MPH book awards: Why no Malaysian winners?

MPH's recent book awards, based on its own bestseller list, finds international authors winning over local writers. Can we ever tip the balance?

"My heart flutters when I hear your name. My breath comes to a standstill when you are near...” With these words (translated from Bahasa Malaysia), 42-year-old Anita Abdullah, who runs a print shop in Negeri Sembilan, won the Mutiara Minda Award for her romance novel, Saat Terlalu Cinta. The book awards event was organised by MPH, in conjunction with the Best of 2013 Awards night and as part of the Putrajaya International Book Fair 2014.

Authors and publishers weren't the only ones at the ceremony celebrating the written word – and to give the book industry a push. Guest of honour Tan Sri Dr Rais Yatim, a government adviser on social and cultural affairs, also gave a speech and added this quatrain to it: “Let books be your dining table, and you shall be full of delight; Let books be your mattress, and you will have a good night.”

The bestselling books of 2013 were also announced at the event. Out of 120 titles, the Ultimate Winners in various categories – adult fiction, non-fiction (English and Bahasa Malaysia), Malay fiction, teen fiction and business – were selected based on sales at MPH bookstores nationwide and online, as well as reviews and recommendations from buyers.

There was hope that a local author would win one of the four English categories. Boey Chee Ming, a California-based Malaysian artist known for his work with Styrofoam cups, was in the running for Best Non-Fiction Book with When I Was a Kid 2, but he was edged out by Alex Ferguson: My Autobiography. The rest of the nominees and award-winners were inevitably international authors.

Penguin Books sales managers Chung Yau Hwa, who accepted the Teen Fiction prize for Jeff Kinney’s Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Hard Luck, doesn't discount Kinney’s fan following as a factor for the book’s success in Malaysia. “Wimpy Kid has been around six years, and Kinney is known to produce a new book every year. We were already receiving pre-orders for Hard Luck before the arrival of the book,” said Chung, adding that the book shifted over 10,000 copies in three months.

The Adult Fiction award was given to Robert Galbraith for The Cuckoo’s Calling, a crime novel written under a pseudonym by JK Rowling. According to the book’s local distributor, Pansing, there's a strong chance that history can be repeated. In the past, Pansing enjoyed huge success with the Harry Potter series, before Rowling ended that tale. “This award is a definite show of appreciation from readers,” said a Pansing spokesperson.

Meanwhile, third prize Mutiara Minda winner Venoo Kupusamy was probably a case in point when Rais talked about authors not receiving their financial rewards, but persevering for the love of writing. Venoo, a study coordinator on clinical research for diabetes at Taiping Hospital, entered the literary world as a prolific blogger. He finished his BM novel, Di Ambang Penemuan, about the murder of a genetic mutation specialist, in a month.

According to Anita, MPH’s criteria for the Malay novel writing contest – writers must produce 80,000 words or 600 pages in three months – works out to 30 pages a day. Even for an experienced religious book author

like herself, 90 days is just enough to include time for tweaks. Venoo had to start from scratch. “I didn’t expect to win anything,” he said, adding that he was happy with his RM 1,000 prize, an advance on his royalties. 

Nevertheless, said Rais, there's always the need to find funding for writers. “It is time for us to ask how we can penetrate the global market. Are our stories too focused on the domestic taste? How can we cater to the international palate?” he said, adding that as local readership is about 12 million only, there's not enough demand if authors choose to confine their work to domestic shores.

This requires more than a mighty pen, says one publishing industry. “The book cover must also be good. Pricing must also be right. You need the right distributors to make the push, and a marketing team to create the pull,” he says, adding that collaborations with non-Malaysian authors may be one way to help our writers

go international. As Nurhannysa Mohd Yusaa writes in Pukulan Penyapu Cinta, “If this is not a fairytale, why are you here?” Her novel received the Mutiara Minda consolation prize.

That said, Rais reminded the writers at the awards event not to be too harsh on themselves. “As Stephen King puts it, ‘There is a ghost in every book’. There is always an uncertainty about how it will do in the market," he said. "Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea is an example. In an interview in Jamaica, he said it was the worst book he had ever written. However, it would go on to win the Pulitzer Prize.”

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