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Tuesday June 14, 2011

Amir Muhammad makes foray into Malay fiction

The local publishing industry welcomes a new name, one that aims to entertain and excite.

KUALA LUMPUR-based writer and independent filmmaker Amir Muhammad is stepping into the large, intimidating land of Bahasa Malaysia publishing, and he’s frankly excited.

“We’re going into a crowded field but we’re trying something different,” he said when I met him during the Kuala Lumpur International Book Fair 2011 in April.

Amir already has a publishing company called Matahari, which he had established in 2007. Matahari publishes English and Bahasa Malaysia non-fiction books, or, says Amir, “some book idea which amuses me”. Several Matahari-published books have been very popular, such as Malaysian Politicians Say the Darndest Things Vol.1 and Vol.2, and Yasmin Ahmad’s Films.

Something different: Amir Muhammad wants to add some diversity to the Malay publishing scene with his ‘urban pulp fiction’ books. — Ong Soon Hin / The Star

Then, in March this year, Amir created Fixi, a company which publishes Bahasa Malaysia fiction.

The idea for Fixi came to him in August last year during a book event honouring the most popular books of the year. Amir realised that the majority of the 10 best Bahasa Malaysia novels for that year were romance novels. In fact, he was told that most Bahasa Malaysia readers are women, and that the market leaders are romance novels.

“I am not going to be quoted as saying that they’re bad or anything, but I just want something slightly different. Because a lot of these books seem to be targeted at young, Malay women – but what about the rest of the population?” asks Amir.

“It can’t be true that all young Malay women have all the same taste either,” he adds.

He knows of some women writers who told him that they’d tried to pitch a certain idea to a publishing company only to be told that they want only love stories.

“Some even have strict guidelines like ‘the bad guy must not win’ – it’s a market caution thing,” says Amir.

As he had previously read local author Brian Gomez’s thriller Devil Space (he calls it the “best Malaysian novel I’ve ever read”), he wondered, “Wouldn’t it be exciting if we had more books like this, but in Malay where it can reach more people?”

Thus, last September he sent out a call for “urban pulp fiction” in Bahasa Malaysia on Matahari’s Facebook page.

“It’s pulp so it can’t be ruminative. It has to move, be sensational,” he says.

Fourteen people replied to his call, but only three authors managed to complete their novels by deadline.

“On hindsight, I think three is quite a sane strategy to start with. I had this insane idea of launching six books at the same time, which I think to the consumer is a bit bewildering: ‘How do you choose among six?’.”

In fact, many people came to Fixi’s booth at the KL International Book Fair to buy all three books. “If it had been six books I don’t think people will buy all six,” he said.

Initially, Amir thought of publishing the pulp novels under Matahari. However, after speaking to distributors and bookstore representatives he thought that it was worthwhile to create a separate brand that operates differently.

However, it took him quite a while to come up with the name for the company. He thought about including the Indonesian word “Fiksi” (fiction) in the name.

“I had some really horrible ideas, but just two days before I had to register the company I suddenly thought of ‘Fixi’ with an “x”. It’s the only company in Malaysia that is a four letter word starting with F,” he jokes.

Fixi is a very different brand from Matahari, says Amir. For one, the firm has to be more disciplined and systematic in the way it publishes books.

“In order to fulfil distribution criteria we have to publish one novel a month – or else (people) won’t take you seriously,” he says.

The company has to be more structured or else it would get drowned out there as there are so many Malay novels out there, Amir says.

“If you come out (with a novel) once in a while, you won’t make much of an impact,” he points out.

This momentum is also needed to sustain readers and inspire confidence in writers to devote months in writing their novels.

In terms of sales, the Malay publishing industry is booming and is populated by publishing heavyweights such as Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka, which publishes large numbers of books. And one of the market leaders is probably Alaf 21, which publishes about a dozen new novels a month. Their Facebook page has over 60,000 fans.

“A bestselling Malay romance novel can sell up to 50,000 copies,” says Amir. “I’m not looking at those kinds of numbers, though, they’re not my yardstick – that’s why I need to diversify,” he said.

One of the ways he is doing so is by giving out translation rights, and Amir is currently in contact with publishers in Singapore and Italy.

Another is by turning Fixi novels into films.

Fixi recently signed an MOU with local production company Prime Works; each book – even before they’re published – will be considered for a movie adaptation.

“Every month they’ll have a new book to consider. So far, out of the first six books (Fixi has published or will publish) they’re interested in two or three. We are going into the film treatment stage ... I will be involved as co-producer,” he says.

“One of the problems of the Malaysian film industry is that people assume that directors can write. That isn’t necessarily the case, as a director directs. Usually in other countries, the stories come from somewhere else – it’s adapted from a play or a novel,” he points out.

The writers didn’t expect the movie deal, which makes it more exciting to them, he adds.

Amir does think about movie suitability when it comes to selecting his novels, but doesn’t allow that to be the only arbiter of his choice.

“I will publish something even if I think bookstores won’t take it. We’ll just have to sell it online, or at events,” he says.

Speaking of which, the online shop has been doing well.

Being in the publishing business may not be easy, but Amir is happy to be doing this.

“I wouldn’t be in this if this wasn’t fun,” he says, smiling.

Related Story:
Fierce novels

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