 80 percent of the books we sell are priced using the above method.

But looking at similar books on the open market is just the beginning. Not every book one sees listed online provides an appropriate price comparison to the book we are trying to price. When someone runs a search on for a certain book the search engine will always bring up the least expensive listings of the book first. These listings usually do not have actual images of the books featured in them or descriptions of the book’s actual condition. Some might be ex-library copies or have heavy annotations in the text box. But there’s no way of knowing. Hence the attractive price tag.

What happens next is probably the most time consuming but also the most important part of the pricing process – finding the online book listing, or listings, we believe provide the best guide for what we should charge for our copy. It helps if these listings have images of the books taken by the seller but that’s not always necessary. Having a true, individualized account — not some copy-and-paste version one sees with the cheaper listings — of the book’s condition is just as good, and usually more important than having an actual image. Of course this means we need to have a handle on the condition of the book we want to price and sell which we always do, as reflected on our own online listings. It then becomes a game of match where we pick the book listing or listings which inspire our confidence and also come closest to being a mirror image of our book.

After that the last step is to take into account the book’s unique features, if any. A book that’s signed by its author or whose cover is drawn by a famous artist might have its price adjusted to reflect that. Books we’ve bought and had shipped here from, say, the U.S., might require a higher price tag to take into account our added costs, or sometimes we simply eat those costs as the price of doing business as a used book store in Hong Kong. The point is that there are a host of outside influences we take into account when pricing a book even after we have a rough idea of what it might go for online.

Our hope at the end of this whole process is to arrive at a price that will inspire confidence and trust in Bleak House Books as an independent seller of second-hand books. And if folks ever feel like we are not living up to that promise please do tell us. We are usually open to comments and critiques – it will depend on the day of the week and what mood folks here are in. But hey at least you got your two-cents in!