SUNDALAND PUBLISHING – WE TOO CAN’T BREATHE

Background

The Book industry in Malaysia and Singapore was established during the colonial times modelled after the one in Britain.

In the initial post-colonial period, the industry remained in the hands of the Brits but was slowly divested to local interests. Later, books from America were included in the trade.

Nothing much changed in the post-colonial period

  • The hegemons of US and the UK continued to control the Malaysian and Singaporean markets.
  • With deep pockets they controlled the media and as a result literary culture of the territories.  
  • The big boys in the US and UK also controlled (through local distributors) every major bookshop retail space. Local books were left out entirely or relegated to bottom shelves at the back of shops if they were let in at all.
  • Book trade with Southeast Asian neighbours or other parts of the world didn’t exist.

After 1999

  • When Silverfish Books was established in 1999, the situation was very much the same. One of our earliest customers was an American Professor working at the University in Hiroshima, who asked to see our “Malaysian” collection. It was our most embarrassing moment. We had one tiny shelf with about 50 books and 20 titles. It was a wake-up call.

  • We didn’t want to simply publish; we wanted to put Malaysia on the world literary map.

  • The last 20 years has been the longest sustained period of publishing in Malaysia with thousands of new titles added to our list.

  • We have also managed to break the bookstore glass ceiling, in a small way.

Current situation

  • Much remains the same. Hundreds of thousands of books (including remainders) still flood our markets from the US and UK and have a virtual monopoly of the book trade. (No one knows the real numbers imported, only them.) Arm twisting, deep discounting, dumping and domination of shelf space are still the normal operating procedures. They are in total control. Local publishers can only watch from the fringe.
  • The book industry in Southeast Asia is still bizarre. To many foreign visitors, our bookshops make them feel at home (like McDonald’s), but many others wonder, “Which country are we in?”
  • Several “big boys” have set up shop in the region not to help develop the local publishing industry but to milk it further.
  • Book trade and cultural exchange within the SUNDALAND region is non-existent; there are no books from our neighbours in our bookshops (despite our shared cultural history of thousands of years, the oldest and largest thalassocracy.)
  • The author has presented versions of this paper at several book-trade forums starting from the UBUD Writer Festival in Bali (2005), the Singapore Writers Festival (2007) and recently (with the help of FBM) at the Frankfurt Bookfair (2018), besides several universities, colleges, literary groups, translation seminars and other symposiums.

 

Ambition

  • The proposal in this paper is to setup a focused SUNDALAND (the name is a placeholder) marketplace for all books, in all languages of the region, facilitate translations and coordinate the selling of rights in more affluent markets. (Many people in this region are Anglophone, Francophone or speak Dutch, so translating should not be too difficult.)
  • To organise and facilitate regular regional book and trade fairs with participation from all member countries.
  • Strangely, at the Frankfurt Bookfairs, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, Thailand and other SUNDALAND countries always have stands next to one another, but always in competition, never in cooperation. 
  • SUNDA has been touted as the real cradle of world civilisation; rice was grown here first 10,000 years ago. The story of the Great Flood is thought to have originated here, not to mention Plato’s Atlantis – almost every country in this region has a submerged-city story.

Steps

  • First establish a  legal entity incorporating all book professionals in SUNDALAND including authors, publishers, editors, translators, distributors, booksellers, libraries, book-fairs, readers and interest groups.
  • Canvas investors for start-up funds.
  • Set up management structure to run a viable commercial venture (possibly with existing entities).
  • Monetise translation and rights trade.

Inspiration

  • Frankfurt Book Fair
  • Börsenverein des Deutschen Buchhandels
  • International Alliance of Independent Publishers

(This is not a new issue, all countries in SUNDALAND have similar problems, no access to one another's markets and many book professionals have raised and talked about it. 

During some of my earlier visits to FBM, I'd receive requests for meetings from the US and UK, which I naively accepted. At the meetings, they'd first show me their wares, then at the end when I ask if they'd be interested in looking at some of mine, I'd get the brusque response, "Sorry we only sell, we don't buy."

During a dinner event, in 2007, on a boat, the President of FBM, who happened to be sitting next to me, confirmed that it was an old problem. "They don't understand that trade means two ways." Now I no longer accept invitations from US and UK companies. Europeans are far more open, friendly and curious, as are East Asians.

In any case, we book professionals in SUNDALAND need to organise ourselves; we need government support; they are useful at policy levels. But operations must be run on a strictly commercial basis, like FBM. At present, every country organises its book fairs and rights trading, all competing with one another for traffic. (The yearly regional football tournaments in each country were similar; eventually, they all died.) We also have to stop our dependence on the US and UK market. Look, they have made it very clear that they don't need us, and have no respect for us. We need not be beggars. There are others. 

What I have presented above is just one proposal, many others have their own. We need to talk less, roll up our sleeves and get to work. Read Mr Buhain's interview in Publishing Perspectives.)

Who is going to step forward to bell the cat?

Contact the author at info@silverfishbooks.com

 


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