What is Really Killing the Bookstores?

kik 150 SqMichael: The place is as large as any bookstore I have seen in the USA. Lines of eight or more people with books in their hands queued up at each of the three checkout locations.

Bookstores in Singapore, both large and small, are doing well. Heck, while Borders shuttered all their doors in the States a Borders opened on this island in the last year.

On the mass transportation the other day I counted 20 people in the train car with me. Five of them were reading books. One read a newspaper.

Graciela: I know my fellow Bogotanos, you are trying to figure out how people can read on the mass transportation system. Well unlike our Transmilenio, the system in Singapore uses large train cars. Even during rush hour there is enough space so people do not touch each other. It is very clean. People are very respectful and you can read without having to worry that someone is going to take something from you.

In Colombia we have a very large bookstore chain. The books are often twice to four times their U.S. prices. Plus these places give more of their store space to home decorations, art supplies, office furniture and office accessories. That is what keeps the doors open.

Michael: Asians seem to read much more than Americans or Colombians. In fact many Asian newspapers are increasing sales while these print publications in the States are complaining that the Internet is killing them.

The question becomes why is there a difference? The propaganda being spread by American media I believe to be a smoke screen to hide the truth.

The reasons for the decrease in books and newspapers appears to be different. Yes, the people on the other side of the world did their own research to determine the decline of U.S. print media. The conclusion is that Americans stopped buying newspapers because they think the reporting to be highly unbalanced.

Well, I can see that. At one point during my career of writing for a major news chain my editor told me that the sales department killed my story. Seems that after the editor finished, all stories went to sales. My crime was mentioning in a favorable light a competitor to someone who advertised with the paper. It seems that publishers are always slanting toward their political leanings. I smirk at the comment by one far right-wing columnist that if the Koch brothers purchased eight large newspapers that balanced reporting would return.

Graciela: The majority of citizens in Colombia have little to no faith in our news publications. Former Colombian journalist, Francisco Santos, states that the country is one where reporters practice more self-censorship than other places. The major publications are owned by the wealthiest man in the country.

Michael: Books are a different story. Let’s take a look at some of the theories believed by Americans of why book stores fail. Then we can compare that to Singapore.

The first comment I heard involves that Singaporeans need books in Chinese and not English. OK, that comment just plays right into the hands of those who believe Americans have little knowledge of anything beyond their borders. English is the official language of Singapore. The vast majority of the books are written in that language.

Graciela: Obviously the language thing does apply to Colombia. While it is estimated that as much as 30% of my countrymen speak English, still the majority prefer to read in Spanish. However we have many great authors including winners of the Nobel Prize in literature. Plus major writers from around the world have their books translated into Spanish.

Michael: The next comment I heard was “The USA has Amazon. They sell books so cheap that stores cannot compete.”

Sorry, that does not hold water. Amazon did not get to be so big by being stupid. They know that Singaporeans are voracious readers. Take a look at the company’s website. They offer free shipping of books to the island country on the other side of the world.

Graciela: It is very much a different story with Colombia. Amazon charges a small fortune and extra fees for each book to my country. However people do have Kindle readers as well as other e-readers. Plus there are more books in Spanish becoming available for those devices. Unfortunately the majority of people in the country do not have time to read between work, the house, children, etc.

Michael: Next there is the comment that the country does not have the Internet coverage America has and people can’t afford Kindle readers or tablets.

Graciela: Well, for Colombia that has some merit. However, our cities (and most people live in cities) have Internet the speed and uptime equivalent to the USA. The country has 43 million citizens and half of them can easily afford tablets and e-readers.

Michael: Singapore is a first world country. Their service connection to the world is better than much of the U.S. With one of the most even distributions of wealth of any country in the world. One in six Singaporeans is a millionaire. They are more into technical devices than Americans. A higher percentage of the people own reading devices than we do.

Now that we have managed to blow holes in the American excuses the question remains of why books fly off shelves in Singapore.

It might take a task force to identify all the reasons. However I have identified an area that might have an influence on the why.

Education is different. American high school students each year keep lagging behind other countries. True that we have 12 of the top 20 universities in the world, but our lower education is not keeping up.

In Singapore education is appreciated and engaged in with an almost zeal. They constantly rate high in international testing. I have watched fathers on the mass transportation pull out times tables for their kids to go over while traveling. I noticed high school students doing work that Americans do not get until college.

What demonstrates this is the way they look at the return on investment (ROI) of places of higher education. Some Americans know that graduates from Harvard, Yale or the Warton School usually have a higher starting salary then those from many public schools. What we don’t do is compare the cost of the education to the starting salary and potential future income. Universities in Singapore actually advertise the fact that they have a higher ROI than Harvard.

Graciela: When I was in school in Colombia we were rated as constantly among the top three educations in Latin America. I and my friends read many books. Today Colombia is always in the bottom three, in fact in the latest international tests Colombia finished dead last. Colombians who have moved out of the country constantly tell me that public education is many other places is better than even private education in Colombia.

The worst part of all this is the director of education in the country does not admit to how bad it is. She keeps telling the public that it is one of the best.

Another factor that makes the problem worse in Colombia is that, both parents have to work until late and in order to keep the children busy until they arrive or have time to pick them up, these kids leave the school and go to different activities. There is really not much time available for students to leisurely read.

Michael: The next part I deciphered out partly by watching what books Singaporeans were purchasing. The first thing I noticed that a romance novel section did not exist at any of the stores. Manual labor sections seemed to have few browsers. By that I mean those areas like graphic design where you can find people doing it a dime a dozen. Good literature drew many customers but finance and business seemed to have the most supporters.

Consider that in the near future the tiny island of Singapore is expected to have one-third of all the wealth in the world. Also the government is implementing plans and putting financial support for 75% of their citizens to be professionals or managers in the future.

American schools keep having the saying that they prepare students for the future. The signs in Singapore state they prepare them for the world. Indeed to graduate from high school you must speak two languages and now they are boosting it to three. The Free Trade Agreement with Singapore signed by President Bush gives Singaporeans 5,400 visas annually and indefinite extensions are allowed.

But our own government puts American students at a disadvantage to take those quality job in other developed countries. We are the only nation to double tax our working expats. In fact because of the double tax Singapore does not even advise of Americans applying for jobs in their country.

Singaporeans also read about and understand the concept of passive income. While American girls get together and talk about boys and clothes, the young ladies of the island country write about boys and clothes and other things then discuss how to get sponsors and readers to their websites. One of my favorites is Jaslin Tan of www.justjaslin.com She recently won the award for best fashion site for Singapore.

The people, not just the students, are interested in actual learning. Plopping one’s rear end for a specified period of time in an educational facility just to gain a piece of paper is of little value to them. They want the knowledge that the facility is suppose to provide.

Rather meaning they see a financial reward for learning. More than just doing a job they strive to be the best in the wold and look at all the money making possibilities for their knowledge, experience and passion. Knowledge comes from books.

Graciela:Could it be that the health of bookstores is tied to education and the opportunities countries give their citizens?

Thank you for reading - Your comments are always welcome

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