The growing popularity of alternative publishers such as DuBook, Thukul Cetak and Lejen Press is a welcome change (“an absolute delight”) to Raman Krishnan of Silverfish Books, a company many regarded as the catalyst in the independent bookselling and publishing scene in Malaysia. “When we first started in 2002, there were hardly any publishers except for Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka, which was a government body initially set up to support the use of the national language. Unfortunately, they decided to get into publishing and bookselling business, and that has been detrimental to the competition in the Malay language market,” observes Raman, adding that the current crop of alternative publishers “are doing a wonderful job. They are driven almost entirely by passion and their books—although the quality is a little uneven. Silverfish Books will support them in any way that we can, and I hope more will enter the space.”
As for the alternative readership, publisher Amir Muhammad of indie-turned-mainstream Buku Fixi offers some insights. “Seventy percent of our readers are young women, and they don’t want to be fed only with romantic ideals of their future husband, which is the most popular theme in local publications. The remaining 30% means that boys do read, and that figure is actually considered freakishly high in Malaysia.” Amir also notes that books with regional flavors tend to do well because “readers hailing from those places feel a sense of ownership, and yet the content remains accessible to other readers.”
The list of alternative presses has gotten longer in recent years, with DuBook Press, Lejen Press, Selut, Terfaktab, Thukul Cetak, Rabak Lit, Simptomatik and Puja Buku joining Gerakbudaya/SIRD. PW speaks to a few of them to get a sense of the flourishing industry.
The right to write and read, as long as the content does not propagate hate or discrimation, is the principle driving five-year-old DuBook Press to serve as a platform for sharing ideas, narrating stories, and igniting the consciousness, says CIO Lucius Maximus. “Our logo of a hyena—which is ‘dubuk’ in Malay—accompanied by the ‘Wild and Imperious’ slogan accentuates an approach of doing things differently and a steadfast stand on our principle and belief on the right to publish, and the right for people to read what they want.”
This stance has led to bestsellers with intriguing titles such as Terima Kasih Si Babi Hutan (“Thank You Boar”), DIAgnosis (about doctors and God; 31,000 copies sold), and Sekolah Bukan Penjara, Universiti Bukan Kilang (“Schools Aren’t Prisons, Universities Aren’t Factories”; 12,000 copies). Terima Kasih Si Babi Hutan, about the writer’s journey in gaining custody of his kidnapped son, sold 15,000 copies in its first month, driven by the author’s huge social media following and the true story gripping the nation. Maximus himself authored three bestsellers including How Malaysia Never Reached the World Cup, which fed the nation’s soccer craze, and was translated into English by Buku Fixi.
New titles coming out over the next few months include nonfiction Media = Setan (“Media = Devil”; on media manipulation and lies) and DuBook’s first children’s title Yaya & Fufu, which deals with the serious subject of human rights. Its catalogue, which also offers non-book merchandize such as car stickers and posters, will have 63 titles by the end of the year.
Distribution-wise, DuBook is unique in its “agenting” model. “We started as a garage publisher, publishing and printing the books on our own, and selling them directly by ourselves. But since we are not able to cover the whole nation, we appoint agents to represent us,” explains Maximus, adding that the majority of his 200 agents are university students, who sold DuBook titles within their respective campuses.
The younger generation is moving away from the usual Malay romance novels, which have been dominating the local publishing scene, to new topics, issues and ideas from alternative publishers such as Thukul Cetak, Buku Fixi and Merpati Jingga and DuBook, observes Maximus, adding that “the future of Malaysia’s publishing industry is promising especially with the growing interest among the locals to read more books. However, whether our industry will be able to achieve similar progress like in the West or even neighboring Indonesia depends on our government’s willingness to be open to critical and liberal writings, which are what Malaysians are craving now.”
At Gerakbudaya (literally, “cultural movement”), the focus is on social sciences, Malaysian studies and Southeast Asian titles. Established in 1998, it has published 300-odd titles—mostly in English and Malay with some in Chinese—with bestsellers such as Bridget Welsh’s Awakening: The Abdullah Badawi Years in Malaysia, Alan Shadrake’s Once a Jolly Hangman: Singapore Justice in the Dock, Musimgrafik’s Where Monsoons Meet: A People’s History of Malaya, Megat Hanis’s Mitos Mahasiswa Sibuk (“Myth of the Busy Student”) and Anas Alam Faizli’s Rich Malaysia, Poor Malaysians. Publications are mostly under its sister imprint SIRD (Strategic Information and Research Development Center), which caters predominantly to the needs of academics, activists and policy-makers.
Given the societal and political changes both in Malaysia and international arena, observes owner Chong Ton Sin, “young people are motivated to search for books that teach them about democracy, freedom and equality. Reading is a key part of how they pursue a new kind of social change in their home country. And since our aim is to contribute to this social change movement, we encourage more people to write books and read them in order to build their critical, radical and independent thinking. We also organize forums and discussions on current issues to get them thinking.”
But obtaining quality manuscripts and working the small Malaysian market, adds Chong, are major challenges. “For our bookshop, the competition from big chain stores and the difficulties in finding a good shop manager are the main issues.” About 30% of titles displayed at its bookshop are by Gerakbudaya/SIRD; the rest from local publishers such as Silverfish Books, The Other Press, Matahari Books, Research for Social Advancement and Third World Network. “We expect the market for books like ours to be larger in the future, and as with publishers and booksellers anywhere, we also have to face the competition from the Internet.”
At Gerakbudaya, there is no such thing as “anti-government” or “controversial” because “all books merely express the authors’ views and they have every right to express them. So, of course, we do not censor our publications,” adds Chong, who had several titles deemed “sensitive” seized by the Home Ministry from his booth at the recent Kuala Lumpur International Book Fair; to-date, there has been no penalty or further action. But for Chong, “this is disturbing to Gerakbudaya and other publishers and booksellers who are working to encourage critical thinking and open discussion.”
With almost 100,000 followers on Facebook, 20,000 on Instagram and 19,700 on Twitter, social media contributes 20% to Lejen Press’s overall sales. “Our team posts and shares at least five times per day the latest releases, reprints, and comments and reviews from other readers about our titles,” says managing director Aisamuddin Asri, better known as Aisa Linglung, who founded the alternative press in 2011.
Its catalogue lists 65 titles, with two or three new books added every month. Bestsellers are many, one of which is Nomy Nozwir’s Awek Chuck Taylor. The story about a Malay slacker guy befriending an agnostic girl is now in its 11th printing, having sold more than 30,000 copies. Another bestseller, Azwar Kamaruzaman’s Babi (“Pig”, an animal considered unclean to Muslims) is about an illegitimate guy’s personal journey in understanding his religion. Many bookstores do not carry Babi because of its controversial title, says Aisa, “and that makes it highly demanded at road tours and book fairs throughout Malaysia.” Psiko (“Psycho”), which was almost banned by the government due to its violent and sexy content, has also found its way to Lejen’s Top Ten list.
“We just want to offer something different that is not found in the current book market,” adds Aisa, whose team chooses titles to publish based on shock value (“to trigger interest and hype”) and relevancy (“shared experiences”), with a dose of experimentation thrown into the mix, hence titles on cannibalism and Japanese ghost, for instance. “Local Malay titles are mostly love stories—so much so that it is stereotyped as a part of the Malaysian culture especially among Malay readers. Our aims are to provide a platform for new and fresh talents to write, and to attract people to read more. Our unique titles are not just for women but also for men, who tend not to read. We have edgy and interesting covers that most men will not be ashamed to read in public.”
The reading habit among Malaysians has changed in recent years and so has the make-up of the readership,” observes Aisa, who finds the biggest challenge to be the monopoly of the book business by mainstream publishers, which led him to establish I Am Lejen Shop last year to distribute his own titles and those by other alternative publishers such as Buku Fixi, DuBook and Selut. “This is about helping all new and upcoming publishers in their business, and as a way for alternative presses to unite as a community,” says Aisa, whose store also sells printed shirts, posters and other merchandise from its second-floor boutique.
Nine-month-old Thukul Cetak (literally, “Hammer Press”), the latest to join the alternative publishing scene, is motivated by the lack of serious discourse on politics, economics, philosophy and sociology in Malaysia. Its first publication, Fathi Aris Omar’s Agong Tanpa Tengkolok (“King Without Headdress”), created a lot of controversy with its cover depicting former premier Mahathir Mohamad with a sketched king’s headdress and content dealing with the effects of political power on religion, culture, language and critical thinking. It sold 1,000 copies within the first month of its launch, and is now in its third printing.
Founder (and educator) Zul Fikri Zamir is unapologetic about using provocative covers for his titles, or having ‘Tough and Fighting’ as the press’s slogan in representing the type of nonfiction that he is interested in publishing. So far, Thukul Cetak has five titles, including Azhar Ibrahim’s Utopia Masyarakat Lambak (a discourse on the alternative/indie scene), Faisal Tehrani’s Cerpen-cerpen Underground (“Underground Short Stories”) and Zul’s latest, Berlari dari Jogja (a travelogue about finding faith and humanity). Upcoming titles include those on the philosophies of Plato, Kafka, Camus, Derrida, Sartre and Che Guevara. The goal, he adds, is to publish three titles per month.
“Publishers such as Buku Fixi, Lejen Press and DuBook opened the market with their alternative titles, and make it trendy in the sense that you will often find young adults buying, reading and collecting their whole list. It is now hip and smart to read books by garage publishers like us. So we are using this rare opportunity to provide content that will provoke youth to think independently and critically about their environment,” says Zul, who authored bestseller Sekolah Bukan Penjara, Universiti Bukan Kilang (“Schools Aren’t Prisons, Universities Aren’t Factories”; published by DuBook). He is also the co-founder of Teach For the Needs, a non-governmental organization for education volunteerism and activitism, and a columnist for independent online newspaper, Malay Mail.
The alternative book publishing business is getting bigger and stronger, he adds. “We are coming together as a community to get more people to read broader topics, and to discuss and think about them. The public no longers sees ‘alternative’ in a negative light or equating it with bad influence, and that is a big leap forward in thinking and awareness. At Thukul Cetak, we are tough and undeterred, and we will continue fighting for independent and critical thinking through our publications—which is what we promise through our slogan.”