Malaysia—a multicultural nation of 30 million people made up of Malay, English, Chinese, and Tamil speakers—is a relatively small and divided book market. Such fragmentation has created a unique publishing industry, in which bookstores are heavily stocked with direct imports (instead of translations), and in which local publishers have to compete with their counterparts from English-speaking territories (especially in trade books).

Recent years have seen the publication of around 20,000 titles annually in Malaysia, with Malay-language romance novels dominating the local fiction list. Growth in the industry is mostly driven by the purchasing power of the middle class, observes CEO Sayed Munawar of Perbadanan Kota Buku (literally, Book City Corp.), which was established in 2011 to be a one-stop hub for readers, authors, illustrators, and publishers. “This is a young nation where nearly half of its population is below 24 years of age, and, naturally, the emphasis is always on education, with an increasing demand on newer and more varied reading materials.”

Developing and Exporting Content

Sayed says his mission is to “expand the market share of Malaysian content and intellectual properties [IPs] globally.” He adds, “One way of doing this is to participate in international book fairs to gain exposure and experience, and to organize seminars, workshops, and forums to develop homegrown talents and publishers for international trade.” Sayed’s company manages Malaysia’s pavilions at the Beijing, Bologna, and Shanghai trade fairs, and it organizes the Kuala Lumpur Trade and Copyright Centre (KLTCC, see p. 30), which focus on content-related trade within the region and beyond.

This year, for the first time, Sayed and his team will publish a book industry report to help local and international players identify opportunities in the Malaysian market. “At the same time, we are asking ourselves what kind of Malaysian content would appeal to the international markets, especially whenever we exhibit at a major fair,” he says. “Since what works at Bologna may not work in Shanghai, we really need to understand the right content to bring to a specific fair and employ the appropriate strategy to generate attention on the appropriate content.”

On the other hand, CEO Mohd Khair Ngadiron of Institut Terjemahan Buku Malaysia (ITBM)—the Malaysian Institute of Translation and Books—is focused on translating and promoting national works such as The Epic of Hang Tuah; Mek Mulung: A Transitional Art Form Between Man and the Realm of the Supernatural; The Pasai Chronicles; and Shadow Play: The Folk Epic of the Malay Archipelago, which were showcased at previous Frankfurt fairs. “Books should not be confined to just words on paper when transforming the content into a different medium will further broaden its appeal and popularity across borders and languages,” he says, citing cartoonist Lat’s Kampung Boy: A Musical and joint performances of shadow play and traditional Japanese puppetry as examples.

So far, ITBM has translated 1,488 titles into English and other languages, including French, German, and Spanish. “These are selected content that remains relevant and interesting across geographic barriers, such as Wan Nor Azriq’s DUBLIN, about an ageing writer and his complex relationship with his research assistant, or Jong Chian Lai’s Ah Fook, which centers on the struggles of a young Chinese migrant in Southeast Asia,” Mohd Khair says. In fact, these two titles were the first-prize winners of the institute’s first and second writing competitions.

“Young writers have few avenues to get their works recognized and published, and competitions provide an opportunity to do both,” Mohd Khair notes. “For us, the goals are to publish original works, and to translate and promote the best of Malaysian authors, titles, and culture overseas. By doing these well, we will produce even more homegrown talents and content for international trade.” Mohd Khair’s team is bringing out several new titles in the next six months, including Pulau Perak (on Perak Island’s manta rays), Anthology of Short Stories: Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia, and Sangkuriang’s Love, Oedipus’ Longing.

Networking Locally and Regionally

Another Kota Buku initiative, the Kota Buku Academy, was recently set up to “hold talks and share business insights with the industry, and help in determining policy advocacy roles that we should play for the betterment of the Malaysian book industry,” says Sayed, who is well-known locally as the host of a weekly book discussion program and a unique “book travelogue” docu-series on national television.

Recent months have also seen Kota Buku expanding into the rights business. “Instead of looking for profit, we represent authors or illustrators who may not get a fair chance to be showcased at international rights events, or those who are overlooked by rights agencies due to the specific nature of their works,” says senior manager Hasri Hasan, who leads the team in signing memorandum of understandings (MOUs) with several ASEAN countries on rights. He adds that his agency does not aim to compete with privately owned rights agencies, which are few and far between in Southeast Asia. “One of the authors whom we are bringing to Frankfurt is Mohana Gill, who will be honored at the Best of the Best Gourmand Award. Kota Buku represents Gill on copyright of her works. Our role is to champion underrepresented works and authors. We did not offer any funding or cash up front as rewards at these signings. Rather, we picture ourselves as an alternative for rights owners to work with in putting their portfolios out there in the international arena.”

Kota Buku has another project, called Malaysiana Digital Township, aimed at creating a repository of Malaysian content. Hasri explains: “Our content, of about 1,500 e-books that are not available elsewhere, is accessible to the public and libraries throughout the country. We currently have 50,000 readers’ club members, since its soft launch in May. We will also host a virtual meeting place and marketplace for authors, illustrators, publishers, and readers, and parts of this are in the works.”

Building a Reading Nation First

Meanwhile, the 195-member Malaysian Book Publishers Association (MABOPA) organized the nation’s first-ever digital content fair, Baca World (or Reading World), from March 30 to April 1 of this year. “A segment of the fair was about digital lifestyle, which includes e-books and digital reading,” says MABOPA president Ishak Hamzah, who is also managing director of E-Media Publications. “With our daily lives continuing to change with the ubiquitous digital technology, we believe that great contents should do the same as well.” Ishak is planning for a bigger and better Baca World in 2016.

In general, Ishak finds that there are insufficient campaigns to get locals reading, which would further invigorate and expand the local publishing industry, and he says that there is also a lack of governmental involvement in developing the sector. “There must be a realization that helping the publishing industry means developing a reading nation, which, in turn, is about human development, critical thinking, and quality content. For MABOPA, it is about communicating the needs from the publishing side to the government and pressuring publishing-related GLCs [government-linked companies] to up their game.”

The biggest task for the book community, Ishak says, “is to find ways to make a child fall in love with the first book he or she picks up.” He adds: “This should be a collaborative effort involving parents, teachers, publishers, libraries, and the community at large. Presently, we are missing some links here.”

But the National Library, which oversees four community libraries and 509 rural libraries, is facing cuts in government funding (this year’s allocation is down more than half from 2014, to just about 5.5 million MYR) that have crippled its abilities to purchase titles from local publishers. “We purchase between 3,860 and 6,270 local titles annually—ranging between 197,000 and 360,000 copies—and less funds means fewer titles, which is not conducive to supporting our local publishing market,” says director general Nafisah Ahmad, whose team is currently focused on e-reading and is busy working on equipping community and rural libraries with the infrastructure and capabilities required to provide and promote it.

“Collaboration with private companies is the answer to get content to the masses, and last year, we unveiled the country’s first Samsung Smart Library,” Nafisah notes. “Three sites are up and running now to provide readers, especially children and youth, a new and interactive reading experience.”

Nafisah says that Malaysians are reading more: “In 1996, people read two books per year. Ten years later, they read between eight and 12 books. We believe the upcoming reading survey will reveal a much higher number. Naturally, we want every Malaysian to read more and have a voracious appetite for books. That was the reason we supported and championed in excess of 1,000 reading programs last year, and we want to do more going forward.”

Overcoming Challenges Big and Small

For Ishak of MABOPA, the number of publishers participating at major fairs such as Beijing, Bologna, Frankfurt, and Shanghai remains small, and “a lot of our local publishers do not understand the potential, process, and art of selling rights.” He adds, “Publishers need to seriously think about selling rights internationally, and they should go about translating potential titles into English—and consider that as an upfront investment.”

Ishak laments the low turnout of local publishers at KLTCC, an event that his organization cosponsors with Kota Buku. “We are working closely with Kota Buku to increase the participation of local publishers to 30% next year.”

Raman Krishnan, of independent publisher Silverfish Books, says: “The main challenges facing the Malaysian book industry are the lack of a writing culture, and a small population that is divided into several language groups and political affiliations. But the smaller population is not a major problem. Just look at Iceland: despite having only 600,000 people, it was Frankfurt’s Guest of Honor in 2011.”

The educational and political systems of Malaysia, Raman says, “are the main causes for the limited market size.” He adds: “Schools are required to produce factory fodder and teach some higher ‘unthinking’ skills. Creative thinking is not encouraged, and writing skills taught are mostly functional. The position taken by the government is that culture is for tourists, and literature is elitist. Since we work very much in an anti-intellectual environment, creating a diverse and quality publishing industry is an uphill battle. Fortunately, the reading habit in Malaysia is fairly well developed considering our education and political system.”

Booming Small Press Scene

But with the slow and evident progression from romance-heavy lists from local publishers to serious nonfiction on religion, human rights, alternative/critical thinking, and current issues, Ishak of MABOPA is hoping for a much-improved Malaysian book industry in the near future. “Five years ago, our publishing industry was predominantly educational based,” he says. “Now, we have fiction, nonfiction, and children’s titles. The potential for delivering quality content is there, but publishers need to work further on packaging and marketing. The task for publishers is to maintain the progress and improve and build it up.”

Small presses have become a fixture in the Malaysian book scene in the past two years, with publishers such as Buku Fixi and DuBook now regarded as mainstream. “These presses have a lot of titles, substantial revenues, and an extensive distribution network; some even have their own storefronts,” says Arief Hakim, managing director of PTS Media Group and deputy president of MABOPA. He adds that small presses are important to the industry as they open up new readership: “They publish unconventional and, at times, antidogmatic subjects, in predominantly conservative Malaysia, and because of that, they become cultish, attracting a whole generation of new readers made up mostly of college and university students—essentially, young adults. Such expansion in readership is crucial to the long-term sustainability of the Malaysian book market.” (See “A Flourishing Small Press Scene” for more details.) Arief admits that “innovations in any industry, more likely than not, come from outsiders or those new to the trade.” He adds, “The challenge for mainstream publishers like us is to adapt to this new mind-set and playing field, and to try to view things as outsiders to find new opportunities and growth.”

With mainstream publishers such as PTS expanding into new areas and small presses attracting masses of new readers, the Malaysian publishing industry is gearing up for more growth, despite the challenges outlined above.

For this report, PW talks with key players from different segments—Buku Fixi, Karangkraf Media Group, Oyez!Books, Pelangi Publishing Group, PTS Media Group, Silverfish, and University Book Store Malaysia—as well as booksellers, rights agencies, and those in the digital segment and small press scene to round up our coverage on Malaysia’s book market.

Below, more on the subject of publishing in Malaysia.

Country Spotlight: Malaysia: Companies

Country Spotlight: Malaysia: Checking Out the Top Shows and Festivals

Country Spotlight: Malaysia: A Mixed Bag for Bookselling

Country Spotlight: Malaysia: Heating Up the Rights Market

Country Spotlight: Malaysia: A Flourishing Alternative Scene

Country Spotlight: Malaysia: Digital Segment on the Move