Rights traffic, as expected in a small book market like Malaysia, typically flows one way, with English-to-Malay translations mostly found in the education and reference segments. Given that English is read and spoken throughout Malaysia—especially by those in their 50s and older who went through English-language schools—fiction, nonfiction, and other genres are directly (and widely) imported from the U.K. and U.S.
Local publications are tailored for domestic consumption, and rights negotiation, if any, tends to be with neighboring Indonesia, where the language is similar and translation is thus easier. Heavily illustrated children’s books with little text, on the other hand, are made for translations anywhere. Throw in cultural nuances and local context, and homegrown children’s titles—from YGL Media (see below), for instance—have found favor with parents and kids in countries as far away as Germany and Switzerland. But selling rights as a business is new, with most publishers relying on in-house rights departments to buy and sell titles. So independent rights agencies are very few and small.
For Jonathan Ng, whose eponymous publishing agency represents Weldon Owen, Highlights, Geddes & Grosset/Waverley Books, Compass Media, and eight other publishers for the Southeast Asian markets, it’s all about coeditions and rights sales. “Both 2013 and 2014 were good years. But the sliding ringgit, 6% GST, and the ensuing softer consumer demand have cast a pall over the current Malaysian market. Hopefully, this is temporary, and, if so, then the overall outlook for children’s segment remains strong.”
Recent months have seen Ng selling eight of Highlights’ Hidden Picture Puzzles (“with the local licensee, who has sold more than 20,000 copies within two months, preparing to sign up for another eight titles,” he says), Webster’s Concise Dictionary and Thesaurus, Webster’s Word Power English, Sunshine Books’ Discovering Asia series, and Weldon Owen’s Children’s Encyclopedia of Animals. “Reference titles tend to do well in Malaysia,” he adds. Ng negotiated the rights of 70-odd titles and directly imported several hundreds more last year.
“In view of the small market, I usually encourage local publishers to do about 3,000–5,000 copies to get better rights or coedition deals,” Ng says. “But some will go for 2,000 to minimize the risk factor. The final figure mostly depends on the genre.” Ng also represents several French and American comics, “but local publishers remain more enthusiastic about Japanese manga, and so I’m looking to expand my list, especially with those on science or supernatural themes.” With his B2C business model, he places less emphasis on authors and more on new products, such as English course books, graded readers, classic storybooks, and puzzle-based activity book series.
“The growth of children’s titles, comics, and YA titles in recent years has been steady, but hard figures are, well, hard to come by,” Ng says. “A lot of this growth is directly linked to the way publishers and retailers position and market the products. Several major bookstore chains, for instance, have established their own publishing arm, which makes sense since they own the shelf space, and consumers stand to benefit from the wider book varieties and lower prices on offer. Local publishers are also finding ways to work with retail chains on exclusive deals.” Ng adds that there remains a gap between urban and rural readership in multiracial and multilingual Malaysia, with English titles selling better in urban areas.
Over at YGL Media, formerly known as Yusof Gajah Lingard Literary Agency, managing partner Linda Tan-Lingard is looking into leveraging her authors’ IPs into merchandising (toys, stationery, gifts, and novelty items) and book spin-offs. “We have already turned some of the picture books published by our sister company, Oyez!Books, into animated products and apps through our partnership with Taipei-based Moker,” she says. “We have also licensed some of our illustrators’ works to hotels, for instance. In that sense, we are not a traditional literary agency. So we dropped the old name, which is quite a mouthful, and chose YGL Media to sum up our offerings across print and digital.”
Right sales of Oyez!Books publications have been growing over the months, Tan-Lingard adds. “Our titles have been translated into Arabic, French, German, Korean, and simplified and traditional Chinese. folk artist Yusof Gajah’s works—Where Is My Red Ball?, Roads, At the Foot of the Hill, Let’s Build, and Elephant Teapot—are among our bestsellers, which also include Emila Yusof’s My Mother’s Garden and Norico Chua’s A Cake Reaching to the Sky.”
Works by two new illustrators—Evi Shelvia and Chooi Ling Keiong—is currently setting YGL Media abuzz: Chooi illustrated a retelling of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Last Dream of the Old Oak Tree, while Shelvia did The Castle Library and The Wild Treehouse of Borneo. “We will be bringing these outstanding works to Frankfurt and Shanghai, and hopefully, will close some deals for these titles and others in our catalogue.”
The agency’s regular participation at international fairs has helped in “broadening our reach in promoting our writers and illustrators. At the same time, we hope that KLTCC [Kuala Lumpur Trade and Copyright Centre] will continue to grow and encourage more rights sales,” Tan-Lingard says, adding that, in general, the children’s book segment is on an upturn due to a push by the government to encourage reading and get publishers to increase their output.
With the new agency name also comes a broader portfolio that covers local publishers of fiction such as Buku Fixi, PTS, and Silverfish Books. These publishers, Tan-Lingard says, prefer to deal directly with the authors rather than going through an agent, perhaps due to the perception that an agent-driven deal may increase the advance and royalty rates. “But they are happy for the agent to sell the rights overseas—and so we adapt to such preference by representing the publishers instead of the authors on fiction. We are definitely here for the authors, but now we are in a good position to work with both publishers and authors to promote their titles.”