Fun is the word that best describes Buku Fixi, according to founder and publisher Amir Muhammad, “because that is what reading should be.” Amir started the press in 2011 with a niche focus on contemporary urban fiction: “You can say that I publish for a younger version of myself, because when I was a teenager, I didn’t read much local fiction in Malay, as I found [the books] either too saccharine—90% of the titles were romances—or literary with historical or religious themes. So I imagine that, in some way, I’m answering a need that I myself once had.” Publishing is also, to Amir, “a way to discover my country through its young and not-so-young readers, and their feedback.”
Complacency, Amir admits, is his biggest challenge: “I’m not very business minded. I do whatever is amusing to me, and it just so happens that this particular venture is financially successful.” Recent bestsellers Asrama (Hostel), Gantung (Hanging), Gelap (Dark), Kacau (Disturbance), and Kelabu (Gray), for instance, have sold between 20,000 and 34,000 copies each—rare achievements for homegrown urban fiction in Malaysia. The next few months will see Amir publishing Tunku Halim’s Horror Stories 2 (“cashing in on the first compilation, which was the bestselling local fiction in English”), Hungry in Ipoh (“a location-specific anthology, also in English”), and the Malay translation of David Cronenberg’s Consumed (“because I like his films, and I know a translator who is ideal for it”).
For Amir, translation is less about topic or author and “more about new titles and page length, since translating English to Malay invariably lengthens the text by 30%.” He adds, “I don’t want thick books, as our pricing has to be consistent.” So readers can enjoy Stephen King’s Joyland, Neil Gaiman’s Ocean at the End of the Lane, and John Green’s Paper Towns and The Fault in Our Stars in Malay editions from two-year-old imprint Fixi Verso.
As for selling rights, Buku Fixi titles are probably not exotic enough for English-speaking markets, says Amir. “But those that are thematically more adventurous, such as Sanctuaria, on a religious cult; Perjalanan, on a transgender person’s life; and Brazil, a fake travelogue with digressions, may pique their interest.”
With 110 titles in print, 40 in the pipeline, and a loyal following to serve, it made perfect sense for Buku Fixi to establish its own bookstore. Kedai Fixi, which opened in April, sells titles from publishers such as DuBook, Lejen, Matahari Books, and Thukul Cetak, as well as Buku Fixi books. Amir says he is not planning more outlets but is mulling over the idea of kiosks in malls that have no chain bookstores.
Karangkraf Media Group
A local writer’s analysis of the Malay Annals, published in 1977, essentially launched Karangkraf. That first title and its ensuing success gave company founder Hussamuddin Yaacub the impetus to start a children’s magazine, which went on to sell upwards of 150,000 copies per week. Today, Karangkraf, with its staff of 1,200 and annual revenues exceeding 500 million MYR is one of the biggest publishing companies in Malaysia. Its four business groups have 21 magazines, three book imprints, the daily newspaper Sinar Harian, and Ultimate Print, which is the nation’s biggest commercial printer.
The three imprints are Alaf 21 (fiction and general trade), Buku Prima (children’s and YA books), and Karya Bestari (for Islamic titles). Together these imprints offer about 15 new titles per month. Its catalogue has in excess of 1,000 titles, including bestsellers by Mohammad Kazim Elias and Ramlee Awang Murshid, and Cerita Cinta Ahmad Ammar, an anthology of 15 stories on the life of activist Ahmad Ammar, who died in a road accident in Turkey at the age of 20. The Karya Bestari imprint also publishes more than 15 variants of the Qur’an, making Karangkraf the biggest publisher in this niche segment.
For Firdaus Hussamuddin, COO and chief editor of the book group (and daughter of the company founder), the focus for the next two to three years will be on “garnering a bigger share of the local market by building on our leading position in the fiction and nonfiction genres, while moving more aggressively into the international scene.” She adds, “Our present target remains the local market with Malay language titles.” One challenge stands in Firdaus’s path: “There is a lack of good writers, especially for novels and children’s storybooks. I would also like to see more creative and imaginative works in the sci-fi genre.”
Meanwhile, Firdaus’s team has already started publishing English-language titles, such as Alphabet Kids series, children’s and YA short stories, cookbooks, and parenting guides. Rights to cookbooks, children’s titles, and novels have also been sold to Indonesian publishers.
“Our company slogan—Energizing the Soul and Mind—is about shaping and building a progressive, modern, and intellectual Malaysian society through our products,” Firdaus says. She adds: “As a mainstream publisher, we have been paying close attention to the small press movement, which has managed to attract people who may not be interested in reading mainstream titles and encourage those who don’t normally pick up a book to start reading. So we have plans afoot to provide an alternative to these small presses, with titles that avoid provocative language or materials and yet still embody our vision.”
Rare—and courageous—is the publishing house that focuses on English-language picture books in Malaysia, competing with local Malay-language titles on price and with imports on quality. But Oyez!Books, established in 2008, has been defying the odds with 100-plus titles in its catalogue, 30 projects in the pipeline, and a budding rights business. Its recent collaboration with the British Council to collect folktales from indigenous peoples in East Malaysia is another feather in its cap. Three picture books, accompanied by audio in indigenous languages, are now available from the Storybook Project.
“We just published four middle-grade titles in English—our very first attempt in this age category—and everyone has been telling us that it’s very difficult to sell,” says publisher and owner Linda Tan-Lingard. “But then again, that’s what we were told when we published our first picture book.” Tan-Lingard is also the managing partner of literary agency YGL Media (see “Heating Up the Rights Market,” p. 36). The middle-grade titles include Heidi Shamsuddin’s Door Under the Stairs series, about three children traveling to the past to meet (and assist) key historical figures in Malaysia’s history; the first two titles are out and selling well.
Recent months have also seen Tan-Lingard buying rights for Malay translations. “Since the market is saturated with U.K. and U.S. imports, we are looking at titles from Europe, especially France and Germany. But we are moving cautiously as the market for Malay picture books is limited to mostly urban areas.”
At the Frankfurt Book Fair in October, Tan-Lingard will be promoting several new titles. Science educator Nor Azhar Ishak’s Under the Sea, for instance, features bright illustrations on one side and line drawings for children to color on the facing page, while Legendary Princesses of the World from Emila Yusof (My Mother’s Garden) has contributors from 13 countries, including Estonia, Finland, Germany, Indonesia, Romania, and Vietnam. Then there is the new edition of The Real Elephant by Yusof Gajah, Malaysia’s foremost naive artist.
“Our titles have local context as we do not publish just to sell overseas,” Tan-Lingard says, pointing out that local illustrators such as Nami Concours winners Yusof Gajah, Awang Fadilah, and Jainal Amambing, and new talents Wen Dee Tan, Khairul Amir Shoib, and Emila Yusof, are making a name for themselves internationally. “Some illustrators are able to cross boundaries, some aren’t,” she notes. “However, people from different countries view illustrations differently—and that means there are no hard-and-fast rules about what works abroad.”
Pelangi Publishing Group
Pelangi owes its humble start to being in the right place at the right time. When the British examination and education system was replaced by the local system, with Malay as the language of instruction, in 1979, teacher and Pelangi cofounder Samuel Sum seized the opportunity by translating and publishing past-year questions with model answers for mathematics and science. The guides were bestsellers, and the company he started went on to become a brand name in the educational market.
Thirty-seven years on, Pelangi is publicly listed and has moved beyond Malaysia’s shores, with subsidiaries in China, Indonesia, Singapore, Thailand, and the U.K. (as Dickens Publishing); its catalogue has more than 15,000 titles, and its share of the Malaysian educational market is approximately 35%.
“Product differentiation is the key to maintaining our competitive edge in a tight market,” says Sum, who is now the executive chairman and group managing director. “But frequent changes in our national curriculum have led to demands for new teaching and reference materials at rapid intervals. This means that more investment in editorial resources has to be allocated to meet newer requirements, while older editions, which may have been published just a year ago, are returned to our warehouse.”
Meanwhile, school textbooks are no longer traded in the open market, unlike in most other countries. “The government purchases the textbooks only once when there is a new project tender, and the copies are reused by subsequent batches of students,” Sum says. “These challenges put immense pressure on sales margin and operating overheads on us and our counterparts.”
Sum, who started investing in digital publishing a decade ago, is eyeing digital textbooks—a key component in the latest Malaysian education blueprint, will be launched in 2017—as an opportunity to be the first mover to get his e-titles adopted by schools and communities nationwide. “Presently, the direction in school market vis-à-vis digital learning is unclear, while consumer demand in retail markets for digital products remains low. We hope that will change for the better soon. For our part, we have continued working with technology companies to experiment with different digital products and implement initiatives to grow this market segment.”
The increasing number of international schools in Malaysia is good for business, but it also means heightened competition from overseas publishers. Sum says: “International schools invariably adopt overseas curriculum and prefer educational materials by overseas publishers as well. For Pelangi, this has motivated us to improve our educational materials to match the standards of overseas publishers in order to compete in the international school markets. At the same time, we are working on getting more of our publications adopted—and adapted—for other Asian countries.”
PTS Media Group
Founded in 1988 as a consultancy firm for publishing, editing, and typesetting services, PTS has since evolved to become one of the biggest mainstream publishers in Malaysia, with nine imprints and three distribution companies.
For managing director Arief Hakim, the year’s biggest challenge is the depreciating ringgit, which has declined more than 20% against the greenback in the past six months. A 24-month slowdown in the country’s general economy and consumer spending is imminent, he says. “Inflation is up, and so is the cost of living due to the weaker ringgit. As a trade book publisher, these factors will definitely affect us. It has certainly affected our translation program, necessitating renegotiation of advances and, in a few cases, postponement of projects.”
PTS’s translation program is mostly focused on business and management (including titles by Dale Carnegie, Stephen Covey, Michael Gordin, Robert Kiyosaki, and Brian Tracy) and self-help/relationship (John Gray, Barbara and Allan Pease, and Tony Robbins). “Bestsellers in these categories are always great for translation into the Malay language, as the authors are brands that presell the titles,” says Arief. His editorial team will add 250 new publications to PTS’s catalogue of around 2,000 active titles this year.
As for PTS bestsellers, homegrown titles take the lead, with Catatan Mat Luthfi (based on a diary of a young man, with stories real and mystical), Deme Wasap, Ambe Reply (a Q&A with a Muslim scholar on young adult issues), and Dracula vs. Al-Fateh (set during the time of the Ottoman Empire), ahead of the Malay edition of Jerry D. Gray’s The Final Chapter. Mat Luthfi is the biggest seller, with more than 120,000 copies sold, while the other four have sold more than 20,000 copies each. Rights to several Islamic titles have also been sold to Indonesian publishers.
On the e-book front, more international names entering the market will help, Arief says. “When Google Play Books came to Malaysia about a year ago, e-book sales jumped significantly. The big players have attractive e-stores that make mobile users want to try e-reading—and that is important, because local readers still overwhelmingly prefer print, while the rise of remainders means that imports are available at low prices. The latter negates the need for an alternative format to print, at least for the time being.”
But tough times are good for out-of-the-box thinking. “Our direct-to-reader channel, for instance, is showing great potential,” Arief says. “Aside from creating an online store called Bookcafe, we have also ventured into the exhibition business, based on a book-truck concept, which is most appropriate for school fairs.” Arief is hoping for a new global blockbuster to help stimulate book sales while working on closer collaboration with rights and translation teams at major publishing houses.
Silverfish Books, one of the few publishers offering Malaysian literature and English-language titles, came onto the scene in 1999 as an indie bookstore. “There were no other bookshops in Kuala Lumpur with the range of titles we carried,” recalls owner Raman Krishnan. “Then came megabookstore chains, led by Borders, which stocked almost every book in print in their upmarket locales and offered deep discounts. I didn’t think it would last but in the meantime, we had to survive. That was when I started publishing books.”
But the lack of good writers, Raman says, remains a challenge to this day: “We can fix poor language skills but not uninteresting stories. So we look for good storytellers and good stories, and we go from there.” Dina Zaman’s I Am Muslim is one such great (and controversial) story, having sold more than 20,000 copies to date (“which is pretty good for a country of 30 million, where the English-language market comes after the Malay and Chinese”). Then there are Farish A. Noor’s The Other Malaysia and From Majapahit to Putrajaya, which have sold 10,000 and 5,000 copies, respectively.
Average sales for a Silverfish title is about 2,000 copies, and “5,000 is considered a bestseller for an English-language title,” Raman says. He adds, “Those in Malay language can exceed 100,000 copies.”
Selling rights is not a priority for the company, given Raman’s philosophy of publishing books for Malaysians by Malaysians. But it sold Shih-li Kow’s The Sum of Our Follies to Italian publisher Metropoli d’Asia even before it was published locally. “If someone else likes our books, that is great, but we do not publish with rights selling in mind,” Raman adds.
Over at Silverfish Books store (“a boutique without the high prices”), 70% of the titles are local. Raman says: “We work on the principle of a community. We recommend and choose books for our customers, but we also learn from them about their preferences. Although we are not genre specific, we do avoid self-help, business, and romance—titles that we think do not contribute to raising the level of intellectual debate in this country. We are snobbish that way, which our customers know and like.”
Aside from making good books available to the public, the bookstore is also a venue for talks and events. It is currently hosting a two-month-long Silverfish Festival of Cabbages (the name is a reference to Mark Twain’s Pudd’nhead Wilson), where discussions every weekend range from music to counterculture.
Leisure reading in Malaysia, Raman notes, “is a work in progress: the bad news is that the market is small; the good news is that it can only expand.”
University Book Store Malaysia (UBSM)
A reseller for international brands in Southeast Asia since 1956, UBSM represents almost every academic publisher operating in Malaysia, including Cengage, McGraw-Hill, Pearson, and Wiley. And for those without local presence, such as Britannica Learning, ChemQuest, EnglishCentral, MeBooks, National Geographic, and PressReader, second-generation owner Keith Thong has exclusive or preferred channel partnership deals in place.
With 60 team members operating from 12 branches throughout Malaysia, UBSM is focused on imported academic titles from the U.S. and U.K. But recent years have seen the company moving into e-books and databases. “Digital is the future, and we thank Britannica Learning for sharing their global vision, which in turn helps to form our own vision for a digital business,” Thong says. “We grew from a few hundred Britannica subscribers to a few million within two years, and now we are responsible for selling Britannica digital products in Southeast Asia.”
“Getting subscribers is tough, but maintaining them is even tougher, as the database needs to justify its ROI in this budget-challenged environment,” Thong says. He adds that selling print products is not without challenges: “Government funding to schools can be reduced or cut at any time, while photocopying activities remain rampant, despite the enforcement of copyright legislation. On the other hand, the book industry is deemed ‘unsexy,’ and so maintaining skilled staff is tough. Parallel exporting used to be a big hurdle in Asia but fortunately, international publishers have done a lot to curtail this issue.”
Thong used the lessons he learned from starting and operating a digital business in his latest brainchild, the UBSM Digital Education Odyssey, which was held on June 4. “It was a CSR initiative that we cosponsored with the Malaysian English Language Teaching Association and Nottingham University’s Education Faculty,” he says. “The aim was to educate and expose educators—from schools, colleges, the education ministry, nongovernmental organizations, and rural development authorities—and librarians about digital education and products. We limited the participation to only 100, but the next Odyssey will definitely have more seats, presenters, and product trials.”
Thong, who is also the president of the Malaysian Booksellers Association, adds: “In the near future, we hope to sell academic titles from Malaysia to the international market by providing either physical books through our e-commerce engine or electronic content via our e-book platform at Ebigator.com.” (For more on this, see “Digital Segment on the Move.”)