Talking to Oscar Malan of Novel Idea

by John Thompson

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Around the big table with Oscar Malan  on September 12.

During our September gathering, Editors Kingston heard from Oscar Malan, proprietor of Kingston’s independent bookstore, Novel Idea.

He spoke about how his business managed to survive 15 years of competition with Indigo in Kingston’s downtown, how technology has changed bookselling and working in retail as a whole, and how he manages to carry such a well-stocked fiction section, among other subjects.

Malan moved from Toronto to Kingston in 1988, with the idea of opening a bookstore with a friend. That initial business soon foundered, but not long afterwards he helped launch Novel Idea, which he at first managed and later came to own.

The business took a beating when Indigo opened downtown.

“The day Indigo opened, our business declined 50 per cent. A year later, Chapters opened in the township, and business was down another 10 per cent,” Malan recalled.

But while other independent businesses shuttered during those years, Novel Idea held on. And once Indigo closed in 2013, sales bobbed back up about 40 per cent.

Similarly, this year he had a “crazy busy summer,” thanks in part to Chapters’ move to a new location in July. Immediately upon the township store’s closure, Malan says, his workload doubled.

Novel Idea is known for its comprehensive fiction section. That’s thanks to Malan spending a lot of time digging through the “backlists” of book publishers—the older titles that aren’t being actively pushed by salespeople.

“I carry all the Murukami, all the Vonnegut,” he said.

Malan can do this, in part, thanks to how quickly he’s able to reorder books today, allowing him to carry single copies of many of these books. “That’s the blessing of computer technology.”

Similarly, when Malan started out, he’d have to place an order in the summer months for howe

ver many copies of the latest Stephen King novel he thought he could sell at Christmas. Now he can get away with planning a week ahead.

Malan contends that he isn’t competing with online book sellers like Amazon. Instead, the natu

Malan in his shop. The T-shirt’s slogan is “What, me worry?” in Latin.

re of retail business itself has changed. Kingston was once home to five appliance stores, whereas there’s only one now—the same holds with independent bookstores. It’s the big chain stores that took the worst hit from the growth of Amazon; smaller “boutiques” like Novel Idea are able to operate in a different niche by offering customers superior service.

“They’ll be treated like humans and get what they want—or not, and be told why,” he said.

As well, Malan has noticed that the price gap between Amazon and his store has narrowed considerably in recent years. He reckons the big online booksellers have begun to ask themselves, now that their customers have grown used to ordering through them, “Why give it away?”

Events help. In fact, Malan’s store was hosting two book readings by authors the night that he spoke to the twig. And each year Kingston WritersFest provides a big opportunity for Novel Idea to sell books, through a pop-up shop set up at the event.

“[That arrangement] was a major cash injection that helped me survive the Indigo years,” said Malan.

Malan is now 63, and he envisions his daughter one day taking over the business.

Why does he still keep at it? “I could have stopped doing it, but then I’d need to get a job,” said Malan.

He followed that up with a sentiment that may ring true to many freelance editors:  “After so many years of working for myself, I’d no longer be fit to work for someone else.”

Announcements

Conference: Elizabeth d’Anjou reported that the Editors Canada national conference May 25–27 in Saskatoon was a great success and a lot of fun. (Twig member Beth Bedore was there, too!) A highlight was the stream of sessions related to editing texts relating to Indigenous people, and the pre-conference workshop with Greg Younging, author of the Elements of Indigenous Style.

Webinars: Editors Canada upcoming webinars include a four-part series on plain language led by Kate Harrison Whiteside, a well-known expert in the area.

Recordings of earlier webinars are available for purchase, including

  • Starting a Freelance Editing Career (with Christine LeBlanc)
  • Manuscript Evaluation (with Greg Ioannou)
  • Eight-Step Editing (with Elizabeth herself)

Fee policy: The twig’s new fee policy is in effect: Editors Canada members continue to attend twig meetings free, and visitors are charged $5 per meeting (after the first; we were pleased to see a new visitor, Kathleen Hamilton, take advantage of this provision).

Twig Leadership & AGM: Ellie Barton will be stepping down as one of the twig coordinators after three dedicated years. Stephanie Stone is willing to continue, as is Elizabeth; Brenda Leifso is willing to join the coordinating triumvirate.

We’ll be trying something new this year: a brief AGM, to be held online using Zoom meeting software, on Wednesday, September 19, at 4:30 p.m. We’ll share a brief report on how the twig has fared over the last year and members can officially elect the twig leadership. Everyone on the twig’s email list was sent information on how to attend.

Coming Up

We’ll be talking and sharing about books on October 10! More details TBA.

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