Yesterday, I was visiting bookstores in Kuching in order to convince them to stock my book, Lovers and Strangers Revisited, since tomorrow 20 May 2007, there will be a profile of me and a review of my book in The Borneo Post. I was told by both Times and Popular Bookstores that the KL office does the ordering for them, so they faxed a copy of my NST review (16 April 2006) with some cryptic notes written by me, which I followed up today with a lengthy email to lobby my books into their Kuching stores (hopefully all over Sarawak and Malaysia, tool).
Having the interview/review coming out boosted my confidence and gave me credibility, too.
Plus I had an Ace up my sleeve. One of my short stories from the collection, “Neighbours” was selected by the Ministry of Education to be taught in 2008 SPM Literature, thus guaranteeing a lot of interest among teachers and students, who will be discussing that story. Already there is an online discussion on the MELTA website (as of today 4617 hits on my story alone, with 276 comments (feel free to add to this): (update, had over 20,500 hits before they put it into archives, then they removed it from their site.)
I was also told by my publisher, Silverfish Books, that their distributor was making excuses about sending my books to Sarawak because of the shipping costs. Having a good distributor is imperative. Even getting the books into the stores in Penang (where I lived for twenty years) and on campus at USM (where I taught for ten years), took forever and a lot of arm-twisting and follow-ups on my behalf! Now I have to start all over again in Kuching! Hopefully something will come of the contacts I made yesterday, the emails I wrote today, and phone calls I’ll be making on Monday to follow up. One bookstore did agree to take 25 books on consignment basis.
The publisher said, because of shipping costs, it wouldn’t be profitable for them, so I used my own stock and cut a deal with the bookstore, who agreed to wrap all the books except one in plastic to protect them. He also requested that his bookstore be mentioned in the review tomorrow to direct customers his way, which I thought was a good idea. In fact, it was The Borneo Post reporter’s idea and she had even approached the bookstore on my behalf (bless her heart!); I merely sealed the deal with a phone call and delivered the books, a win-win situation for both of us. Finally I have some of my books in Kuching, and before the profile/interview hits tomorrow. Timing is everything. Just wished they were in all of the stores!
Previously, the original version of my book was published by Heinemann Asia in Singapore back in 1993. 75 copies of my book were sold by a Times Bookstore in Penang, which is a lot for local fiction. So when I asked them to restock the book, the manger said no. He said their policy was not to stock second editions except their own (Times Editions) books. I looked at him as if he had a hole in his head. They sold 75 copies, I was in the store regularly to buy books and to browse (my office was located right behind them). I even did a successful autograph signing in their store. I thought we were friends. But he refused to make an exception – that was Times Editions policy back in 1993!
Lydia Teh said that MPH published her third book and that’s great. The publisher has its own bookstores all over Malaysia (but not in Sarawak), they are distributors, so the book will get out to all major stores (I saw a copy yesterday in Kuching). They also get good media coverage, promote within their own stores and through their magazine. (Update: MPH did come to Malaysia and did a great job promoting my book - a later version - and I did a series of talks there, too)
But will the books get out of Malaysia/Singapore market, a lament I’ve had since my first experience in Singapore! The answer to that is mostly, no. At least Silverfish has a website (shipping is free all over Malaysia including Sarawak and Sabah) and an online newsletter. Last I heard, they were trying to set up a distributor in the US. But so far, most (if not all) publishers in Malaysia and Singapore only sell here, not around the world. This is their market. But Malaysian and even expat writers have to start somewhere.
As authors, you have to promote your own book any way that you can – through your website, through blogs, through readings, through networking with other writers. Last year, I sold more books on my own through book launches and creative writing workshops than I did in bookstores and online orders. By the way, for book launches, you don’t just have one and expect everyone to show up to buy your book. You got to turn it into an event.
In Penang, I asked for Penang Players help (we have been friends for years) and they agreed to sponsor the launch, read excerpts from four short stories, and gave an animated reading of my play, “One Drink Too Many” a comedy I wrote based on the story, “Neighbours”. Still I was told I’d be lucky to have 30 people show up; we had over 100! But that took a lot of emailing, publicity, a great full page review in the NST mentioning the launch, and by creating an “event” where people came and laughed and enjoyed themselves!
But first you have to write a book that people want to buy (and hopefully read!), then do some homework to see who is the best publisher for you and made sure they have a good distributor or your friends will be complaining, "I went all the way over to so-and-so to buy your book and they didn’t have it!" Then court the media. NST did a full page review, with color and my photo. The Expat Magazine also did a full page review. Had a few online reviews, too. I was grateful for all of them!
The Star did not review the book, even though my publisher and I sent them books in KL, I sent them books in Penang, I met with Star reporters (even a former student), and a friend who even does book reviews for The Star who initially said yes, that she would review the book, but never did. (I believe she was overcommitted with other projects and the timing for her was bad. I know she feels guilty about it, too, and I forgive her – she’s still a friend!)
But I’m not giving up on The Star either. I will be contacting them again as soon as The Borneo Post comes out…It’s all about persistence. Believing in your work. But it better be good, too! I can’t be a judge of my own work – I’m biased. But so far the individual stories from Lovers and Strangers Revisited have been published 54 times in nine countries, four of the stories have been taught in four universities in Malaysia, and in a high school in Canada, too. And next year “Neighbours” will be taught all over the country! And I still have a hard time getting bookstores to stock (and restock) the book, and it only came out in 2006! So good luck!
Better yet, create some controversy or write on a controversial subject, then the media will gladly cover it. Of course, this can backfire too; it could get banned in Malaysia. Then you can say to your friends, if the book hadn’t gotten banned, it would have been on all of the bestsellers’ lists.
-Robert Raymer, Borneo Expat Writer
*As an update, I networked myself into a two-book deal with MPH here's the link to finally being reviewed in The Star (two stories were added in 2008) and Lovers and Strangers Revisited winning the 2009 Popular-The Star Reader's Choice Award. In 2011, LSR has now been translated into French by Editions GOPE! And now "Home for Hari Raya" is being filmed! So persistence does pay off! Never give up on your stories. Just find another way. I did!
**Update, the 20th anniversary
of Lovers and Strangers Revisited
***Here's the link to my website, to MPH online for orders for all three of my books, including my latest, Spirit of Malaysia, and to the French translation of Lovers and Strangers Revisited Trois autres Malaisie. Thanks!