Monday, 15 August 2016

MPH Writer's Circle: On Saleable Malaysian Fiction

After attending panel discussions on various topics over a few years, I found myself among several other panellists - including publisher and writer Amir Muhammad, author Tunku Halim, and editor Eric Forbes of MPH Group Publishing (the panel's organisers) - discussing "Malaysian fiction that sells" during the MPH Writer's Circle event at MPH Nu Sentral on 13 August.

Frankly, I felt more like a seat-warmer than a contributor on that panel.

(Disclosure: Since I'm also from the organiser's side, I participated in my capacity as a book reviewer, though I do not have an idée fixe with regard to what makes a perfect book. That was from the sales and marketing executive, who I used to mercilessly tease for her lack of general knowledge. Seems she's wised up since then; she probably threw that term at me in revenge.)

The discussion was two hours long, but I think we started a bit late, the audience had little to ask the panellists, and there wasn't enough time to go deeper into some of the topics.

The question of what type of Malaysian fiction sells has been asked frequently and, I feel, has never been adequately or satisfactorily answered. Not even by this all-male panel (I was told all the female writers the organisers wanted to invite were unavailable for that date). I also felt that we just scratched the surface with the questions we were given.

The discussion opened with the question of best- and worst-selling genres of fiction. Horror and thrillers topped the list (and, with regard to BM fiction, the usual suspects), while the worst-selling genres are sci-fi and fantasy - even for Fixi titles.

Would a best-selling Malay fiction book do well if translated into English (and vice versa)? Fixi boss Amir Muhammad suggested that the draw with certain translations - whether from English to Malay or vice versa - is mostly the novelty. Maybe some would want, say, a BM copy of King's Joyland to see what the story would sound like in Malay. Besides, many Malaysians are already bilingual, so what's the point?

But the popularity of translated works depends on the story and the translator's skill. And not all phrases were translated: Amir said that in a BM translation of an English novel, the phrase "ham and cheese sandwich" was mostly untranslated from the original.

What about illustrations for fiction books? Eric Forbes said no, as works of fiction tend to be text-driven. However, Tunku Halim's Fixi novel, A Malaysian Restaurant in London, has illustrations by "Chee", a comic-book artist. "We put in the illustrations because there weren't enough pages for the book," Amir admitted, drawing laughter.

How important is the cover for fiction books, and is it more important than for non-fiction? Quite important, from what I understand. A couple of times, Tunku Halim's collection, Horror Stories, was referenced. The cover sports a pair of scared person's eyes and a "negative" review from the New Straits Times: "the most unpleasant book I've read". Because "unpleasant" draws more eyeballs than "boring".

This isn't a new tactic. A trio of horror (or, what I think are horror) novels began with the title Jangan Baca Novel Ni ("Don't read This Novel"). And who can resist a request to "wreck this journal"?

How important is it for the theme to be localised? Should the story be based in Malaysia? An upcoming Fixi book, the audience was told, is set in the US, but dialogue is in Malay, "and it works". So, it's back to storytelling and writing skill. I chipped in (I think I did), begging the audience not to write anymore "Malaya in wartime" stories or the like. Brian Gomez's Devil's Place was touted as a quintessential Malaysian novel, one locals will "get" because it's, well, so Malaysian.

How important is it for the author to be well known? Can a first-time author succeed? Authors can be well known without having published a book first, e.g., the Komik Ronyok guy, who has thousands of followers on social media. And, believe it or not, that British housewife who made millions from Twilight fan fiction had a fan base before she was published on dead trees.

What is a good price range for for English and for Malay local fiction books? One figure came up: RM19.90 - bien sûr, the average price of a Fixi novel. Because, Amir claimed, once the price goes into the twenties, people begin to reconsider. Fixi's boss also cited "the Big Bad Wolf factor" in pricing, but he's learnt to work with them; Fixi published limited-edition short-story anthologies for the event: Malam for 2014 and II (Dua) for 2015.

What is a good sales figure for local fiction books in English and Malay? Can't remember the quoted numbers, but I think upwards of 3,000 copies for English, while popular Malay titles can reach the 100,000 mark. Successes like Horror Stories (over 20,000 copies) are rare.

Okay, submissions: full manuscripts or novel concepts? When Fixi accepted synopses and first couple of chapters, they got lots of submissions but most were Hunger Games-style dystopian themes. Ergo, full manuscripts, please. Complete 'scripts also help speed up the publishing process, and it's nice to have an almost-finished product to work with.

Fiction authors CAN use ghostwriters to help them complete a manuscript, but the panellists don't seem too thrilled with the idea. Amir cited Naomi Campbell's novel and an incident where she was asked about something in the book and she was said to have replied, "I haven't read that far yet."

On the viability of pen-names: well, if you're going to make a buck by writing naughty stories, it's best to hide behind one to avoid bringing shame to the family. There was also the case of Patricia O'Brien, a.k.a. Kate Alcott and J.K. Rowling, writing as Robert Galbraith.

And all those Malay romance novels? Not all penned by women, as this story reveals. Many contributors to the series of romance novels from the likes of Harlequin and Mills & Boon hid behind pen-names too. When Amir revealed this during an edition of the Cooler Lumpur Festival, however, I was surprised.

Finally, the "general advice to aspiring fiction authors" bit. Tunku Halim said to write what you love, and one needs passion for the subject being written. Eric added that stories also have to be well written and well edited; once that happens, one is well on the way towards getting published. Well-polished manuscripts also make editors happy.

Someone in the audience wanted to know how to go about starting to write and what's a good word count. Eric was all, "don't think about word counts when writing". Amir suggested submitting to international literary journals, where the criteria, including word count, is set. Some journals charge a small fee, he added, to ensure those who submitted were serious about writing.

Another audience member asked about the viability of e-books. Well, digital publishing hasn't quite taken off as expected, especially in this region. Seems the two biggest e-book players, Amazon's Kindle and Apple's iBooks, aren't keen on operating here. Amir illustrated why: at a book fair, he saw someone nonchalantly taking photos of an already heavily discounted cookbook - basically pirating it.

Seems part of the problem isn't just the lack of quality fiction, but also the lack of quality readers.

I vaguely remember calling readers and book-buyers risk-averse, unadventurous and unwilling to explore other genres or stories that are harder to relate to - perhaps one reason why sci-fi and fantasy titles have failed to take off. I believe it was Tunku Halim who said that they can't get into these genres in general because they lacked the capacity to imagine the worlds unfurl in their heads as they read.

Then again, things like, say, a Snow White/Avatar mash-up is probably way out there for most people.

Amazingly, it was revealed that a bestselling genre - and one said to be popular on the e-book platform - is erotica. "Amazingly", because I never thought it would come up in this discussion.

Before the panel convened, I spoke to two acquaintances in the audience about the possibility of making it big - if it was legal - by churning out lewd awek tudung fantasies. I was being hyperbolic, but I was surprised when they agreed with me and contributed other premises for the genre.

Hearsay abounds regarding writers, including a few local ones, who made international bestseller lists with what is essentially smut. I haven't read any of those, so I can't comment further. And the organisers are not encouraging that sort of thing as a career path.

I suppose the holy Grail, the magic bullet, the philosopher's stone of writing (legit) best-selling Malaysian fiction (you can take home to your parents) remains elusive. so I'm not sure if we achieved much with the panel discussion, other than make the scene even more daunting for aspiring authors of fiction in the audience.

But I guess one way to get things going and people writing, hopefully, is to keep talking.


MPH Group Publishing editor Eric Forbes, i.e., the chief, had a little more to add as a primer for aspiring authors.

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