Malaysian authors are reaping the rewards of the e-book revolution, uploading their books online and reaching markets they couldn’t before.
ALTHOUGH Susan (not her real name) is not a full-time writer, writing has always been her passion. She started writing for magazines and newspapers when she was 23 and worked hard at her fiction. By 2005, she had already written four novels, one of which was published locally and quite successfully.
Then, last year, she heard about Joe Konrath and Amanda Hocking (see E-book millionaires on page 15), writers who were making “big money” from their e-books.
“I wanted to jump in,” says Susan, 43 (she writes under pen names and would rather not be identified).
Using the pseudonyms Artemis Hunt and Aphrodite Hunt, Susan began uploading her stories unto e-book distribution websites such as Amazon.com, AllRomanceEbooks.com, Bookstrand.com and Smashwords.com. She now has three novels and 17 short stories (each priced at US$0.99 or RM3) online.
“Since I started in late August (last year), I have sold 46,000 e-books,” she says proudly.
According to Susan, her e-books have made it to the Top 100 bestseller lists on Amazon.com and she is frequently on the site’s Top 100 Movers and Shakers list as well.
“A Malaysian can also be a bestselling author in the United States. Doesn’t matter where you come from. This platform equalises everything for everyone in the world,” she says.
Getting a printed book published is an uphill task. Authors need to either secure a publisher or self-publish. If they choose the latter route, the work doesn’t end with publication: They also have to find ways of distributing the book as widely as possible. Local distribution is challenging enough, never mind getting a book circulated abroad. They would be fortunate to shift a few hundred copies even through a book distributor.
Then came e-books.
It’s the perfect medium for self-published authors. Before, writers might have had to spend up to five figures to get a book printed and distributed. E-books cost almost next to nothing to produce and store. The best part? E-books can reach readers around the world in a matter of seconds.
Previously, authors (those in Western countries, anyway) needed to have agents who would try to sell their books to publishing houses. There are famous tales of authors being rejected multiple times by agents and publishers before finally getting published and hitting the bestseller lists. E-publishing, of course, can eliminate the middlemen, the agents and publishers. Making the whole process even easier and faster are e-book distributing services such as Amazon.com’s Kindle Direct Publishing, Smashwords.com, and Barnes and Noble’s PubIt.
Three months ago, New Zealand-based Malaysian author John Ling, 28, published his thriller The Blasphemer and short story collection Seven Bullets on Amazon.com. His venture has been fairly successful; he is currently selling an average of 20 books a day, and has moved more than 2,000 copies of The Blasphemer (at US$2.99 or RM9.40 a copy).
“It’s quite significant because if an author sells that many copies of a printed book in one year in Malaysia, that title is considered a bestseller. That’s one of the great things about digital publishing, I think. You get the numbers immediately, and you know exactly where you stand,” he says in an e-mail interview.
Reviews of his e-books have been positive and enthusiastic, says Ling, who took two years to research and write The Blasphemer. (Star2 reviewed it – yes, enthusiastically – on April 13.)
“I think it’s extremely rewarding to be able to reach readers worldwide. I’m obviously a very new author, with only three months under my belt, but I’m always elated when a new reader gets in touch with me to tell me how much they enjoy my work and want more. It gives me the impetus to write,” he says.
However, he wasn’t prepared for the little controversy that erupted on Facebook about his book’s ending. “I originally wrote five chapters for the novel’s ending. However, for editorial reasons, I removed three of those chapters,” he says.
A few readers protested, saying that they wanted a more satisfying emotional arc. So Ling placed the chapters back in.
“This is just a great showcase of the potential of e-books. Things can be fixed and amended on the fly and democracy reigns supreme!”
E-books have given Yvonne Foong, who suffers from neurofibromatosis (a genetic disorders that can cause multiple tumours), a way to raise money for her medical treatments. Ling helped turn her 2006 memoirs, I’m Not Sick, Just A Bit Unwell, into an e-book via his own publishing imprint, Kia Kaha Press. Foong explains that Ling, who has been a friend for years, helped turn her manuscript into an e-book format and release it exclusively on Amazon.com. “He also decided not to take any cut from the sale and allows me to keep all profits to pay for my medical treatments,” she adds.
The e-book was released on Dec 24 last year. About 500 copies have been sold since then and the book even appeared on Amazon’s Top 100 Memoir and Personal Transformation list. Foong received her first royalty cheque very quickly, on Jan 1; since the book’s release, she has earned US$150 (RM460) to date.
“I have always dreamt of selling it to readers in other countries too, but distributing print books to foreign countries is challenging. That dream has now come true thanks to Kia Kaha Press – I never thought I’m Not Sick, Just A Bit Unwell would be read by the French, Spanish and Italians one day!”
For Tunku Halim Tunku Tan Sri Abdullah, e-book publishing is a way of making his books available to readers who have a difficult time getting them from a physical bookstore.
People often ask the Malaysia-born, now Australia-based writer how to get hold of his first novel, Dark Demon Rising, which was published in 1997 and nominated for the 1999 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award and is now out of print.
Late last year, Tunku Halim decided to put it out again as an e-book. He spent a month learning how to format his novel and, once done, uploaded it on to Smashwords.com where it sells for US$4.99 (about RM15). And just in time, too: “Luckily the novel is now readily available because an English studies professor at (America’s Ivy League) Dartmouth College is currently using the novel in her course ‘Magic And Supernaturalism In Asian Literature And Film’. She had difficulty finding hard copies but with the e-book available, the problem’s solved,” he says via e-mail.
For some, having an e-book published is not about money or recognition but the satisfaction of having your stories read.
Ted Mahsun, a 31-year-old web game writer, published two short stories – Zombies Ate My Muslim and The Secret Operation In The Matriarch’s Kitchen – on Amazon.com and Smashwords.com for US$0.99 (RM3) each as an experiment and a “learning project”.
“They didn’t sell well nor did I expect them to,” he says, adding that they have only been downloaded a handful of times so far. However, he was particularly excited when he got his first review on Amazon.com.
“It was surprising as I didn’t expect anyone to review. That the first review was a good review was even better,” he says with a grin. “It’s wonderful that people are reading my work. I like to think that a different audience can find my works to read,” he adds.
But there’s a flip side to the ease of e-publishing: a market inundated with poor quality books.
Sharon Bakar – creative writing teacher, co-founder of the monthly Kuala Lumpur literary gathering, Readings, and popular literary blogger at thebookaholic.blogspot.com – thinks that it’s “enormously exciting” that local writers are able to make their stories available to an international audience with little cost and without waiting for a publisher to take them on.
“This lowering of barriers to publication will encourage writers to get works finished, be playfully experimental in their writing, and learn how to promote themselves via websites and social media,” she says.
The downside is that many of the stories may be unedited and “rough around the edges”.
“I think writers owe it to readers and themselves to put out the best book that they can,” she points out.
That is why some believe that publishers play a valuable role as gatekeepers of quality who weed out the “trash” and put out the cream of the crop.
Self-publishing “evangelist” and bestselling e-book author J.A. Konrath agrees that gatekeepers are needed. “But I don’t call these gatekeepers ‘agents’ or ‘publishers’. I call them ‘readers’,” he says in his very popular blog, A Newbie’s Guide To Publishing (at jakonrath.blogspot.com).
Others say that traditional publishing houses provide valuable services to writers such as editing, designing book covers, and marketing. The self-published author has to do these things by themselves, or hire professionals to do it.
Having a manuscript professionally edited isn’t cheap. Winning Edits, an American-based freelance outfit, charges US$600 (RM1,860) for a 10,000-word manuscript. And since many novels are at least 70,000 words, a professionally-edited manuscript can set a writer back a few thousand ringgit. There are cheaper editors out there, of course, but it could still knock you back a few hundred ringgit – even editors from Malaysia.
Susan does not have her short stories professionally edited, and “I get no complaints,” she says.
(Although the reviews that she received were mostly glowing, there was one reviewer who commented that her work needed editing.)
However, she does get her novels professionally edited, though she doesn’t pay for the service. Instead, she barters for it. “The editors are my friends,” says Susan. “In return, I edit their works. My editors are local and in the United States.”
Ling, too, relied on the help of his friends. “I have friends who are journalists, writers and teachers, and through repeated readings, they’ve helped me polish my work to the best possible standard,” he says.
Self-published writers must also concern themselves with cover design. Ling says that it’s just as important – if not more so – for an e-book to have a good “cover” and stand out as it is for a physical book sitting amidst hundreds of others on a bookstore’s shelves.
“This is especially true because the digital revolution has unleashed a flood of products on to the market, so first impressions are important. It takes about two seconds for a potential reader to decide whether your book is worth a closer look, and you want to give yourself every advantage,” he points out.
To ensure that his covers were up to standard, Ling hired a graphic designer. It cost him US$250 (RM775) per cover.
Susan, on the other hand, does it herself. “I buy a stock photo for US$1 (RM3) and design the cover myself,” she explains.
Then there are the technical challenges. Although most e-book readers accept the e-pub format (“electronic publication”, a file standard set by the International Digital Publishing Forum), there is no uniform way to format your manuscript into e-book form, as different e-book distributors accept different formats.
Some authors have their manuscripts professionally formatted. Locally, e-Sentral and MPH Digital (see Going digital, above) offer such conversion services.
“When you first start off, it can be daunting. So these services can help a new author,” says Susan who used a service before learning how to do it herself. Once you get the hang of it, it gets easier, she says. “These days, I do the cover, formatting and everything under 10 minutes.”
But it doesn’t end there! Self-published authors must also learn how to deal with the business side of things such as promotion and taxes. (Because many e-book distributors are based in the United States, non-US authors will have a percentage of their earnings held by the US Internal Revenue Service.)
Says Tunku Halim: “Nowadays, self-published authors need to go not only on creative writing courses but also need to consider an MBA or two! This shouldn’t be because writers need to focus fully on their craft. That’s where they grow, where they find they find themselves.”
It’s an exciting time to be an author. And a scary time to be a bookstore owner or publisher.
In a Jan 27, 2011, statement, Amazon.com announced that they were selling more e-books than paperbacks.
“Since the beginning of the year, for every 100 paperback books Amazon.com has sold, the company has sold 115 Kindle books (Kindle is its e-book reader, among the first to hit the market in 2007). Additionally, during this same time period the company has sold three times as many Kindle books as hardcover books,” it said.
Meanwhile, sales for mass paperback books were down by 14% since 2008 reported the Association of American Publishers and the Book Industry Study Group in 2011 (The dog-eared paperback, newly endangered in an e-book age, The New York Times, Sept 2, 2011).
In the midst of all this change, Borders, the United States’ second largest book retailer, went bankrupt last year.
“There are fears that digital publishing will do to the publishing industry what digital music has done to the music industry – kill it. But I don’t think it’ll be that bad,” says Tunku Halim.
Ling also believes that the printed book – dubbed “dead tree books” by e-book zealots – will not go the way of the dodo.
“However, it will decrease in importance. It’s only a matter of time,” he says.
While the fate of the still beloved printed book is uncertain, what’s certain is that e-books are democratising the reading world. Instead of tastemakers and experts, readers now hold the power to decide what books get read. And every author now has a good chance of getting his or her work onto people’s e-book devices.
Says Tunku Halim: “E-books will allow anyone to publish anything. There’ll be millions of gigabytes of rubbish – but there’ll also be treasures that normally would never get out into our world.”
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