Monday, April 30, 2012

South East Asian publishing perspectives

Reading the story by Vinutha Mallya in Publishing Perspectives, As KL Book Fair Opens, Publishers Eye Booming Southeast Asia, it is easy to get intoxicated in the euphorias of self congratulations. Publishing in Malaysia (and South-East Asia) is, certainly, not what it was 10 years ago, but much remains to be done. The Trade and Copyright Centre (TCC) is an interesting move, but what is it? What is its USP? Soon, every country in ASEAN will organises? Some are already planning. How many are we going to attend? How many are visitors going to attend? Will it all simply die off like the Merdeka Cup?

Since Frankfurt, Trade and Copyright Centres have become the new buzzword; the new me-too fix for all that ails publishing. Everybody now wants to sell rights. But the operative word in TCC is 'trade', and that involves both buying and selling. And, now we have one tacked to the KLIBF as well.

I am not against KLIBF's TCCs, but I have a strong aversion to failure and history is not on our side. Is there no hope, then? Actually, there is, and it is called ASEAN; unfortunately, it is also an organisation that falls into the category of 'satu sen tada guna' in the minds of most. After 45 years of ASEAN, Malaysians don't know anything about literature from Singapore, nor are we interested, and vice versa (except when books are banned on one side of the causeway or the other). Don't even think of looking for books from Burma or Vietnam or Cambodia or The Philippines .... you get the drift ... in any country outside the home nation. Why? Are Malaysians worried of being flooded by books from Indonesia? That's strange, considering how our markets are already flooded with books from the US and the UK, and with some absolutely dreadful ones at that. Language difficulty has been cited as one problem against creating a regional market, but one suspects there is some other more fundamental factors at work here; sibling rivalry and petty jealousy. (Seldom does the intellectual level of our intra-regional debate rise above recipes for chili-crab.)

I was one of the invited speakers at a forum in Singapore four years ago (as part of the Singapore Writers Festival), and one of the main laments of all the panellists (and audience) was the lack of access to book markets within ASEAN. It was almost unanimously agreed by participants (who were writers, publishers, agents, and others) that something had to be done about this bizarre situation. The idea we came up with was a unique ASEAN marketplace for books; where books from every country in the region, in every language and translation is available either in traditional or virtual form; where publishing professionals from the region can regularly meet, talk and trade; where publishing professionals from other parts of the world come for any publishing information from the region. An ASEAN book clearing house, so to speak. I was talking to a suited senior Singaporean bureaucratic type from the National Art Council at the farewell cocktail after the forum, and I mentioned this to him. His immediate reaction was, "We must not just think about ASEAN, we must think of the whole world." Enough said.

Get real. The Anglo-American publishing industry is not interested in anything not invented there, so we can forget about them. Besides they only want to sell, not buy. Ask Frankfurt. (When  asked about the London Book Fair, a local publishing professional quipped, "It's like Hall 8 in Frankfurt, lah.) The Europeans might be more adventurous, but how do we can get them interested enough to come here to KL (as opposed to other cities in ASEAN)? Karipap and luke warm teh tarik, or air bandung, is not going to cut it, even with halfway talented dancing girls thrown in. Bali has got its beaches and boys, Bangkok has Patpong, Singapore has shops and Sharjah paid business class airfares and provided full five-star board and lodging for over a hundred publishing professionals from around the world in November last year, besides providing translation grants.

Anyway, why are we even thinking about world markets, when we have half a billion people living right here in our neighbourhood? Make that, almost two billion if we include China, Japan and Korea? If we (the countries of SEA) work together, we can do it. Otherwise, we can watch others do it. This is a G-to-G job. Now, if only we can persuade ASEAN bureaucrats to roll up the sleeves of their pretty shirts and do some real work.

When Silverfish New Writing was released in 12 years, there was euphoria on the streets like we had just invented sliced bread. (Some are still dancing.) I could only watch in amusement. Since then we have scaled many more heights, but we are not going to get carried away. There's much work still to be done.