Thursday, May 31, 2007

May 13 -The book

The distributor of the book asked if we had been harassed by the Men-in-Blue. I said, "No. No one has been here inquiring about the book except for buyers." According to him a certain mega bookstore of the city has been having daily visitations, and bookstore staff have been asked to sign forms admitting that they have been selling the book. (I wonder if I should feel a bit slighted. I guess, we have to accept the fact that we are a small bookshop, lor.) If true, that does sound a lot like harassment, doesn't it? Can you imagine Men-in-Blue or conspicuous plain-clothes hanging around bookstores, observing what customers are buying? Or, if not true, what kind of state have we been reduced to - seeing shadows and conspiracies everywhere? What will it take to regain public confidence, or has that been quite irredeemably lost?

Also according to the same distributor, one major bookshop chain has, apparently, made a management decision not the sell the book. And another does not have it on its shelves because they do not have an account with the distributor. (Yes, it is all a bit complicated.) Otherwise, it is selling reasonably well. The distributor says that 11,000 copies have been printed and distributed. I think we should take that with a pinch of salt. It is selling, yes, but it has not been selling that well. Appears to be more like wishful thinking. But no matter, with constant rumours about the 'high probability' of the book getting banned (yes, that shadow of Mordor looms ominously), sales should be good for a while more.

[Just as I was posting this, three DBKL personnel in maroon jackets walked into the shop. Dina Zaman and Din Merican were here - Din listening intently, pretending to look elsewhere. They ask me for my 'lesen premis'. This is something I have been inquiring about for the better part of the last 8 years and I have been told by all the lawyers and company secretaries I have consulted that there was no such requirement for a bookshop in WP - but all other states, apparently, have such a clause. I told the gentleman that. He asked to see it in writing. Of course I didn't have one in writing. So he said he was going to give me 'saman'. I said, okay. I have since called my company secretary, my lawyer and the DBKL, Jabatan Lesenan - sorry, no names for now - and none of them were aware of such a requirement or undang-undang pertaining to the operation of a bookshop. My lawyer is going to get a copy of the Undang undang - no clause mentioned, mind you - quoted in the 'saman' before deciding what to do. (Both DBKL and the Government printers have said that they do not have a copy of the undang undang mentioned, adding a Kafkaesque dimension to the plot - we can't tell you what exactly you are being charged with, it's a secret.) Only after I do that will I be able to tell if I have been targeted for harassment or if this was part a normal DBKL 'operation'.]

So what is the book about? Read this:

Man burns books in protest

From an Associated Press.

A man in Kansas City has decided to set fire to his entire collection of over 20,000 books to protest against 'society's diminishing support for the printed word'.

"This is the funeral pyre for thought in America today," Tom Wayne reportedly told spectators outside his bookstore before he set fire to the first lot. (The Kansas City Fire Department put out the fire after 50 minutes because Wayne didn't have a permit to burn his books. Wayne has promised to get a permit
the next time.)

Tom Wayne says he will continue to burn a bunch of books every month until all his stock is exhausted to attract attention to his cause. Many customers took advantage of the book-burning to hunt for bargains. One man bought a stack of books, including an antique collection of children's literature. He said, "(Wayne has) made the point that not reading a book is as good as burning it."

The report also says, "... a 2002 study by the National Endowment for the Arts, that found that less than half of adult respondents reported reading for pleasure, down from almost 57 percent in 1982."

This appears to be more a marketing ploy to get people into his shop, Prospero Books, and attract attention to himself. No true lover of books will even contemplate, let alone carry out, such sacrilege. There are other ways to save a business.

Full story:

Is children's TV social poison?

From Guardian Online

PhilipPullman has been at it again. He has condemned children's television as 'social poison', treating its audience purely as marketing opportunities.

"There used to be ... a sense of responsibility among broadcasters: a feeling that this extraordinary medium ... should be used to make things better, richer, more interesting for those who made up the audience - especially for children," he is quoted. 'The ideology of "profit before everything" in children's television is toxic … When young audiences are regarded as customers to be separated from their money as quickly and efficiently as possible, there is no chance for life-enhancing work to flourish.'

This is not a new sentiment, but Pullman does put it across pretty strongly, doesn't he?

Pullman also has something to say about adult fiction, "Fantasy, and fiction in general, is failing to do what it might be doing … It has unlimited potential to explore all sorts of metaphysical and moral questions, but it is not doing that ... You can't leave morality out unless your work is so stupid and trivial and so worthless that nobody would want to read it anyway."


A new film based on Pullman's novel, The Golden Compass, starring Daniel Craig and Nicole Kidman, the first movie based on his trilogy, His Dark Materials, opens end of the year.

Full story:,,2089132,00.html

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Books as cultural goods

From: Swissinfo website

For years the Net Book Agreement (NBA) allowed publishers in the German regions of Switzerland to fix prices of books. Now the Swiss Competition Commission (Comco) has come down on this and the NBA for German-language books sold in Switzerland is history. And the government announced its final decision stating that it did not wish to oppose Comco. As a consequence, the book industry fears that many small, independent bookshops might close.

This is beginning to sound like one of those vinyl long-playing records stuck in a groove.

"This is bad news," says Jacques Scherrer, secretary-general of the Swiss Association of Distributors, Editors and Libraries. "The government hasn't recognised the status of the book as a cultural item ..."

That is an interesting point. On one hand I am totally anti-protectionist, because it only comes back to bite you. Goods must be market-driven. On the other I am appalled at the way commercial interests determine what is published and what is not. (Ditto for music - another cultural item.)

Lets look at it a little closer. Big bookshops have more muscle and can get their goods (in this case books) cheaper. Small bookshops have to pay more for the same goods. Big bookshops can bring prices very low to kill competition. Is that not anti-competition? But they can also bring it down so low that they kill themselves. Ask Borders (UK) about it. Small bookshops do have some advantages big bookshops don't have. Firstly, they are almost always run by people who read and love books. They can specialise in certain areas and be very good at it. They can add value by teaching and educating, building up relationships and communities, and becoming members of that same community.

The problem arises when the small bookshops try and be like the big boys, and sell the same stuff. Then they get screwed. Forget the bestsellers; leave that to the rice and sugar merchants. A small bookshop should focus on gourmet food instead, and add a little service. The rice and sugar market is bigger but also has more competition.

Sorry, no matter how hard I try I cannot support anti-competition laws.


Dina Zaman: best selling author

We got the first shipment of Dina Zaman's book I Am Muslim on the 3rd of March. The major bookshops started getting their hands on the book on Monday the 5th of March. The first print run of 3000 books was sold out within a month, with the bookshops clamouring for more. We are just into the second week of the third month and we are out of the second print run of another 3000. We have currently ordered another 3000 copies from the printers.

With 6000 sold in the first two months, this must be the fastest selling Malaysian book in English ever. Rehman Rashid and Karim Raslan have probably sold more in total. But the Dina Zaman juggernaut has just only started. The Malay version will be out soon.

The vast majority of the feedback received so far has been positive. "Thank you for writing the book Dina. Thank you for airing these issues. You have done us all a big favour." But not everyone, it appears, is happy. Dina has received threatening phone calls, rude emails, has been called names, branded an apostate and received "How dare you" hate mail - exactly the type of close-mindedness she rallies against.

Dina needs our support. Support her, post her a note.

An interview with Will Self

From Guardian Unlimited. Here are some interesting quotes.

I didn't have a favourite book as a child - I never have. I think there's something rather weird about people that do ...

There can be no more thrilling idea of intimacy than connecting with someone through the agency of the written word. Here we meet, on the page, naked and unadorned: shorn of class, race, gender, sexual identity, age and nationality.

(I write) First drafts as early in the morning as possible, then second, then third (retyping, I work on a manual). Once the first draft is 80% completed I start on the second, so that there's a conveyor belt of drafts in progress: this helps me to grasp the totality of the book.

Overall, though, I have a healthy appetite for solitude. If you don't, you have no business being a writer.

Never worry about people stealing your ideas. If you're any good you'll have plenty more - whereas if they have to nick yours they'll never have any of their own, so pity them.

Advice to new writers: Think long and hard about whether this is what you really want to do. A book is published every 40 seconds in the world.

Secret to writing: I think it's like a lot of the creative talents; the talent does have to be there, but it also needs to be cultivated in the right way.

Full story:,,2075745,00.html

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

On literary prizes

From The Guardian

Everyone likes to knock the 'Awards' ceremony, and deservedly too very often. The Oscars and Grammy Awards ahave become circuses which are nothing more than another show, not much better (or worse) than any of the others. Ditto Bollywood Awards and everything else. But I also remember what Huzir Suleiman once said: Everyone likes to knock the (Cameronian) awards until they win one themselves. I'm not sure if that makes it less of a circus.

Literary awards have managed to, somehow, remain above. Yes, we complain about this winner or that winner, etc, etc. But generally we accept that the books in the shortlist at least are worth checking out, particularly if they do throw up some new names, though not all the prizes are created equal in the eyes of the reader. A Man-Booker winner is someone special for some reason, a writer to be taken seriously. A Nobel Prize laureate is almost always a must read (unless the writer has an unpronounceable east European sounding name.) Then there is the Dublin Impac, the Costa (formerly known as the Whitbread), the Commonwealth (regional and overall) prizes and the (women's only) Orange prize, which are the better known. (The Americans have the Pulitzer, of course).

I personally cannot agree more with Maya Jaggi that, "What gets read should not be determined solely by the size of publishers' promotion budgets or the muscle of bookshop chains." Literary awards play a vital, even equalising, role. They alert readers to certain deserving books, which would otherwise be stillborn or buried alive by John Grisham/Dan Brown/JK Rowling type avalanches.

Literary prize winners are useful starting points on the reading journey. One does not have to like every prizewinner, or even any of them, and there are excellent books that have never won prizes. (I know some people who will read only award-winning novels, or make it a point to read every award winning book there is, and even feel obliged to like them even when they don't. That's a little sad.) But who nominates the books for consideration for the prizes. The publishers, of course. Is that a weakness in the system? Why would a publisher want to publish a book and not nominate it if he thinks it is good? Or, publish it if he thinks it is not good?

Whatever their faults, literary prizes do level the playing field somewhat, giving the 'unknown' author and small publisher a fighting chance in a world dominated by conglomerates.

Full story:,,2059652,00.html

Sexist Literary Prize shortlist

Sexist Literary Prize shortlist

From The Independent

Are there literary prizes for men only? So why, in this day and age, this discrimination? Can we also have prizes for hairy men with beards, then? Or humans under five-six, barring tall people like Margaret Atwood. (They are too good anyway.) Or ... never mind.

Anyway Kiran Desai's Inheritance of Loss is in the list. (Boy does she need a leg up; afterall she has only won the - totally sexist - 'Man' Booker so far.

Then there is a book on the shortlist supposedly written in 'bad' English by a Chinese author, Xiaolu Guo, 33, titled A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers, described as a romantic comedy. I have not having read the book yet, but I live in dread if seeing a flood of half baked manuscripts written in bad Manglish, Singlish and Honglish.

This year's list features writers from India, Britain, Nigeria, China and the United States.

The winner will be announced on 6 June 2007.


Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie - Half of a Yellow Sun

Rachel Cusk - Arlington Park

Kiran Desai - The Inheritance of Loss

Xiaolu Guo - A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers

Jane Harris - The Observations

Anne Tyler - Diggings to America

Full story:

Best children's book

From The Guardian

Neither Richard Adams's Watership Down, nor any of the books C S Lewis's Narnia series are amongst the ten top books that have won the Carnegie gold medal for children's writing in an online vote to select the Carnegie of Carnegies to celebrate the 70th anniversary

If you are looking for good children's books and don't know where to start, here is the top 10 list of past winners of the Carnegie medal:

Skellig David Almond (1998)

Junk Melvin Burgess (1996)

Storm Kevin Crossley-Holland (1985)

A Gathering Light Jennifer Donnelly (2003)

The Owl Service Alan Garner (1967)

The Family From One End Street Eve Garnett (1937)

The Borrowers Mary Norton (1952)

Tom's Midnight Garden Philippa Pearce (1958)

Northern Lights Philip Pullman (1995)

The Machine-Gunners Robert Westall (1981)

Full story:,,2061738,00.html