Sunday, March 27, 2011

Big Fish Small Pond, Small Fish Big Pond

I’m not sure when I first heard the Big Fish Small Pond or Small Fish Big Pond analogy.  I do remember it was in a classroom setting either in my high school, Newark Senior High (Ohio) or more likely at Miami University at Oxford, Ohio.  It made an impact on all of us as we debated the merits of each.  Each has its own advantages and disadvantages and each can lead to success.  Of course, some of us preferred another option “Big Fish in Big Pond”. 

I considered Ohio a small pond and right after graduation, after a three-month backpacking stint in Europe, I left Ohio for Colorado where I began working for K. Graphics or Kinko’s in Boulder, a cool place to live, where I met my first aspiring writers and editors, people with big pond dreams. Then I was offered a chance to be a manager of a Kinko’s in Madison, Wisconsin and made the leap to a much larger city.  Soon after, I began setting up stores in other cities, some small, some big, and in other states. 

Within the company, as a regional manager in charge of eleven stores in three states, I started to feel like a Big Fish, especially after giving a well-received presentation at the national Kinko’s conference in Santa Barbara, California.  When I left Kinko’s to try my hand at writing, three of the top six stores in the country were mine, and we had over 600 stores at that time.

The United States, by the way, is a pretty big pond.  But then I left that big pond for Malaysia, a much smaller pond.  Publishing my first books in Singapore and then Malaysia, I soon found out, limits your scope. The books don’t seem to get outside of those two countries, so it was impossible to break out of the small pond, whether you’re a big fish or not.

Some Malaysian writers, albeit based overseas, like Tash Aw, author of the Whitebread winning novel The Harmony Silk Factory and Tan Twan Eng’s The Gift of Rain, long-listed for the Man Booker Prize, showed us that Malaysians can gracefully enter the Big Pond of writing and even get nominated for major awards. 

Then Preeta Samarasan’s Evening of the Whole Day and Shamini Flint’s Inspector Singh’s series, both published overseas, attracted a lot of attention.  Even Shih-Li Kow’s Ripples and Other Stories, with a small pond publisher, Silverfish, was shortlisted for the 2009 Frank O’Conner International Short Story Award.  That was exciting.  And it showed that it’s possible to break out for other writers based in Malaysia, myself included.  It also got me thinking, why am I still a small fish in this small Malaysian pond? 

When Lovers and Strangers Revisited (MPH 2008), first published by Silverfish, won the 2009 Popular Star Reader’s Choice Awards, I began to feel like a slightly bigger fish. In 2010 my profile was raised when I was named "One of the 50 Expats You Need to Know" by Expatriate Lifestyle and then featured on the TV program Kuppa Kopi. The Expat also profiled me in their magazine. But still the reality is the Malaysian market is rather limited.  Other Malaysian authors constantly tell me, “You can’t be a full time writer living in Malaysia.”  

Still I kept submitting my short stories to overseas markets and entering my novels to novel contests in the US, and although some have met with some success, it appears I still have a ways to go.  Yet, I also feel I’m close to breaking out of this small pond of Borneo where I now live in Sarawak, which is even further removed from mainstream Malaysia, let alone mainstream USA, or mainstream the world book publishing market.

Getting one of my books, Tropical Affairs, reviewed in Europe last week is a step in the right direction, and so is having another book, Lovers and Strangers Revisited, getting translated into French. Having a French blog set up for Trois autres Malaisie with an additional French translation of “Transaction in Thai” has already made a big impact in my blog hits. This morning when I work up, my blog total for the day set a new personal record, a 32% jump over my previous best, and the bulk of those came from France.  France, by the way, is a bigger pond.

One of the disadvantage of bigger ponds is you have a lot more competition, and even if you are a big fish in your own small pond, once you cross over to the bigger pond, you start at the bottom again, as a small fish.  But a small fish that’s going somewhere, and that can be all the difference.  You’re a small fish on the move.  How far you go will be determined by your own belief system.  Do you feel you have what it takes to breakout in a bigger market?  In order to do that, you need to step up your game, and that is what I aim to do.  Step up my writing game.  I have to.  For me, as an American writer based in Malaysia, it’s time to take a serious look at those bigger ponds in Europe, which I first glimpsed all those years ago as a wide-eyed, fresh fish graduate seeing the big fishy world for the first time.

There are a lot of ponds out there, so where will you make your mark, as a Big Fish in a Small Pond, or as a Small Fish in a Big Pond?  Bear in mind, you can only become a Big Fish in a Big Pond by making that small pond to big pond transition, which is a lot easier these days thanks to the Internet.  Of course, there is no right answer.  Just ask yourself, what feels right for you? Whatever you choose, whether Big Pond or Small Pond, I wish you luck.
                     —Robert Raymer, Borneo Expat Writer

*Update: Here's a link to the intro and excerpts of LSR in French, and to four reviews of Trois Autres Malaisie in,,, and Petit Futé mag.

**Here’s an update to the French blog about Trois autres Malaisie, a link to meeting the French translator Jerome Bouchaud in Kuching, and also to order a copy or recommend it to your friends, especially those who would like to know more about Malaysia or have an interest in Southeast Asia.

***Update, the 20th anniversary of Lovers and Strangers Revisited

Here are links to some of my author-to-author interviews of first novelists:

Ivy Ngeow author of Cry of the Flying Rhino, winner of the 2016 Proverse Prize.

Golda Mowe author of Iban Dream and Iban Journey.

Preeta Samarasan author of Evening is the Whole Day

Chuah Guat Eng,  author of Echoes of Silence and Days of Change. 


Beheaded on Road to Nationhood: Sarawak Reclaimed—Part I 

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