One Small Voice: Kenny Chan

Published on 15 September 2015

Have Singaporeans’ reading habits evolved? Kinokuniya store director Kenny Chan shares his observations.

The New York Times and the United Kingdom’s The Sunday Times bestseller lists are still the most influential for ‘general readers’ or customers who walk into the bookstore with nothing in mind. But online reviews are influential too. A popular site is Goodreads, which is like Facebook for readers.

While we get an idea of reading habits from online records, we rely more on in-store feedback. My team members keep conversations going with customers and we talk about them every day.

In the field of literature and fiction, certain authors remain forever important in readers’ lives — like a rite of passage. For young readers, Eric Carle and The Very Hungry Caterpillar, Roald Dahl, Enid Blyton; for fantasy, J.R.R. Tolkien, Terry Pratchett, David Eddings; for crime, P.D. James, Ruth Rendell, and now, Stieg Larsson. New writers come in, but on a whole, the milestones remain.

Generally speaking, male readers tend to prefer non-fiction, and they drill down to areas they’re specifically interested in, like investment or military battles or biographies.

Female readers, to me, are more sophisticated. The majority are into fiction and serious fiction, like classics or books shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize or recommendations by word of mouth.

Social media is the magnification of word of mouth. A spike in book sales can be exponential — and it’s not just good reviews, but bad reviews and controversial books too.

Some writers are also very influential on social media, like poet Lang Leav. In many ways, she has helped popularise poetry. Younger Singaporeans are reading more poetry because of her, and they’re also trying out Singapore poetry, which is a fast-growing genre.

Self-help books are always popular, but it’s taken a different form: colouring books. It’s therapy and the biggest craze now. This worldwide craze is definitely propelled by Johanna Basford, who published Secret Garden, Enchanted Forest and Lost Ocean. Like Lang Leav, she promotes herself very well on social media. Books and movies continue to have a strong connection, but books that spin-off from games are catching on, like Halo and the ever-popular Minecraft, which has its own Young Adult fiction series.

We’re also seeing more ladies gravitate towards comics and graphic novels — readers, writers and artists. Ms. Marvel, for example, is written by American Muslim convert G. Willow Wilson. Her character has several incarnations, one of them is a Muslim girl and she’s very popular. This trend is growing because of the blurring of lines of gender roles.

As times change, reading habits evolve. The Internet, social media, movies and gaming have actually helped increase readership because people either go back to the source material or create spin-offs in the form of books. And if you read something online you like, chances are you will buy the book, even different versions of it. Human beings are tactile, that will not change.

Kenny Chan has been involved in the book industry — locally, regionally and internationally — over the last 30 years as retailer, distributor and publisher in a slew of book-related companies. As store director and merchandising director (Pacific Asia) at Books Kinokuniya, Chan and his team have changed the retail landscape and helped create one of the finest bookstore chains in the world. Kinokuniya, which originates from Japan, has been a cultural force since 1927, and the Singapore main store is a recognised icon in the Singapore cultural landscape.

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