Wednesday, 29 February 2012

Publishers' Miss Becomes A Hit

Patricia O'Brien's The Dressmaker, a work of historical fiction about a seamstress on the Titanic, was rejected 13 times based on the poor performance of her previous book.

The Dressmaker: A Novel
So she submitted it for publication under the nom de plume "Kate Alcott".

After three days, someone bit. The Dressmaker by "Kate Alcott"? Oh, YES OM NOM NOM D PLOOM. It reportedly received rave reviews, and translation rights for the novel were sold in five countries - a first for O'Brien.

This is not about whether to use a pen name and which pen names would sell, although the subject is worth diving into. O'Brien had to hide behind an alias because the traditional houses who published her before were judging the success of this book based on what can now be considered an invalid benchmark.

Its success is one more reason for writers to bypass the well-known, lumbering old-school institutions.

Publishers be damned?
Then comes Anthony Horowitz's lovely piece on whether authors still need publishers.

For the foreseeable future, they do.

Despite being a best-selling author, one self-publishing phenom turned to a conventional publisher to do her editing, marketing, cover designs, etc so that she could be free to write books. A good publisher she's happy with, one presumes. For the kind of stuff she writes, doesn't she deserve the best kind of editing, packaging and publicity? Not that she needs much of the latter these days....

It seems the bigger the publishing house, the more it'll be hamstrung by its business model, and the socio-political climate of the countries it operates in. Far be it from publishers to challenge the ruling governments on what is fine to publish, however.

Publishers, therefore, can reclaim some of the ground they (think they have) lost by upping the quality of what they make and do. But will they pony up the kind of money for first-class editors, covers and marketing strategies? If they're willing to, will they end up overselling mediocre books, or not do enough to promote the better ones?

Every manuscript they take on is a roll of the dice, but one in which they can influence an outcome, i.e. make a product that's a bit better than the original 'script they got. I chafe at people who say things like, "What's one or two dozen typos in a 600-page book? It's not as if readers keep track of things like that." Or, "Did this country have phone booths with doors in the 1990s? Dunno, but don't lose sleep over it. No one's going to care."

Half a century ago, maybe. With readers now armed with Google and pay-per-view documentary channels, they are now demanding factual accuracy in books, particularly those that feature real-life people and places. If book reviewers can't find anything else to fill the obligatory space, they'll start hunting for nits to pick. And no amount of savvy marketing can hide the awfulness of a book from the multitudes of grassroots reviewers (book bloggers), who will make their displeasure of a crappy book known.

The self-published route may seem bumpy at the moment, what with dozens of badly edited and jacketed books flooding the market. With time, the small guys will improve and things will really start swinging then. The big marquee publishers will no longer be able to count on their history, traditions and the like to remain relevant. With every "meh" book - and the related typos - they produce, their cachet goes down to the point where they can't be distinguished from their small indie counterparts.

Guess who future authors will turn to when that happens.

Crowding out the old
I'm partial to crowdsourced publishing as part of the future. In this country, for instance, the creative pool of talent publishers crave is likely to comprise eccentric, anti-establishment personalities. But they're also the ones who are most likely to come up with concepts and content that surprise. After a job is done, they can choose to stay with the collective or move on to other things.

(Not to say that talent doesn't exist elsewhere.)

With the crucial elements of publishing: editing, layout design and marketing spread all over and connected by the Web, publishers can't claim to be the sole gatekeepers of literary tastes and harbingers of reading trends. Nor do we need critics of a Kakutanian bent to proclaim the best and worst of each book from rarefied heights like at the New York Times, not with the colourful and unrestrained outpourings of the Amazon/Goodreads crowd.

Of course, there's a chance that history will repeat itself; some of the now-monolithic publishers started small. With fame comes expansion, in operations and maybe heads.

The artists who designed a funky cover for a zine or a chapbook could grab the eyeballs of a big-name sponsor. And stories pop up every now and then about unknown writers who are lifted to prominence by discerning, renowned literary agents. Certain expectations would have to be met once they enter the mainstream. What happens when the independent artisan becomes a slave of the market?

That's when hard decisions have to be made. Grow big at the cost of quality and the personal touch, or stay the course and (metaphorically) starve?

The onus is then upon the indie writer/editor/designer/marketeer to lay down the law regarding the services he/she offers. Compromises have to be made to allow the artisan to consistently churning out good work while giving him/her the time to improve and live. It is hoped that the good client will understand.

A shapeless future
No longer will the rigid storied institutions determine how things are or should be. Many will be replaced by amorphous collectives, comprising seemingly disparate groups or skilled individuals, that fill similar socio-economical niches and redefine the rules of the game.

Traditional publishing houses will eventually have to adapt to an equally amorphous future, where an author can "redefine" himself/herself just by changing names. Institutions are much harder to change than individuals (some may disagree), but what's the pain of change when compared to the pain of irrelevance? Or oblivion?

Writing under aliases isn't a new thing. However, even the most flowery noms de plume can't hide the stench of bad writing.

Monday, 27 February 2012

News: New Village, (Maybe A) New Book, Peter Mayle and Libraries

After weeks of trawling the web, finally! Some big book news from home.

Headman of New Village
Feeling upbeat for See Tshiung Han (is that how it should be written?) and his New Village project. Check out their web site here.

Masthead for the New Village zine (Issue 0, July 2011), and one of the pages

It's definitely not your... usual kind of fiction. Given the risk-averse nature of the mainstream publishing industry, maybe it's a good idea to strike it out on your own. Self-publishing is becoming the rage, after all.

Congratulations to the New Village team and all the best with the project. ...Wonder if they're taking (literary) contributions?

Coming soon?
The distributors have informed me that they'll be distributing a book by artist Boey Cheeming. He'd e-mailed us sometime back to see if we can help him get what appears to be his illustrated childhood memoir into the local market. Would be thrilling if this comes to pass. In the meantime, read Ah Boey's (sorry, couldn't resist) graphic-heavy journal.

So-called "sex book" banned
One not-so-great news is the ban on Peter Mayle's Where Did I Come From?, a book that's been around when my age was still single digits. I remember reading an ex-neighbour's copy and... well, if the book makes you horny, I think you have some serious issues.

Sex sells, but put sex and Malaysia in the same sentence and you have a legion of news agencies who I presume want to bump up page hits by reporting on the same ban.

When will we ever get into the news for all the right reasons?

Other news
  • Meanwhile, Kenny Mah sussses out some book cafés in Japan. Reminded me of Hoxes at Damansara Perdana, a little hideaway that eventually closed just as soon as I got comfortable.
  • The Librotraficante (Spanish for "Booktrafficker") Movement is opening "underground libraries" in the face of an alleged ban on books on Mexican-American culture.

    Some time ago, the city of Tucson, Arizona banned the teaching of allegedly divisive, ethnically-biased Mexican-American studies in schools. Some see it as part of a wider plan to marginalise the Hispanic community by a state that's increasingly hostile to immigration, specifically Latino immigration.

    Why am I following this? It's just so... suspenseful! I want to know what happens next. And I do hope that there would be no book ban - or any ban whatsoever.
  • Mercer County libraries add e-books to their shelves - but not without hiccups. As reported days ago, some of the big name publishers have stopped selling e-books to libraries. And some old fogies still aren't used to e-readers.
  • New York payphone booths turned into "guerilla libraries". Would it work in Malaysi- no, it won't. But I guess it depends on what kind of books you'd put there....
  • Survivors of the Bosnian war in pictures: The literary treasures of Sarajevo's centuries-old Gazi Husrav Beg Library. Pretty books, pretty pictures.
  • Amazon does it again. The firm that's shaping up to be the Death Star of publishing and bookselling has pulled 5,000 titles by Chicago-based distributor Independent Publishers Group from its catalogue over sales terms. It's Amazon vs Macmillan all over again.

    Meanwhile, another boycott - by Barnes & Noble on Amazon titles - hits a number of books, including Penny Marshall's My Mother Was Nuts. It just means that it won't be displayed at B&N's network of brick-and-mortar shops, where new books are usually showcased. But is this a smart move?
  • Satire, serials and shorts: Publishers are trying out variations of the e-book. Okay, e-books may be democratising publishing, but I still think you need people to make them better.
  • Did you hear about Paramount Studios suing the Puzo estate to prevent more "Godfather" books? The suit claims that a previous Godfather novel "tarnished the legacy" of the film and "misled consumers in connection with advertising, marketing, and promotional material related to the first and second sequel novels".

    Just so happens that I have one of these books on a list of tentative titles to review later. Now I really want to get my hands on it.
  • Speaking in tongues: Aravind Adiga's lingusitic journey. " was common for a boy of my generation to speak one language at home, another on the way to school, and a third one in the classroom. ... Kannada, which I spoke at home, and Hindi, which I had to learn in school, belong to different linguistic families and are as dissimilar as, say, Spanish and Russian."
  • A shortlist for the Diagram prize for oddest book title of the year. Gotta love the standfirst.
  • Oh, and Anthony Bourdain's book imprint Ecco announces new authors and books.

Yes, yes, JK Rowling is writing a book for adults (whatever that means) and US comedian Stephen Colbert is coming up with a children's book. Like I care a whole lot about either.

Friday, 24 February 2012

Language of The Reviewer

Ron Charles's hilarious video "Sh*t Book Reviewers Say" awesomely explains, without much explanation, how some overused words and phrases in book reviews might not belong there.

Some theorise that any review with two or more of such words is either a rush job or a disingenuous dissertation of the book, the author's art or both. Repeated use of certain words in the reviewer's repertoire imply inflexibility, laziness or, depending on the difficulty level, lexical snobbery.

Do any of the following sound familiar?

"'s fun if you like that sort of thing..."

"It's just stunning!"


Holding a copy of Salvage the Bones: "...a love child between Jonathan Franzen and Emily Dickinson."


Holding Jeffrey Eugenides's The Marriage Plot: "It's like a cross between [Jhumpa Lahiri's] Interpreter of Maladies and Pat the Bunny."

"...her lapidary prose..."

" absorbing story...!"

"...gripping... provocative... riveting..."

Holding Karen Russell's Swamplandia: "It's at once thrilling - and deeply sobering...!"

" ...poignant..."

"The pages practically turn themselves!"

"...edgy ...haunting ...wildly imaginative!"


..."lapidary prose." Ha. No prizes for guessing who took that hit.

Because when you call something "Kafkaesque" ("marked by a senseless, disorienting, often menacing complexity"), "Updikean" (like... John Updike), or "Dickensian" (reminds you of the poverty, social injustice and other aspects of Victorian England that Ol' Boz frequently wrote about), you're so not talking to the people who dig Danbrownian, Rowlingesque or Ahernite prose.

I'm guilty of some of these offences as well. A partial indictment:



"...poignant... engaging..."


"...poignant... poignant... poignant... poignant... poignant..." Yes, I'm a serial offender.



It does feel as though I close one eye while typing, doesn't it?

Stripped of the remaining text and laid bare, these "forbidden" words stick out like sore digits. But is it such a horrible crime to re-use some words - particularly if they fit?

Now, let me introduce Orwell's wonderful essay on book reviewing, which I've been dying to do for months since I was given a printout of it.

One passage in the suspiciously autobiographical essay sums up the pain book reviewers go through:

...the prolonged, indiscriminate reviewing of books is a quite exceptionally thankless, irritating and exhausting job. It not only involves praising trash--though it does involve that, as I will show in a moment--but constantly INVENTING reactions towards books about which one has no spontaneous feelings whatever. The reviewer, jaded though he may be, is professionally
interested in books, and out of the thousands that appear annually, there are probably fifty or a hundred that he would enjoy writing about. If he is a top-notcher in his profession he may get hold of ten or twenty of them: more probably he gets hold of two or three. The rest of his work, however conscientious he may be in praising or damning, is in essence humbug. He is pouring his immortal spirit down the drain, half a pint at a time.

...of course, I cannot argue against the existence of book reviewers who, for money or prestige, wallow in this misery.

"So then, Mr Local Book Reviewer, what are your two cents on this issue?"

When I have the time. I have at least two books which I haven't read to review for the papers and several more for the blog.

Wednesday, 22 February 2012

The Week Before Last

...I was busy with things to buy, things to rush, things to eat and drink, and things to read.

Dust mite-busting
After uncovering the main source of my stuffy nose problems, I've been taking small steps to address it...

From left: Demitze anti-dust mite spray, and LactoGG probiotics supplement

...And a Pen-SOH-nik vacuum cleaner, because a man needs at least one power tool in the house. Next on the list: anti-dust mite pillow and mattress protectors.

Book project wrap-up
At work, a book project to wrap up before the tentative date launch date of 10 April this year:

Coming soon to all good bookstores

Since last July, I've been editing this in-between other things at the office. This was a big one in terms of number of pages and images, all in colour.

Now, all we're waiting for is the Cataloguing in Publication data from the National Library. But the other pages are ready for printing.

For now, that's all I'm going to say. More will be revealed once I get my hands on a real copy.

Farewell, Coffee In Love Café
For those who still haven't caught on: the Coffee In Love Café at Easter Nursery, Sri Hartamas has closed, in preparation for a move to Publika, Solaris Dutamas. The café's concept will also change; I heard they're merging coffee with... tattoos.

However, I managed one last weekend visit before that, and how appropriate that Helen the owner was the barista on that day.

Helen in the house at Coffee In Love Café

Kind of sad to see the place go. Hopefully, the coffee, if served at the new place, will still be the same.

Reviews and more books
So a few of my submitted reviews were considered past their sell by date and won't make the papers. I felt less disappointed than I'd thought, probably because I was more concerned with keeping this blog fresh. And I'd read several books during Chinese New Year and finished a review on one of them. I'll be spreading these out over five or six weeks, so I guess I go that covered.

And the distributors' rep suggested more titles for review later, on top of the previous reading list:

Sam Bourne
HarperCollins (Feb 2012)
416 pages
ISBN: 978-0-007413621

Unholy Night
Seth Grahame-Smith
Grand Central Publishing (Apr 2012)
320 pages
ISBN: 978-0-446563099

The Family Corleone
Ed Falco
Grand Central Publishing (May 2012)
448 pages
ISBN: 978-0-446574624

Had a nice dinner last week as well. You'll be hearing about it.


Monday, 20 February 2012

News: E-Book Rush, Book Deals And Libraries In The Lurch

The big news last week was the passing of artiste Whitney Houston. As tributes poured in, some people decided to cash in by publishing e-books dedicated to her and her memory. This, even before she's buried.

All these big pop stars can't even get a break offstage, thanks to the paparazzi and the spectacle-hungry fans they feed with all the latest on their idols. Even in death, her funeral had to be a public spectacle. For the world to mourn along, perhaps. But haven't they been doing that for days prior?

In India, a bookstore dies: The owner of the decades-old Manneys in Pune is folding up his shop because his children aren't interested, and there's no one he can pass the torch on to. So... Will the flame survive long after the hearth is gone? The article says "yes".

Someone is already asking whether out-of-print books can be considered antiques.

  • More e-book app news: The Readium Open Source initiative has been launched to hasten the adoption of the IDPF EPUB 3 standard for e-books. Sounds like a good idea, if Apple, Amazon, etc can get on board. I expect some resistance from Apple in particular.

    Another platform that's "not Apple" (rubbing it in a little, I suspect) is Inkling's free interactive e-book publishing platform.

    Booktype, meanwhile, launches a collection of crowd-sourced e-book tools. From what I can see, it's a bit more involved than Unbound, where authors editors and designers get together to create and publish a book.
  • Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and other publishers are fighting over e-books while libraries suffer. The main concern is, according to the report: "If borrowing a book is too easy, in other words, you won’t buy it."

    It seems the digital book has raised serious legal, logistical and technical concerns among publishers and vendors. The tussles among these titans threaten to leave libraries in the lurch over e-book lending: what are libraries if they can't lend books - physical or digital ones?

    Underscoring that is Penguin's decision to stop selling e-books to libraries. They've also shut down some alleged book piracy sites, including
  • More fighting over Amanda Knox's future memoir, which is likely to discuss her murder trial in Italy. Since then, Knox has signed a US$4m book deal with HarperCollins.

    I'm sceptical, naturally. "Truth"? Perhaps. Booming sales? "Would be nice..." Sure.
  • Some "Crabbit Old Bat" has some tips for you blogging writers. I thought the post makes a great point of reference.
  • Apparently, it's hard to name a publishing house.
  • Not a dream publishing success: Randy Susan Meyer's path towards publication. Think this is what the majority of authors face.
  • Quentin Rowan, aka QR Markham, "author" of the controversial Assassin of Secrets, profiled in The New Yorker.
  • Some non-textual content: Shit book reviewers say, by Washington Post fiction editor Ron Charles. I think there's at least one nod to Michiko Kakutani in there. The way Charles intones, "...her lapidary prose..." just cracks me up.

    Do check out Charles's other video where he wears bacon on his head for his video review of Danielle Evans's short story collection Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self.

    There's more pork as devout Denver Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow reads Green Eggs and Ham by Dr Seuss. And does it quite well, too. Tebow to Tebow.

Friday, 17 February 2012

When New World Changes Old, And Vice Versa

I don't have much to add to this review, other than the doubts I had about the "Mongol empire in ruins". A quick but much-belated check revealed that the Mongol Empire began breaking up around 1368, when the Yuan Dynasty fell and was replaced by the Ming Dynasty.

Now, we have the Internet, which not only informs us when an empire falls but can potentially facilitate the fall of empires. Misinformation, conquest, and war and all its inhumanities, however, are still with us.

Clash of civilisations
The shockwaves of Christopher Columbus's voyages of exploration and discovery five centuries ago still reverberate today

first published in The Star, 17 February 2012

The Christopher Columbus I read about in school was the famous explorer and navigator who discovered America. His image then was viewed through rose-tinted lens, his exploits written and spoken of in admiring tones.

Years later, I'm older, just a teeny bit wiser, and ready for the rest of the story. So thank you, Laurence Bergreen, for writing Columbus: The Four Voyages. This book appears to be an attempt to fill the gaps in the Columbus narrative and explore the darker side of the explorer's forays into parts of the Caribbean. It is dark, and bound to instil revulsion towards the behaviour of the Spaniards who would later hasten the demise of the Inca and Aztec empires.

Apart from the life story of Christopher Columbus, or Cristóbal Colón as he was known in Spain, the author also shows us what it was like in Genoa and Europe back then, thus providing historical context for everything else that followed: Columbus's voyages and the subsequent colonisation of the New World and the subjugation of its native populations. Bergreen also notes that other Genoans before Columbus tried – and failed – to sail across the Atlantic. And the reaction from those who heard about his research: "You mean he made four voyages?" Yes, he did.

The Genoan's idea to cross the Atlantic and arrive in the East was, from Bergreen's writings, a badly informed venture based on mostly unreliable accounts by the likes of Marco Polo and the polymath Ptolemy (c. 90–c. 168CE). By Columbus's time, the rule of the "Grand Khans" in China was long over and the Mongol empire lay in ruins. But he didn't know that.

They even added an image of the explorer, allegedly painted
by Venetian artist Sebastiano del Piombo (1485–1547). No
paintings of Columbus were made when he was alive, and no
one is sure if the guy here is ol' Chris. If he hadn't been
away most of the time...

Of course, the undertaking needed lots of resources. Failing to sell his idea to the king of Portugal, Columbus turned to the Spanish monarchs. His proposal, in short, was: Give me men, ships, and stuff, and a nice shiny title, and I'll bring back spices, gold and all manner of riches – and convert a few locals to Christianity. The self-styled "bearer of Christ" believed his was a holy enterprise. That belief was strengthened by the safe crossing of the Atlantic on his first voyage, and a few other strokes of luck in subsequent journeys to "the East".

But his luck and supposed divine protection was not foolproof. Though a masterful mariner and expert on the water, Columbus was rather clumsy on land and in politics. Many of the men who came with him to the New World on subsequent voyages behaved badly, to say the least. Columbus himself was accused of using torture to keep the peace and force the natives to bring him gold. News of his alleged mismanagement of the New World settlements reached Spain, and at the end of his third voyage, he was sent back in chains and stripped of his authority. After returning from his disastrous fourth and final voyage, he died in 1506, a physical and emotional wreck.

Bergreen has done a good job researching and writing Columbus. The facts practically turn the pages for the reader, though one could argue that it could also be the morbid fascination with people's bad behaviour. Even some of the "noble savages" exhibit varying degrees of political cunning, using their ties with the explorers to their advantage.

As for Columbus himself, sadly, I came away with an impression that he was a self-serving, delusional jerk with gold fever, who was not averse to the idea of enslaving the natives, even those who had been kind to him and his countrymen. The author uses several forms of the word "delusion" a few times.

Though Columbus may not have been the first to reach the Americas, he did make it public, triggering the massive and continuous influx of people to the Americas. A partial result of that is the world-shaping superpower that is today's United States. His name has been given to many roads, buildings, vessels, geographical features, and towns in that country. The native populations there, however, would probably have other opinions.

Bergreen's Four Voyages shouldn't be seen simply as an indictment of his subject's failures – as a governor or explorer of the East – but also a historical account of the consequences of empire, and how lofty goals and high moral grounds can never fully justify the damage done to the colonised in the name of religion, wealth and nation.

Even so, Columbus shouldn't be harshly judged for the times his conduct was less than exemplary. His fate depended on the successes he promised he would achieve upon crossing the Atlantic. If he didn't make it, well, who can say that a world unmarked by his voyages would be any better?

18/10/2014  About a week after this review was published, someone wrote to The Star in response to it. The paper published my reply not long after.

Another issue I felt I haven't explored was the 'true image' of Columbus in comparison with one Bartolomé de las Casas. But I think I'll let The Oatmeal handle that.

The Four Voyages

Laurence Bergreen
Viking (2011)
417 pages
ISBN: 978-0-670-02301-1

Thursday, 16 February 2012

MPH Quill Issue 33, Jan - Mar 2012

This issue is a bit... subdued, but still interesting.

Cover for this issue (left), and the Richard Zimler interview

Andrew Matthews, writer and illustrator of the best-selling self-help Happy books, talks about happiness, attitude, and success. And his latest book on bullying, a departure from his usual theme(s).

Sample shots from the Andrew Matthews feature

...That looks like a real practised smile.

Meanwhile, Eric Forbes speaks with Richard Zimler, author of such books as The last Kabbalist of Lisbon (1996), Hunting Midnight (2003), The Warsaw Anagrams (2011). Also featured is Margaret Stohl, YA author of the Beautiful Creatures series, and the Zapp family who travelled the world in a 1928 vintage Graham-Paige.

First pages of the features for Margaret Stohl (left) and the Zapps

Robert Raymer ponders whether creative writing workshops are fun or torture, while Geoffrey S Walker (The Bomoh's Apprentice (2010) and Blood Reunion (2011)) encounters an otherworldly distraction while writing.

Also included are excerpts of the coffee table book Sikh Community in Malaysia and bits about Charles Dickens, in conjunction with his 200th anniversary of his birth. And visit Cappadocia in the Turkish region of Anatolia, a place known for its chimney-like rock formations. It also has several underground cities where early Christians hid.

There was some talk about an annual issue for 2012, but nothing concrete so far.

Wednesday, 15 February 2012

News: Dickens 200th, E-Book Apps, And The Amazon Boycott

Last Tuesday (7 February) marked the 200th birthday of Charles John Huffam Dickens, author of such works as A Christmas Carol, David Copperfield and Oliver Twist and founder of the literary magazine All the Year Round. I'd say more, but I haven't read or am familiar with his life or writings. Maybe it's the language, or the length of some of his works.

Bring in the e-book apps. Last week CNet featured another e-book publishing app: Booktango, plus some self-publishing tips. And the Booktrack soundtrack app for books "works", app-arently. The way things are going for e-books, we'll be watching movies on smartphones.

Red Staple Inc, meanwhile, has announced the release its browser-based, Red Staple Enhanced ePub Authoring Tools. And French firm Aquafadas is offering tools to help comic creators self-publish digitally.

Also: There's this book, A Lifespan of a Fact, which is said to be about the task of fact-checker for a novel in progress. The excerpt, however, does the book little help: it looks like part of an exchange between a beleaguered fact-checker trying to do his job and an author who changes facts to better suit his "art". It does looked hammed up, doesn't it? Despite the apparently less-than-glowing reviews of the book, I'm still curious about it.

Some time ago, Barnes & Noble announced that they won't be selling books published by Amazon, in protest of the latter's allegedly aggressive tactics to monopolise the book publishing sector. That number rose to three with Canadian outfit Indigo and US company Books-A-Million following suit. Then the American Booksellers Association for-profit division IndieCommerce hopped into the anti-Amazon bandwagon.

In the short-term, this tactic may help highlight Amazon's bold moves and open it up to some scrutiny, but I'm not sure what it would do to these companies in the long run as Amazon cranks out more and more popular titles.

  • Running on empty: US indie publishing house Grateful Steps in Asheville, Colorado. Working without pay? In the US? That's dedication.
  • Edinburgh book festival chief Nick Barley wants authors, not celebrities.
  • Writer Adam Mars-Jones's take on Michael Cunningham's By Nightfall wins The Omnivore's inaugural hatchet job award. The prize is given to the 'writer of the angriest, funniest, most trenchant book review' of the past year 'not to punish bad writing, but to reward good and brave and funny and learned reviewing'", says the Guardian report.
  • Tamil audio books, it seems, are making a comeback in India.
  • Another self-publishing success story: Kerry Wilkinson sells over 250,000 copies on Kindle, beating Lee Child, Stieg Larsson and James Patterson.
  • The future of academic publishing: accessible, borderless, connected. Sounds like the Internet.
  • What's missing from children's books of late? A study suggests that kids' books these days are being set in nature less and less. Imagine that. And imagine this:

    "Junior, stop changing your iPhones so often. Money doesn't grow on trees, you know."

    "Trees? What are they?"

    Shudder. Elsewhere, more and more parents are reading less and less fairy tales to their kids. Why? "Too scary," it seems. Look at the top ten list. Of course "Jack and the Beanstalk" is "unrealistic". It's. A. Fairy. Tale. Make-believe.

    If only they knew just how Grimm some fairy tales used to be. Guess they don't make kids like they used to.

Monday, 6 February 2012

News: Franzen, Coelho And An Endangered Publishing Ecosystem

It's been three hours since I returned from a gym. That's my resolution for this year: spend some time working out - and tackling that problem I've had for years.

Some big news includes Jonathan Franzen's rant about e-books damaging society and endangering democracy. Daily Beast blogger Andrew Sullivan blows off the latter, calling it "Wieseltierian piffle" (whatever that is). Sullivan's readers put in their two cents on the issue.

But Franzen isn't the only author who seems to hate e-books, and e-books aren't the only things he hates. That being said, "Things Jonathan Franzen Says Are Bad for Society" would make a great e-booklet.

Paulo Coelho, however, loves e-books. So much so, that he's spreading that love - by asking people to pirate his e-books. It's understandable when you know that he claims to owe his big break to his decision to make The Alchemist free for download on his web site. But Coelho's no struggling author, and I don't think he's sending out the right kind of message with his "Pirate Me!" plea.

  • The Amazon vs Other Publishing Houses battle heats up with Barnes & Noble announcing that they won't stock books published by Amazon. Also joining the boycott is Canada's Indigo Books and Music. This guy says that move won't work.

    Someone even went so far as to say that Barnes & Noble is the last hope for traditional publishers. I hope B&N won't take that too seriously because, well, look at Borders. The Authors Guild, part of the Authors League of America, blogged its take on a "publishing ecosystem on the brink".

    Amazon, meanwhile, gets achy breaky with a publishing deal for Billy Ray Cyrus's memoir. Because who can resist the urge to insert "achy breaky" in a sentence like that?
  • In response to the ban on Mexican American studies in Tucson, Arizona, which entails an alleged ban on books about Latino history and culture, the Librotraficante movement is planning to smuggle books that would be banned back into the state. Elsewhere in the US, some schools are adopting Mexican American studies.
  • Some "big" and familiar reasons why indie authors are not taken seriously.
  • Flavorwire's list of the most dangerous books of all time.
  • An interesting piece on marriage and bookshelves. We've all heard of joint bank accounts - joint home libraries, anyone? I didn't know having different reading preferences could be a problem for married couples.
  • Ewan Morrison says we're at the start of an e-publishing bubble. A dissenting voice speaks out. Also, there may be problems in pushing e-textbooks at one university.
  • An author's guest post about the first month in Amazon's Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP) Select programme. In short: you won't get rich quick.
  • Some things learned from opening a bookstore: tips for buying bookshelves, recommending books and stocking free stuff baskets. Because lists like these can come in handy.
  • Why do we insist on learning lessons from the books we read? ...Yeah, why do we?
  • Someone asks: Should "Mein Kampf", with its "hundreds of pages of turgid, often incoherent prose," remain banned? I say no. The ban hasn't worked at all in stopping the hate. And the "Never" in "Never again" is happening to other people.
  • Another thing we share with Indonesians: not reading a lot of good books. No simple explanations here, however.
  • It's not just budding millionaire YA authors. Serious photojournalists also have trouble publishing books. Here's one photojourno's rocky road towards publishing his book on the illegal trade of endangered species.
  • Weighed down by serious reads? Take a book break and sit down with something lighter. Don't think anyone should be judged for that.
  • Moon People is probably the worst book ever (for 2012) - just look at the excerpts. Makes me excited about what "the worst book ever" will be for 2013.

Sunday, 5 February 2012

A Nearly Fulfilled Prophecy

“There shall come a day when a prince of my line shall possess this treasure, and it is that prince who shall make all lands below the wind subject to him.”

So promises Malik al-Mansur, the last king of Beruas, to anyone who finds the hoard of riches and artefacts he'd assembled and hidden after the Portuguese invaders sacked his kingdom. This is the premise of Iskandar Al-Bakri's debut, The Beruas Prophecy, published by Silverfish Books.

No vampires, zombies, child wizards or sentient jewellery here. This piquant package features a legendary treasure trove, villainous orang putih, Malay secret societies and unlikely heroes. We also get magic and an appearance by Taming Sari, the keris once wielded by the legendary warrior Hang Tuah.

Months before the Pangkor Treaty is to be signed, a promising silat student is shot dead by a bullying British officer. Said officer is part of a plot to destabilise Perak through the use of pirates, so that the Brits can "intervene" and set up shop in the state. But this officer and his cohorts are also looking for the fabled hoard of Malik al-Mansur, who ruled Beruas around the twilight of the Malaccan Sultanate.

Searching for the treasure, these Brits also get tangled up with two Malay secret societies. Indera Sakti, founded after the fall of Malacca, has become a nest of vipers who seeks the fulfilment of Malik al-Mansur's prophecy by one of their own. Darul Kubra, at odds with Indera Sakti, wants to keep the treasure a secret. A power struggle between two Indera Sakti factions adds to the excitement.

While causing trouble at the British's behest, pirate king and Indera Sakti bigwig Sabu sacks the village of Kuala Sepetang, the home of village elder and silat grandmaster SiTumi. Burning with vengeance, the old man and several other villagers join members of Darul Kubra who are out to foil Indera Sakti's latest schemes. Clashes of swords, silat and sorcery would follow.

If this book were a dish, it has all the ingredients - albeit with a little English mustard - for an exciting, gripping made-in-Malaysia senjata dan sihir epic with lip-smacking local flavours. It's also aesthetically pleasing: nice cover, nice typeface, and a comfortable layout. Reading about Malay traditions and jampi (incantations) in English feels like a sunny burst of citrus. Even Hang Tuah's origins and significance are explored briefly. No apparent romance sub-plots, but no problem.

...except the overly detailed "tell instead of show" narrative - from the first paragraph of page one.

Balik Pulau, 1823. Friday evening just after eight. Yaakob lives with his wife and three daughters in a village in the west of Penang Island. His house is a modest, timber one that has just two rooms. Yaakob built it with the help of his neighbours a week before his wedding, many years ago. His wife has planted vegetables and tapioca in the front yard, and banana along the sides.

Everything else after the description of Yaakob's house is not critical to the storyline. Also, we probably don't need to know that one Sir Robert Fullerton "was born in 1773, the son of Reverend William Fullerton", etc etc.

These awkward little info dumps continue throughout the book, even for cameo characters such as SiTumi's daughter Minah. One page after she first appears, the fish salter and mother is killed with a head shot by pirates raiding Kuala Sepetang. Nowhere is she depicted salting fish. She doesn't even get to take out a pirate's eye with a well-thrown ikan kembung masin, which would have been awesome.

Instead of the compelling cinematic tale it could have been, we get a wayang kulit where the dalang moves the characters about and recites the story. Action scenes become formulaic, jokes fall flat and the mysticism and lore sound clinically curated. One casualty is The Dark Mambang; the spiritual patron of Indera Sakti is more Muppet than malevolent in its appearances.

I've not seen a pendekar Melayu (Malay warrior) novel in English that's written this well, and with such good material. If not for the staid, sporadically choppy storytelling, The Beruas Prophecy would be a fine example for its genre.

The Beruas Prophecy
Iskandar Al-Bakri
Silverfish Books (2011)
233 pages
ISBN: 978-983-3221-34-9

Friday, 3 February 2012

Franzen's Freedom Fries

Heard about Jonathan Franzen's rant about e-books corroding social values and endangering democracy? I am, and you should be, puzzled at the leap from e-books to self-government. It's such a sudden transition that one wonders whether the journo skipped a paragraph or two somewhere.

However, some points are worth pondering.

I don't know if the "radical contingency" in the fluidity and stealth of e-book edits can "threaten democracy", but what I thought was pertinent was this bit when he argued for paper books: "Someone worked really hard to make the language just right, just the way they wanted it. They were so sure of it that they printed it in ink, on paper."

One year in publishing has taught me that one is never really, really sure if a book is going to be right, even after it's printed. Something will slip through: missing punctuation marks, typos and the like, or the occasional, unfortunately nuanced phrase. What we do is try. Really hard.

The loads of people touting e-books and self-publishing as the future appear to be inadvertently selling the myth that digital self-publishing is a viable road towards best-sellership in the new millennium.

Probably, but not without the "hard work" that goes into Franzen's idea of the book, such as editing and marketing. Why else did that self-publishing wunderkind eventually seek the help of traditional publishers?

Franzen also reportedly made a statement that suggests we left our nations' financial decisions to bankers because we're too busy with our gadgets:

If you go to Europe, politicians don't matter. The people making the decisions in Europe are bankers. The technicians of finance are making the decisions there. It has very little to do with democracy or the will of the people. And we are hostage to that because we like our iPhones.

Makes you wonder, right? Was it the editorial standards or did Franzen's train of thought, in fact, skip a few rails?

I do agree that the tech boom has its dark side. Hardware manufacturers seemed to be pushing newer, faster, smaller, higher capacity, etc on consumers, creating a market that recycles its gadgets every year or so. Like the Walter Berglund character in Franzen's Freedom, many of us are kept awake at night by the "trillion bits of distracting noise", finding ways to contribute to the chatter for no apparent reason other than to belong. Our offline lives become mundane.

Perhaps that's why some people shouldn't be connected to the Internet when they want to write or work.

But as it has already been pointed out, neither paper nor digital media confer a true sense of permanence. Paper degrades, turns colour or becomes mildewy. And what if an e-publisher pulls a book from its library? Then, this claim:

...Apple, for instance, is well-known for both refusing to publish apps for the iPhone/iPad/iPod ecosystem that offend its editorial sensibilities or are contrary to its own business goals, and revoking previously-published apps, effectively deleting them from customers' devices.

If true, isn't that more of a threat to democracy - and freedom of speech or expression - that the addiction to gadgets?

Books will be around, and it will take on other forms. Some of us just need more time than others to get used to the changes.

Wednesday, 1 February 2012

Read, Read, Read Some More

Hey, it's fill- um, reading list time.

I've been loaned a couple of books for perusal, and given a list of new and upcoming books to pick for review. And here are my selections from that pool, in no particular order:

  • The Natural
    Richard La Ruina
    HarperOne (February 2012)
    224 pages (hardcover)
    ISBN: 978-0-062-08978-6
  • The Mirage
    Naguib Mahfouz
    Anchor (February 2012)
    480 pages
    ISBN: 978-0-307742582
  • The Wisdom of Beer
    Christopher G Moore
    Heaven Lake Press (2011)
    310 pages
    ISBN: 978-616-7503-11-0
  • A Land More Kind Than Home
    Wiley Cash
    William Morrow (April 2012)
    ISBN: 978-0-062088147
  • An Unexpected Guest
    Anne Korkeakivi
    Little, Brown (April 2012)
    ISBN: 978-0-316-21266-3

I won't be reviewing The Wisdom of Beer for the papers, though. As for the rest, well, there's no confirmation, either. But I hope I get to read them all.