Thursday, September 29, 2011

Books: Writing and Publishing in Malaysia

Books are always in demand - story books, books on general knowledge, on politics, religion, motivation. how to do things etc.
Go to our local bookshop and you can get all the books from foreign authors and story-tellers that you want. But look at the section selling locally produced books. Other than text books, books on Islam, and teenage love stories (novel cinta remaja), they are few in numbers and very, very expensive.

I don't believe that anybody has made a study on why local authors are very few in number and even the established ones are not writing as many books as possible.

Obviously the writers who have produced a number of books are those who hold high positions in the government, are closely related to the printing business, or work in a literary agency like Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka. Other writers will have to go through a number of humiliating experience to get their work published such as entering an open competition where the judge's or judges' opinion cannot be questioned, works are heavily edited or peremptorily altered, and a piece of work can be rejected because it's too heavy, not in popular demand, not in line with the taste of the publisher or the wider is not well-known as yet. How can a writer become known if his or her work is never published?

For those who braved and accepted all the humiliations, the returns from the work can be most disappointing. We hear of cases where some two thousand copies of a work were printed but three thousand or more sold, with the extra thousand not bringing in any income to the author. More often the number of copies sold is grossly understated to avoid paying a large royalty. For those who undertake to pay the cost of publication themselves, the distributor of the book ie. the sale agent, will demand up to 50% of the price of each book as his commission. This will result in the author getting a poultry sum for his labor and cost of printing or otherwise forcing him to sell the book at an exorbitant price resulting in a very low sale.

Why is the commission demanded so high? The distributor can quote any reason at all like cost of promotion, transport, payment to sub-agent, spoilage etc. More often the commission is based on rates accepted by the largest publication agency in the country - Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka. No one has ever examined how come DBP accepted such a high demand in the first instance, allowing the agency to get just 50% of the proceeds from the sale of books or magazines.

Well, the overall result of this situation is that the cost of books published locally are high, only the popular ones are published to cater for light reading and entertainment, many potential withers and authors never had a chance to pursue a writing career and produce high quality works for the nation and the people, and books that get published may not be of the best quality and standard in terms of intellectual and artistic achievement. We have more coffee-table books and memoirs in the market today than
the product of major creative work. We have a spade of teenage romantic novels and entertainment magazines. But good novels for the more mature and intellectual readers, nothing has reached the popularity level yet. Even the novels selected as texts for secondary schools can be questioned in terms of their literary quality and attractiveness, We don't see the adult members of the public reading them and acclaiming them as a major work of art.

With the Internet and the Facebook culture winning the hearts and souls of our young and old, book writing and publication in Malaysia may soon become moribund and uneconomical. We will end up with a high-technology culture with no soul, with materialism as the main force in life.


kaykuala said...

Akhi Norzah,
I've heard of moans of budding writers who came to the bank for assistance contending 'they've been had' in the many different ways as you had stated. Their sweat and tears were fodder for greedy beings along each winding road.
Writers on the other hand were clustered around fictions or similar 'not of high demand' story-line products.
The 'clever ones' circumvents by writing 'revision work-books' flooding the market at the parents' expense.There is a sprinkling of a 'cleverer one' still who just compiled or plagiarized works or materials of their outfits or trade unions. They passed these off as their own for a distance-learning MBA or PhD. (This is just a digression)
We marvel at K.Rowlings (of Harry Potter fame) who thought out of the box on a story-line of demons and goblins( when she was out of work, writing on pieces of papers in run-down London 'Kopitiams') now one of the richest in Britain.
Coming back here. What I'm sad about is that brilliant minds (as students)who were deprived of the advantage of reference books already in short supply (except translated Bahasa ones)and handicapped from reading up-to-date English books because of language difficulties.
When are we switching back to the 'merry Olde England' ways of old?


norzah said...

i am in full agreement with all that you said, Akhi. I understand that the writers who are making lots of money are the text book and reference book compilers, teachers and lecturers using their lecture and discussion no rtes as the basis. As you said not much of imagination is required there, just notes organization skill. Yes, their works are important too for our students but as far as the Malaysia literary repertoire is concerned we had gained nothing. Hence our well of literary sources is almost bone dry.

What we have are the works of writers who have served in DBP and can get their works reviewed, revised, 'improved', abridged and published. Independent writers seldom get a chance to get a chance to publish their work unless they have close friends in the Agency.

Al-Manar said...

I must confess I read very few books written by local writers, certainly novels. I used to read a lot more in the olden days, the days of Pak Sako.

Today if I do buy local books they are biography class. From time to time I get books for free when I get invited to launching occasions.

Since you have written on this subject I ask myself what has happened to my reading taste?

Because of my work with Almanar, I have spent more time reading old English classics, simplified for school children.

English books written by local writers are of poor quality to me. One Malaysian writer I admire most was Adibah Amin. I even use at Almanar the English grammar books co-authored by her. I have seen far too many errors in English books written by local writers that I have developed my prejudice. I know it is not right.

I am a slow reader, scribbling here and there and underlining interesting points. I particular, I do that with religious books authored by established foreign writers. I underline because I have in mind that one day I may wish to go back for specific points.

I cannot offer much comment on the pric of books and the difficulties faced by independent local writers to get their works published. I do, hoever, feel that there is big rackets going on between school text/reference book writers and certain quarters. Books are being kept revised every few months.

I feel sorry for poor parents who are forced to buy 'workbooks' after 'workbooks' for very subject on earth. In the old days we copied everything, notes, questions, figures, maps and all onto exercise books. And I think we made our brains work much harder those days. Hence I pride myself giving the square roots of 2, 3 etc without even ever use a calculator. And my pupils watch in amazement at their old Pakcik! And how I ask them to throw away their calculators during their Maths lessons with me!

norzah said...

I share fully the sentiments you expressed about
local publications and the way children are being taught these days, Akhi Pakcik Al-Manar. I think too much reliance is placed on the Dewan Bahasa and Pustaka to produce the books and magazines needed to support the education policy of government to the extent that local writers must conform to the need of the Agency rather than the need to develop modern Malaysian intellectuals.

Most of the books recommended for use in schools today are published by the Dewan authoured by writers recognized by the Agency. Even the professors and writers in the universities must conform to what the Dewan wants to get published and the returns are almost negligible in terms of fulfilling the requirements of life. Hence no great writers emerge in the nation accept the authors nurtured by the Dewan. And even you don't seem to find their work interesting enough to read, validating what I myself felt.

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