June 9, 2016

Book vending machines spread charmingly to Singapore


books-vending-machines-dataIf you’ve been paying attention, you know that we are big fans of people buying books. And while we always prefer that those people buy those books from their local indie or borrow them from their local library, we’re also quite charmed by the phenomenon of book vending machines. (Though not by all of them.)

Whether they’re installed to provide library books to Oklahomans, bring short stories to the French, or encourage children to read (and to fly JetBlue), book vending machines have been filling a narrow but underserved niche in the market. Their charm lies, in part, in their old-fashioned-ness; vending machines and books are both examples of tech that has remained effective despite essentially unchanging mechanics.

Now, Singaporean indie bookstore BooksActually has expanded into the bookseller-less bookselling game. Mayo Martin reports for Channel News Asia:

The independent bookstore on Friday (Jun 3) unveiled two book vending machines at the National Museum of Singapore (NMS) and at the Singapore Visitor Centre along Orchard Road.

A third one is scheduled to be installed at the Goodman Arts Centre later this month….

Each machine carries about 120 to 150 books, with between 20 and 22 titles by Singapore publishers available at any single time.

For instance, the initial batch of books at the vending machine at NMS ranges from the Sherlock Sam children’s book series to Troy Chin’s The Resident Tourist graphic novels to poetry and fiction titles from authors such as Alfian Sa’at and Alvin Pang.

With the assistance of a government grant, and sporting designs by several local artists, BooksActually’s vending machines cut a stylish presence. Store owner Kenny Leck, who was inspired to buy the machines by similar ventures in Japan (as well as the very first book vending machine, 1937’s Penguincubator), laid out his vision for the machines:

“The whole idea is about accessibility and eyeballs,” explained Mr Leck, who also runs BooksActually’s publishing arm Math Paper Press.

“There are not enough bookstores in Singapore, so we’ve previously also distributed (our books) to places such as (retail stores) Cat Socrates and Naiise’s pop-up stores. You have a different sort of demographic in these places.”

While Mr Leck doesn’t necessarily see the vending machines as a “pot of gold” in terms of sales, it’s yet another way of promoting Singapore literature, he said.

Leck’s plans, which have previously included displaying books in barbershops and hair salons, are both ambitious and extremely simple. Put books in high-traffic areas and more people are likely to buy books, if not necessarily from that particular point of sale; ultimately, the vending machine is out-of-home advertising for literature. And while the proliferation of ads brings with it increased consumer tune-out, book vending machines provide a charming and (parden the pun) novel solution.

Until they become ubiquitous, book vending machines will continue to serve, at best, as a benign and innovative reminder of the value of literature. And at worse, someone in the distance hoping to buy a Snickers will be slightly disappointed.



Liam O’Brien is the Senior Sales & Marketing Manager at Melville House, and a former bookseller.