Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Book Marks: Copyright Fight And Stuff

The author of Malay-language novel Aku Bohsia is reportedly suing a film production firm for allegedly plagiarising the novel for the film Bohsia: Jangan Pilih Jalan Hitam. I was surprised this suit was filed. Because:

[...63-year-old Elias Idris] said he wrote the novel in 1995 using the pseudonym, Anne Natasha Nita, and obtained a copyright on it.

As I understand it, the term bohsia (literally, Hokkien for "no sound" or "voiceless") is usually synonymous with "slut", one that tends to hang out with gangs or prostitutes herself.

So ... yeah ...

Also:

  • Spirits Abroad (Fixi Novo, 2014) by Zen Cho won the Crawford Award (for first fantasy book) in the United States. Cho's book shared the award (full name: the William L. Crawford Fantasy Award) with The Angel of Losses by Stephanie Feldman (Ecco, 2014). Congrats!
  • From the Penang Monthly magazine, "The new wave of Malaysian Fixi-on" by Marco Ferrarese. I had no idea this publication existed. Also in the current issue (January 2015), a profile of Ismail Gareth Richards, who runs the GerakBudaya Penang bookshop.
  • "Being critical of made-in-Malaysia books is all about being supportive." Daphne Lee returns to The Star in a new column on local books.
  • So you think you know Chaucer, do you? Paul Strohm's The Poet's Tale: 1386 and the Road to Canterbury tries to uncover more about the author of The Canterbury Tales.
  • Is this the world's first gardening manual? I'm not really sure. Some of the gardening advice is just plain weird, hucksterish, even.
  • A load of malarkey (come on, who could resist?): How "The Boy Who Came Back From Heaven" came to be.
  • Fifteen words that actually came from literature. Turns out the term "unfriend" is a lot older than thought.
  • Scopes trained at apparent half-truths in the novel American Sniper.
  • Why Indian author Perumal Murugan quit writing: the furore over the translated edition of controversial novel Madhorubhagan.
  • When Oxford University Press issued a an advisory on the inclusion of pigs and pig-related things in children's books, people naturally had stuff to say, including Ron Charles. OUP has since clarified its stand, saying that it does not ban porcine material from its books but does provide "guidance to authors on a range of areas that might cause offence in specific markets. This does, amongst other things, include advice around the use of images of pigs."
  • Why John Murphy's grandfather translated Hitler's Mein Kampf. The story of "the first unabridged version in English, which was eventually published in London in 1939 - is an intriguing one. It involves worries about copyright, sneaking back into Nazi Germany to rescue manuscripts and a Soviet spy."
  • When it's time to let go of a book, how to decide what stays and what goes?

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Book Marks: The Late, Late Year-End Wrap-Up

The local social media scene was briefly set alight (as usual) when news of a wild boar in halls of the MMU Cyberjaya library emerged. The creature was said to have wandered out of the wilderness bordering the township and ended up in the library, where it was eventually subdued and carried off. A news portal had a great headline for the story, which was proven real. The fate of the boar isn't known, but things don't look good for it.


Plus:

  • The religious raid and book seizure at Borders, over the Malay translation of Allah, Liberty and Love, was ruled illegal by Court of Appeal at the end of last year. Even more recently, the government failed to keep the ban on the Malay translation of Irshad Manji's Allah, Liberty and Love, published by ZI Publications.
  • Malaysian National Laureate Datuk Abdullah Hussain (1920-2014), passed on at the end of last year. Sad news.
  • Zen Cho, author of the anthology Spirits Abroad (Fixi, 2014), is interviewed by Daphne Lee on writing, SFF, Western vs Malaysian publishing and more.
  • "Making Malaysia’s literary capital work": A Q&A with the curator of the 2014 George Town Literary Festival.
  • A well-travelled food historian studying urban food culture in the Asia-Pacific is starting a new blog (h/t Robyn Eckhardt). Should be worth following as it fills up.
  • Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s first novel, Mycroft Holmes, written with screenwriter and producer Anna Waterhouse, will be published in fall by Titan Books. It stars Sherlock Holmes' brainy older brother.
  • UK bookselling chain Waterstones noted that sales of Amazon's Kindle ebook reader had "disappeared" after seeing higher demand for physical books. The resurgence in demand for print was also credited to Waterstones's refurbishment of some of its shops and giving managers more control over their stores to cater to local tastes.
  • Annie Proulx regrets writing Brokeback Mountain because it seems many readers wanted Jack and Ennis together - which wasn't what she had in mind. Well, if this back ain't broke, don't fix it.
  • The sad fate of a best-selling young novelist, who died alone in a house along a windswept Irish coast.
  • Mark Zuckerberg starts a book club and its first book, The End of Power by Moisés Naím, sold out on Amazon.

Monday, December 29, 2014

Book Marks: #GTLF2014, Battle Diary, And E-Book Fatigue

Writing chose us, say author Susan Barker and poet Sudeep Sen. A lyrical piece on the recently concluded 2014 George Town Literary Festival. The writer who gave us the above also wrote about how writers Sudhir Thomas Vadaketh, Marco Ferrarese and Shivani Sivagurunathan create a sense of place in their works during the Festival.



Publishers told Chantelle Taylor no one wanted a war story by a woman and asked her to sex it up with romance. Good thing she didn't listen. Despite other publishers' - ahem - misgivings, Taylor's battle diary was well received.

Also in the annals of "publishers who don't know what works and what doesn't", Amazon rejected a book for containing too many hyphenated words, only to put it back on sale later.



Data from Kobo reveals readers couldn't finish some e-books. According to The Guardian, "The Goldfinch may have won Donna Tartt the Pulitzer, praised by judges as a novel which 'stimulates the mind and touches the heart', but the acclaimed title's 800-odd pages appear to have intimidated British readers, with less than half of those who downloaded it from e-bookseller Kobo making it to the end."

Proofreading a 250-plus page e-book on-screen hard work. I can't imagine going through something almost as thick as The Kindly Ones or James Clavell's brick-thick novels.


Also:

  • RIP Shirley Hew, veteran Singaporean publisher. The executive director of Straits Times Press was credited with discovering award-winning writers Suchen Christine Lim and Colin Cheong.
  • The Japanese version of Lat's Kampung Boy won second place in Japan's Gaiman Award for the overseas comic category. Yay, Datuk Lat! Omedeto gozaimasu!
  • They're expensive to produce and harder to sell. So, is there still a point in publishing academic books?
  • Publishers talk about the hits and misses of 2014. Andrew Franklin of Profile Books deviated a little to tell us he was "most proud NOT to have published" Girl Online - and "most ashamed for my fellow publishers for signing up."
  • A new book reveals that Beijing's claims to the South China Sea are a recent invention. Ooh, won't this raise a few hackles in the mainland.
  • Why we should write in books: the case for marginalia. The points in that article are interesting and kind of valid, but I don't have any compelling reason to start scribbling in books - especially those priced over RM15 and above.
  • Someone wrote some thoughts to The Malay Mail Online about "why many Malaysians still cannot converse in English". One Tweeter (can't remember who) noted the irony.
  • The future of books and bookstores looks bright to James Daunt, chief executive of Waterstones. I think Daunt sounds a bit optimistic in this article, but if he feels this way....
  • When I first got into blogging, I came across quite a few good blogs, and Michael Ooi's was one of them. Glad to see it again (H/T Suanie), and glad to see him keeping it real after all these years. And I can relate to this.

Saturday, December 27, 2014

It's What We Say And Do

This afternoon, I went to donate stuff for the flood relief efforts - and became a beneficiary of the kindness of others when my car battery died at the underground parking lot at IGB Tower, TTDI.

Two foreign security guards tried to push my car in an attempt to jump-start it. It failed; I was told later this evening that such emergency jump-starts only worked with manual vehicles. Eventually, one of them looked under the hood and concluded that the battery was gone. He pushed my car into another parking space while I looked for help.

Luckily there was a car workshop nearby. The chief foreman and possibly the boss drove me back to my car with a new battery. I also learnt a bit about my car: seems you can change the battery while the engine's running (it's not battery-operated), and one should, to keep certain settings in the car's electronics from being re-set, like my clock and saved radio channels.

"No good deed goes unpunished", some might say. But I should note that the battery's about two years old, at a time when many other batteries warrant replacement.

In the face of misfortune or a force of nature, what or who we are is nothing. What stands out most is we say and do. And what the volunteers were doing at the donation drop-off point at TTDI is great.

Some of those who formed human chains to convey donated goods into vehicles for transport included migrant workers at the restaurants/drop-off points, like the guards who helped me out.

Let's be like this all the time, rather than during emergencies only.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Faking It

Outraged over Girl Online? Scott Pack doesn't think it's worth exploding over, because it's nothing new. Many famous people don't write their own books, but theirs are keeping bookstores afloat.

"Because the truth is the other books, the 'worthwhile' ones, aren’t popular enough to sustain our industry," he blogged. "And they never will be. The festive boost that the likes of Zoella, Jamie Oliver, underwater dogs and that bloke from Westlife provides is often the difference between a bookshop existing and not existing."

Was it so long ago since everybody was rattled by another ghostwriter's confessions?

Over at Salon, Laura Miller delves into the reason why Zoella's teen fan base feels "betrayed" that she did not write her own book.

From what I understand of Ms Miller's piece, Zoella's fault, if one can call it that, is that she made authenticity part of her brand. People like it if you're "real", especially those who are young, impressionable and bone-tired of faking it - and dealing with fakers - to get through the day.

So I guess her biggest fans should feel cheated - because if plain old Zoe Sugg didn't write her own book, what else did she not do?

A writer (let's call her "Gem") with whom I discussed this feels ghostwriting non-fiction (memoirs, textbooks and the like) is fine; "authors" of such books are often non-writers and have little time to write or research beyond their day jobs. Given the nature of our work, I could commiserate.

Writers of fiction who employ ghostwriters, meanwhile are the real pretenders, said Gem - like artists who don't paint or sculpt their own works. While non-fiction involves stringing together facts into an attractive and engaging narrative, fiction, she feels, is more of creating original material, even if the underlying concepts or ideas originated elsewhere.

Still, James Patterson's books are pretty hot, even though word is that he doesn't really write his own books anymore. But you know, it's like Danish butter cookies. Once someone hits on a winning formula, you can't stop the copycats and you're all, "Screw it, bad mood. WANT."

And for similar reasons, I think we can also give "Katie Price" a pass.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

It Huffed And Puffed And Filled My Sails

For the past several years, worn down by tons of reading I've had to do for work, I couldn't bear to look at another printed page after I clocked out.

And the thought of being in a vast hall full of cheaply priced books failed to excite me.

But this Thursday, as I swept my gaze across rows upon rows of fiction titles at this year's Big Bad Wolf sale, I felt strangely refreshed - and it was just the third table. Well, it was a really long table.

Could it have been the stirrings of a second wind?

At least I made the cashiers happy.

"Oh my, I was shocked," squealed one of the sales assistants at the till as I deposited the two Terry Pratchett titles on the counter and began emptying my backpack. "I thought he only had two books!"


Definitely more than two books; at right is Jamal Mahjoub @ Parker Bilal's
The Golden Scales


A day earlier, a former colleague at the distributors' side became a bona fide colleague again. This time, she occupied her former boss's office. But it also meant that - hooray! - I was getting free books to review, after a months-long drought.

Maybe the second win began blowing earlier than that Thursday morning.

So, yes, I ended up with more than just two books.




First, the Terry Pratchetts. Feet of Clay and The Fifth Elephant are part of the series featuring the Discworld's Watchmen, led by Sam Vimes. I've begun following the series after Guards! Guards!, but too bad they didn't have its immediate sequel, Men at Arms.

Surprisingly, MPH Mid Valley has begun stocking up some of the Pratchett titles in the old Paul Kidby covers, including Men at Arms.

Following the passing of British crime writer PD James, I'd begun searching for her books - like the worst kind of reader. I regretted not picking up the one title I'd found one or two BBW Sales ago.




This year, however, I found two: Cover Her Face, part of the Adam Dalgliesh mysteries; and the more well-known Death Comes to Pemberley. Where should this go in the reading queue?

I was kind of curious about African stories after reading Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani's piece in The New York Times. What have I been missing, I wondered.

So I picked up a few: Taiye Selasi's Ghana Must Go, Nii Ayikwei Parkes's Tail of the Blue Bird and The Spider King' Daughter by Chibundu Onuzo.




I gave The Granta Book of the African Short Story a pass because it was a hardback and the pile was getting too heavy. Guess it was a missed opportunity.

Other books I'd dumped included the English translation of Excursion to Tindari by Italian Andrea Camilleri, two of Alexander McCall Smith's Precious Ramotswe novels: The Kalahari Typing School for Men and The Limpopo Academy of Private Detection, Julian Barnes's The Sense of an Ending, Bring Up The Bodies by Hilary Mantel and Evening is the Whole Day by Preeta Samarasan.

Not just because of weight, but also my pockets.

However, I got two of "those" Malay novels, just to see what the fuss is about. Why are they so popular? Could I figure it out? Are they as awful as some people claim?




Other local buys were The Mouse Deer Kingdom by Chiew-siah Tei (to go with my copy of The Little Hut of Leaping Fishes which remained unread for over a year), the epic novel Amber Road by Boyd Anderson and the Man Asia Award-winning The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng - which I will read before - maybe - a peek at the work of an author who was rumoured to be disgruntled by Tan's Man Asia win.




The odd duck of this pile was Parker Bilal's (real name Jamal Mahjoub, of British-Sudanese descent) The Golden Scales, a crime novel set in Cairo. I flipped through a few pages, assumed (wrongly) this must be one of the works of noir that's getting popular in the Middle East and bagged it.

I went into BBW2014 without a list or a guide, staying away from the best-sellers, literature, romance and, strangely enough, the non-fiction sections. The only non-fiction title I wanted but couldn't find was Blood, Bones and Butter by Gabrielle Hamilton, the chef of Prune in New York. Maybe next year or the following year.

For now, I'll just savour the feeling. It has been a while since I last felt it.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

"Difficult, Downright Thankless"

Turning readers to locally published English-language books "is a difficult, if not downright thankless, job", says The Star, which ran a story about a publishing symposium in Singapore and why things are tough for locally published English books.

Linda Tan Lingard, of the Yusof Gajah Lingard Literary Agency, told The Star: "Locally-published books in English face fierce competition from imported titles."

Oon Yeoh, senior consulting editor at MPH Group Publishing, also put in his two sen:

...local long-form fiction in English doesn't do very well. "Non-fiction books, such as 'how-to' books and cookbooks, tend to do better than fiction, though short story collections sometimes do well."

He added that the price point for locally-published books needs to be lower as well. "Imported titles sell even when they are priced well over RM50, for instance. With local books, however, the buying public is not prepared to spend more than RM50."

So, why are imported foreign English-language titles - some of which do cost more than RM50 - seem more popular among Malaysians than local stuff?

Raman Krishnan of Silverfish Books, who The Star also interviewed, said:

"Anglo/American books are sucking the air out of the Malaysian and Singaporean publishing industries, he said. "In Malaysia, the distributor decides what books the public reads, which in turn is decided by media reports from the West."

He believes the key is in building "a healthy local and regional market". But who's going to put out for that? Will bookstores be willing to invest, when they seem to be more focused on the bottom line than home-grown bylines?


Who really decides?
However, someone from a major books distributor told me it's the reading public who decides what the bookstores sell, based on what's popular with them.

The usual suspects include the Anglo/American stuff, as well as Malay romance, horror, religion and romance-religion (what). And, as my esteemed colleague puts it, the "'how-to' books and cookbooks".

That might be true for the big chains, who depend on shifting as many "hot" items as possible to stay afloat. And if many of their customers are from the middle to upper class, the bit about the Western media's influence in shaping consumption habits sounds plausible - not just for books, but film as well - because, as we know, only that strata of society are more likely to be able to read and have access to that kind of material.

So local writing ends up in what would be considered niches, dismissed as "arty", "fringe", "experimental" - euphemisms for "risky", "unprofitable" and the like in big bookselling.

The Anglo yardstick introduces other problems as well. Nigeria-based author Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani, author of the award-winning I Do Not Come to You by Chance, laid out the problems African authors have in getting noticed (as well as other challenges). In The New York Times, she says African literature is beginning to receive recognition outside the so-called Dark Continent.

The catch?

...we are telling only the stories that foreigners allow us to tell. Publishers in New York and London decide which of us to offer contracts ... American and British judges decide which of us to award accolades ... Apart from South Africa, where some of the Big Five publishers have local branches, the few traditional publishers in Africa tend to prefer buying rights to books that have already sold in the West, instead of risking their meager funds by investing in unknown local talents.

Nope, these African voices, like Nwaubani's, do not come to us by chance.

As a result, she says, most authors in her home country are self-published. But "with no solid infrastructure for marketing and distribution" and the clout that comes with winning international awards:

...the success of these authors' works is often dependent on how many friends, family members and political associates can attend their book launches and pay exorbitant prices for each copy. Or on whether they have a connection in government who can include their book as a recommended text for schools.

Sounds familiar?


Social engineering? Or slow suicide?
I see parallels in the whole "our readers want us to sell these books" with what outgoing ESPN ombudsman Robert Lipsyte seemed to suggest about the sports channel not doing heavy hitting journalism because, according to Slate, "the viewers don't want them to".

"Extensive investigative reporting into the exploitation of college athletes, and the legal battles around that, would seem to conflict with ESPN’s business model," he wrote in his last column. By "business model", I think he means the near-deification of the nation's sports stars.

I'm not sure what kind of myth the big publishers want to foist on the world. That what they publish is all that matters? Can it be as simple as pushing what they deem to be "the thing" while making money out of it?

If that's true, the big publishers' preference and obsession for the next big thing, something The Globe and Mail calls "blockbustering", might spell their doom:

As they grow larger and concentrate their efforts and investments on massive, sure-fire hits ... the cultural landscape seems paradoxically smaller. It becomes even more difficult to get an indie film made – the huge projects suck the oxygen (financing, distribution, media coverage) out of the biosphere (hey, same terminology as Raman's).

In following this larger trend, book publishers are shortsighted. By reducing their involvement in original and challenging art, they relinquish literary fiction to the tiny presses and online magazines, and so become artistically irrelevant and, in the long run, uninteresting even as suppliers of entertainment. Pursuing mainstream popularity with ever-larger sums of money is ultimately self-destructive.

Reversing this trend sounds simple: don't do all that! But will they listen?


Market writers, not what's written
Now, how to start building Raman's local market? "Don't sell books, sell personalities," he told The Star (and everyone else) "Sell the writers."

That would work, considering how kepochi (busybody-ish) Malaysians tend to be. Even if their short-term goal is trying to find out how to be a best-selling author themselves.

Besides, books don't sell themselves. They need to be marketed; the difference is in the degree of marketing. I'm sure even the publisher for Fifty Shades had to tell people "Kinky stuff here!"

Others have had to work real hard. Appearances at book fairs, literary festivals, book tours and signings, media interviews, the whole shebang. The writers who've made it, the names that seem to jump off the shelves, didn't they put in the hours when they first started?

Some of them still tour and perform. Brand names that don't maintain themselves fade away - at least until they start asking "Don't you remember me?"

Examples closer to home include the author of a successful series of autobiographical stories in cartoon format, who has built such a rapport with fans, his books are still selling today; a writer who I heard hawked her crime novel overseas and picked up a deal with a major international publisher; a cycling enthusiast and activist who takes her book about her travels on the road with her; and that best-selling "housewife" who came up with lots of ideas to spread the word about her works.

But again: will bookstores and publishing houses put out, if the authors are up for it - even if they're not famous or established? And, authors: will some of you have the fortitude to swallow your pride and work with the suits to shift the copies?


Reading ahead
An incident about a novel also made me think about the future face of publishing and publishers - as well as marketing and criticism.

The guys with all the passion, they start off small. Once they get big, they are likely to end up swim in bigger oceans where there's LOTS of competition - and spend much of their time just surviving, rather than putting in the hours enlightening the masses and enriching the pool of literature. This eventually sucks them dry of all the love of words and bookselling, leaving them mere shells of the former selves.

Maybe the answer doesn't lie in big but in small, as eloquently put in this piece about the 2014 George Town Literary Festival. Staying small might mean a smaller reach and support base, but it also means more time and effort is spent to fulfil The Purpose, rather than continually fighting for survival. I'm reminded of how tiny mammals survived the extinction of the big dinosaurs around the Cretaceous, so I think there's still hope.


27/12/2014  Took out the last two paragraphs; they felt out of place, and this is a better ending.