I WAS at a book warehouse recently. There was a jumbo sale offering thousands of titles. The books are of all kinds and sizes. There are gems among the pile. Some books are priced as cheap as 50 sen and the most expensive is RM10 each.
Buyers were loading books into bags and containers.
I have never seen so many feverishly enthusiastic book buyers in my life. Cheap books sell better, I realised. The book company is part of an entity that has folded.
While the assets of the holding company are under liquidation, perhaps the subsidiary company is given the leeway to sell the books, dirt cheap, to settle their financial obligations.
A book fiesta, yes, but to the authors of these books, it is a real tragedy.
Writers have been punished enough for toothless intellectual property (IP) and copyright laws.
Perhaps most authors didn’t even bother to read their agreement with publishers about their rights when books are sold at cheap sales.
How do you pay royalty to an author whose RM40 book is now sold at RM3? With book publishers collapsing like sandcastles, writers are being victimised as never before.
Luckily, my books are not published by this publisher. Many of my books are “safe” with reputable ones. But the royalties I received from most of my books over the years can’t even pay for my monthly mobile phone bills.
The last cheque I received from Dewan Bahasa and Pustaka for a book published about five years ago was RM27.50.
My stage play Asiah Samiah is currently being used as text for Malay Literature for Form Six.
I don’t remember getting any royalty the last few years. Students don’t buy the anthology that includes the play. They just photocopied the text without feeling any guilt.
It also happened before when two of my other plays were used for Form Three and Form Five Bahasa Malaysia subjects.
When DBP published my Jejak Seni: Dari Pentas Bangsawan Ke Media Prima Berhad, I decided to give away all the books to guests who attended the book launch by Tan Sri Rais Yatim in 2016. It is a book about my 50-year involvement in culture and the arts. The book is retailed at RM45. The truth is I forgo my royalty. The saddest thing is, very few people read them.
Giving away free books, too, has its downside. I have bought many copies of the book ever since, donating to schools, libraries and drama groups. I’d rather have my books elsewhere rather than in the warehouse.
Moral of the story is, had I depended on my book sales, I would have been homeless in Kuala Lumpur. No one I knew lived on book sales. Not even our national laureates, all 14 of them, out of which eight are still alive.
At one time, writers of novel “picisan” (literally translated trashy novels) can live quite happily on royalties, though not ever after.
Books written by popular writers like Achdiat Akasah and Liena Afiera Malik used to enjoy a print-run of more than 50,000 copies per title. But people are buying fewer books now. So bestselling authors by Malaysian standard are harder to come by.
No one is a millionaire author in Malaysia. The road to becoming a billion-ringgit novelist in the form of J.K. Rowling is perhaps eons away. Most of our writers will die poor should they depend on royalties.
After all, our book industry is in a sorry state. The broiler chicken industry (valued at RM2.5bil a year) is much bigger.
Even recycled trash is twice that of the book industry in terms of value.
The saddest part is, 70% of the books published here are textbooks and workbooks and hardly 10% are literary works.
As the “jual murah” (cheap sales) at the warehouse indicates, there are simply too many titles published of late. DBP used to have a stock valued at RM70mil. Many publishers are reeling from too many unsold books.
Perhaps it is true as pointed out by The Times (London) literary editor Robbie Millen that there are too many mediocre new books taking up precious shelf space.
Millen said that almost 200,000 titles were published in the UK in 2016 alone. In 2000, there were 125,000 titles.
And someone else observed that a book is churned out every 30 seconds in the world today.
A million titles are published a year. Millen reminded us the scary fact that for every literary fiction title written in English published in the UK, on an average 263 copies are sold. For every J.K. Rowling, there are perhaps 10,000 other literary writers whose works are pulped for lack of sales.
The next time you buy books at the warehouse, spare a thought for the authors deprived of their rights to earn a few ringgit per book!
Johan Jaaffar was a journalist, editor and for some years chairman of a media company, and is passionate about all things literature and the arts. And a diehard rugby fan. The views expressed here are entirely his own.