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.