Thursday, 10 December 2015

"Publish More Books"? Can We?

first published in The Malay Mail Online, 10 December 2015

What should I make of the Deputy Prime Minister's call to publish more books to make Malaysia a quality publishing powerhouse by 2057?

Has he had a long, hard look at the situation with the local publishing industry before making this exhortation? Is he aware of certain issues that might impede this drive to meet what I feel is just another in a long list of key performance indexes (KPIs)?

Will meeting this KPI of 1,000 titles per million population in developed countries, as defined by Unesco, really bring Malaysia closer to developed-nation status? Or will this index just be used as window-dressing at the next meeting, event, or the tabling of some report on development goals?

And if book production by local publishers does ramp up in the coming years, how much of the output will be read by locals? Will the increase change our reading habits in any way?

Has anyone researched what's behind the average publication to population ratio in developed countries? How did Unesco come up with that ratio? Has anyone ever thought about why the publishing industry in developed countries appear to be better or more productive than ours at the moment?

Could the education system in developed countries have something to do with the quality of what's being read, written or published there? Is anyone willing to get the relevant authorities to look into steps to revamp certain education policies to match those in developed countries?

Do the titles for meeting this KPI also include hagiographies, article compilations, "romance" novels, academic journals, coffee-table books, books with religious themes and tomes that peddle Arab-centric conspiracy theories?

If the above is insufficient, what about engaging the independent book publishers? Are certain parties in government averse to this option? Why? Is it because some of those involved in indie book publishing tend to be young, daring, socially savvy and forward-thinking individuals who are most likely to balk at the boneheadedness displayed by some of our officials?

Shouldn't these independent operators receive some form of support or encouragement, instead of being branded as "anti-establishment", subversive and whatnot? Is this how we see the next generation of leaders, publishers and writers - and, perhaps, our future hopes for international recognition?

Also: are writers in developed countries as restricted in what they say or write as many of us are over here? Do they have censorship laws that seem to be based on checklists that work more like Internet filters? Do they even filter the Internet over there?

How efficient are censors in developed countries in screening books and banning those deemed detrimental to national security and harmony? Are there cases where books are banned after, say, a year or so after publication and after hundreds of copies have been sold? Hell, do they even ban books over there, like, say, the way we do?

Is our DPM, who's also the Home Minister, willing to advocate for a loosening of these restrictions if it would help Malaysians write and publish even more? If he does, will we put aside our apathy and cynicism and rally behind him?

(Out of curiosity, what do citizens of developed countries think about some of our output, which includes so-called "romance novels" that feature firemen, students, religious preachers and security guards? Why don't we have such works translated and marketed overseas so that internationals can sample and critique them?)

If affordability and quality are also issues, why are they? And if publishers can't blame the "soft market" for low output, who should they blame, then? Why does it seem so hard for Malaysian publishers and writers to break into the international market?

Or do Malaysian publishers and other book-related agencies have their priorities a little skewed of late, like this article (in Malay) suggests? A "Tastes of Malaysia" theme? At the Frankfurt Book Fair?

And has anyone delved deeply into the reading habits of Malaysians? What comes to mind first when selecting reading materials? Am I wrong to say that Malaysians - including myself — prioritise price above all else, judging from the reception we give to warehouse sales and the like?

Am I also rude to suggest that Malaysians in general are neither adventurous nor courageous when it comes to reading materials, since we seem to prefer following the herd (like how we "investigate" food places), reading what entertains us and justifies our prejudices and world views, rather than the challenging and discomfiting stuff?

Given all this, are we as a nation ready for the shift from in publishing developing to developed status? Should we wait for the government to lay everything down in place before we take the leap, or do we find the courage to take the plunge ourselves?

Okay, ran away with this so fast I'd forgotten about the textbook flap that was reported some time ago.


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