Monday, 21 October 2013

Self-publishing in the Asian market

Asia, with its 4.2 billion inhabitants, has more than 60% of the world population. That is a vast potential book-buying public, though one fragmented by language and culture.   

What does this mean for digital and self-publishing on the continent?  Alice Clark-Platts investigates:

At the recent Ubud Writers and Readers Festival, Nury Vittachi, author of the Feng Shui Detective series, mentioned, in conversation with Sebastian Faulks, the strength of the Asian book market. In terms of population, the size of the US, UK and European book markets pale in comparison to the mass of the Asian market. In India alone the book publishing industry is estimated to be growing at 30% per annum.

What does this mean for publishing and self-publishing in particular? Well, in small markets such as Hong Kong, traditionally considered an English-speaking market, due to economies of scale print copies of a book would need to exceed 2,000 copies to make any economic sense. This is equivalent to roughly 2,000,000 in the US[1]. Clearly, ebooks and self-publishing offer a way in to this valuable market for aspiring authors when publishing houses may refrain from taking on new authors due to economic concerns.

Or consider the emerging market of Indonesia, with its population of over 240 million. Here the market is especially fragmented[2] and so traditional publishing houses may flounder to reach readers, whereas more nimble self-publishers might be able to identify niches, and target them appropriately.

In China, self-publishing websites draw 40% of web user traffic to stories by Chinese writers[3]. Evidence such as this suggests that authors in China have been quicker than those in the West to grasp the importance of reaching out to readers via electronic means.

What about developments such as crowd funding for creative projects? The Asian market has been slow to adopt crowd funding - concerns over public failure and losing face may be at the heart of this reluctance? However it is surely only a matter of time before companies such as Singapore-based Crowdonomic catch on[4].

The diversity of the Asian markets means that conventional publishers cannot be attuned to the vagaries and nuances of each particular market. Here self-publishing can attack – spotting and targeting specific markets for particular genres and interests. For example, 25% of the Indonesian population is made up of children - writers of kids' and young adult fiction may be intrigued by the opportunities presented there. 

Self-publishing gives the author control – not only of the content, style and presentation of their book but, more importantly, with respect to the profits garnered from it. Under traditional publishing contracts, an author may sometimes only receive a 10% share of the spoils.

Companies such as Trafford Publishing in Singapore offer self-publishing services ranging from editorial to marketing. This may help to ease the where do I start? feeling that new authors might have. Equally, self-publishing gurus such as Joanna Penn at offer a wealth of articles and information to help an author navigate their path.

This is the first of what is intended to be a regular series of posts on digital and self-publishing in Asia. If you are in the process of self-publishing for Asian markets, or you have a recently self-published book of interest in Asia, or you run a self-publishing company, or you offer editorial services to digital and self-published authors please get in touch with me, either by posting a comment, or by e-mailing

Alice Clark-Platts


[1] Peter Gordon of Hong Kong Chameleon Press, cited in China’s Emerging English Language Book Market,, 8 May 2013
[2] Joy Hawley Indonesia’s Sea of Opportunities  11 October 2013
[4] Kurt Wagner CNN Money 8 July 2013

Tuesday, 15 October 2013

Dredging up the dark past: Indonesian writers at Ubud

Michael Vatikiotis is currently blogging from the 10th Ubud Writers & Readers Festival.  Here he writes about some of the featured Indonesian authors.

Politics is a prominent and enduring theme of Indonesian art and literature.  Perhaps the easiest explanation for this is that Indonesia is a relatively new country, under 70 years old.  Most Indonesians have living relatives who were born before independence and they, together with subsequent generations, have experienced the highs and the lows of what Indonesia’s doyen of journalism and modern letters, Goenawan Muhammad, defines as a country still under construction. “Indonesia is a process; it is not a finished idea,” he declared at at the Festival.

Goenawan’s rather moving response to the challenge of defining “My Indonesia”, was to propose that his Indonesia is the Indonesia of his parents – a country worth dying for. His father was executed by the Dutch colonial authorities in North Java during the later stages of the armed struggle for independence. 

Throughout this year’s Festival, Indonesian writers have aired concerns about the state of the nation through the prism of literature, in performance, and in conversation.  Much of the questioning is about the buried past.  Leila Chudori launched Home, her novel about exiled Indonesian leftists washed up in Paris in the wake of the violent anti-communist crackdown. Soon to be available in an English translation, Leila’s powerful prose reveals the stark brutality of the period, when people accused of communist sympathies were cleansed “like lice and germs...The army was the disinfectant.  We, the lice and germs had been eradicated from the face of the earth, with no trace left.”

Laksmi Pamuntjak’s poetic epic Amba, newly published in English as The Question of Red, deals with the same era only transposed as a modern version of the story of Amba and Bhisma from the Mahabharata epic.  

Both Home and Amba have already been re-printed several times in the months since they were published, indicating a public thirst for stories about the political past as Indonesia heads into an uncertain political future. 

Another Indonesian author featured at the Festival this year was journalist Solahudin, whose new book, starkly titled, The Roots of Terrorism in Indonesia, traces the jihadist movement responsible for the Bali bombings of 2002 back as far as Darul Islam movement that made a violent bid to transform Indonesia into an Islamic state from the 1950s until its defeat in 1962.  Solahudin’s detailed research establishes a clear link with the failed revolt and chronicles the Islamic movement’s efforts to revive through the 1970s and 80s, which provided the launch pad for the modern generation of terrorists.

Whilst the momentum of Indonesia’s transition to democracy seems reassuring and offers grounds for optimism, strikingly many Indonesian writers are not taking things for granted.  Rather, they have used their relatively new-found freedom to explore the country’s troubled past, perhaps in the hope that it will help secure a better future.

Michael Vatikiotis

Friday, 11 October 2013

Literature festivals promoting blandness - or not?

Michael Vatikiotis is currently blogging from the 10th Ubud Writers & Readers Festival.  Here is his first post.

It's been ten years since a group of writers gathered rather improbably on the side of an Ubud hillside to speak about their writing in front of a meagre audience of tourists and resident expats. Then, as now, it was an odd juxtaposition: Ubud is known for its laid back vibe - all meditation and yoga to the tinkling of little bells and gongs. Its art scene is primarily visual. We scribblers seemed like interlopers introducing more urgent, contemporary themes, disturbing the otherwise placid waters of the lily pond.  Quite literally.

Since then, boutique literary festivals have sprouted across Asia. There are so many that authors are tripping over each other in Bangkok, Beijing, Hong Kong Shanghai, Penang,Yangon and Galle. India has its own circuit and style, and even Bhutan is on the literary map.

There are those who argue that throwing writers into the global mixer and shoving cocktails in their hands when sponsors pay is generating a homogenized literary product.  In
Beyond the global novel, a piece written for the Financial Times, Pankaj Mishra recently argued that: "Literature today seems to emerge from an apolitical and borderless cosmopolis". He decried the emergence of the global novel with its superficial multiculturalism that denuded it of more urgent, pungent nationalist or political themes.

Mishra takes aim at what he terms "exotically sited literary festivals" where he says writers "can appear to embody the bland consensus of transnational elites, denuded of the differences and antagonisms that define a genuinely pluralist culture." 

Well I beg to differ.  As a writer living in Asia, I find no difficulty highlighting the differences and antagonisms that challenge me to write either fiction or opinion pieces.  I don't attend literary festivals to seek any kind of consensus, but rather to advertise what is so different, divisive and defective in our world.  Ubud is a soapbox, not a homogenizing mixer.

I can see where Mishra is coming from. One recent year I was on a panel with a Palestinian writer who claimed that when Israeli shells killed his children he felt no hatred. It was pure nonsense, of course. I felt the hatred boiling beside me.  I could sense the audience's empathy with his hatred. There are group settings where we pretend that literature salves the pain of human suffering.  We writers sometimes have our passions mistaken for objective observation.  We go along with this because we need to sell books.

Ubud has always worked because the setting is Indonesia. The festival rose out of the ashes of the Bali bombings. For those of us who know Indonesia, There was a need to come together, to declare that Bali would survive this outrage. And we did.

Ten years later there is still the anger and the passion, and the need for a safe space for free expression. The organizers cleverly tapped into the so-called Arab Spring. This has helped bring Middle Eastern voices to Ubud - and a much needed cross fertilization of Islam as it is viewed from here with Islam in the Arab context. Too bad some see this as a dumbing down or suppression of complexity.

I come to Ubud to mingle and exchange world views; I come to assert myself and peddle my scribbling.  It's up to the audience to decide what they like.  It's the responsibility of the writers to keep faith with what they believe.  On santi Om.....

Michael Vatikiotis

Thursday, 10 October 2013

Michael Vatikiotis at Ubud

The Ubud Writers & Readers Festival showcases the best of Indonesian, South East Asian and international writing.  It runs this year from 11 – 15 October, and it will feature more than 170 writers, performers and artists, working across all forms of storytelling – from travel writing to song writing, via plays, poetry, comedy and graphic novels. 

Michael Vatikiotis is a Singapore-based author and journalist.  He has worked for the Bangkok Post, and for the BBC World Service.  He was the editor of the Far Eastern Economic Review. His books include: Indonesian Politics under Suharto, Political Change in Southeast Asia; Trimming the Banyan Tree; Debatable Land, Stories from Southeast Asia; The Spice Garden; The Painter of Lost Souls.

Michael will be blogging from Ubud.  Here he introduces himself, and talks about how his immersion in the cultures of South East Asia has influenced his own writing.

Southeast Asia offers a colourful palette for the writer. You have the chaotic crush of its mega cities, with their multitude of sounds and smells. They are the focal points of societies in transition, throwing together the very rich and the very poor in volatile close proximity.  Then you have the remote margins where barely ruled people walk on the wild side carrying ancient grudges and modern guns.

My first published fiction was a series of short stories, loosely conceived to reflect the contemporary social and political transformation then affecting countries I knew well such as Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia.  The region was in flux and seized with hopes for a democratic future, but at the same time fearful of losing newfound prosperity. I was living in Hong Kong, where a group of writers and poets had started to exchange literary views and stories, using online chat rooms and plotting a way to gain more of a hearing for their fragmented voices.

The stories in the collection delved into the exciting transitions in Thailand and Indonesia, reflecting on the clash of traditional cultures and brash new material values.

There was the Thai migrant worker returned from Saudi Arabia who one night builds a brick wall across a lane in Bangkok to protest his sons death at the hands of a careless new-rich driver.  Theres the idealistic student in Jakarta who drives a car into a line of troops at the height of the pro-democracy protests in 1998.

The end of the century was marked by violent conflict as these transitions got underway.  In my first novel, The Spice Garden, I created a cast of characters taken by surprise when their island paradise, a model of religious and social harmony, is invaded by mysterious dark forces that generate a vicious religious war between Muslims and Christians. 

Indonesia survived the trauma of its transition, and a thriving democracy is in place.  But freedom has unleashed new forces of extremism and intolerance and exposed the truth about the countrys dark past.  For my second novel, The Painter of Lost Souls, set in Central Java, I wanted to explore the memories of Indonesia’s traumatic first few decades and the historical tensions between the forces of pluralism and dogma that currently plague Indonesian society.

This is a novel of the times, for when I embarked on it some five years ago, no one was willing to debate the countrys dark past the fact that as many as a million and a half people were killed in a brutal crackdown on communist party members and sympathisers across Java and Bali in 1965.

It has been left to the artists, writers and filmmakers to delve back in time to bring some of this unspeakable tragedy to light.  It’s the main reason I chose to tell the story through the eyes of a painter.  The artist has license.  And so it is, that by writing fiction, even in English, I hope a little of the complex tapestry of society in Southeast Asia is more easily exposed to a wider audience.  At the same time I hope my writing becomes part of a useful dialogue with friends and colleagues from the region on what makes it tick and how it might become a better place. For the artist has an obligation as well. 

Look out for Michael's posts over the coming few days. 

Wednesday, 9 October 2013

Hyeonseo Lee book deal

Arabella Pike, publishing director at William Collins UK has bought world English Language rights to a memoir by North Korean female escapee Hyeonseo Lee. The book, yet to be titled, was sold for a six-figure sum at a brisk auction by Kelly Falconer of the Asia Literary Agency, based in Hong Kong.
Hyeonseo Lee captured the world’s attention earlier this year after her TED talk – detailing her extraordinary escape from North Korea – gathered over 2m views online.

As a child, Hyeonseo Lee thought her country was the best on the planet. It wasn't until the devastating famine of the 1990s that she began to question what she had been taught. She escaped to China when she was 14, and began a life in hiding as an illegal alien. The book will describe her privileged childhood in North Korea, her life in China, her decision to settle eventually in South Korea and, her journey back to North Korea to rescue her mother and brother. She is now at university in South Korea, where she is a human-rights advocate and spokesperson for the North Korean refugee community.
The book adds to the growing list of Korea-focused authors represented by the Asia Literary Agency including: Han Yujoo, winner of the  Hankook Ilbo Literary Award in 2009;  Chris Tharp, the Korea-based travel writer and memoirist; Michael Breen, journalist and author of The Koreans, and Kim Jong-il: North Korea's Dear Leader.
Kelly Falconer, founder of the Asia Literary Agency, said: "There has been a phenomenal amount of interest in Hyeonseo Lee. I am thrilled that her story will be shared with the world and will help raise awareness of the plight of North Korea’s people. This memoir is as raw and heart-breaking as it is hopeful and optimistic for the future of the divided peninsula."
Arabella Pike, Publishing Director at William Collins, said: "Hyeonseo Lee’s book electrified me. Ms. Lee is quite remarkable and her book promises to be powerful, deeply emotional and important. She will be, I believe, the first eyewitness female writer to describe the terrifying fates of North Korean women escapees in China. This will be a list-defining book for us."
Danish, Dutch, French, German, Italian, Polish, Portuguese and Spanish rights have already been sold, and other offers are also under consideration.
The book is due to be published in autumn 2014. 

Sunday, 6 October 2013

Ellah Allfrey / 2014 Commonwealth Short Story Prize

Commonwealth Writers, a cultural initiative of the Commonwealth Foundation, encourages Commonwealth writers to speak out on issues of concern to themselves and to their communities.  It has a guiding belief that fiction can affect the way people think, act, and engage with government agencies - that fiction has the power to bring about social change.  It has now opened for entry its 2014 Short Story Prize, via the online application form here.  The Prize covers five Commonwealth regions: Africa; Asia; Canada and Europe; the Caribbean; the Pacific.

Ellah Allfrey, writer, editor, critic, and broadcaster, is chairing the 2014 Prize. Given Commonwealth Writers' focus on the political power of fiction, I asked how she thought short stories can influence policy-makers, if, indeed, they read them? "One can’t be at all quantitative about the impact of fiction on individual readers, let alone on that hard-to-identify group of international policy-and-decision-makers. But my hope is that the stories we pick from each region will inspire conversation, focus attention and provoke debate. Good fiction does that. Short stories especially. However, it’s important to remember that these are pieces of fiction - literature, not policy documents."

Point taken.  Nevertheless, I asked Ellah whether the judges would let politics and theme trump good writing? It was perhaps a daft question. Ellah came straight back: "Nothing trumps good writing." 

Fine. I think. Although I do also think there are autobiographical stories coming out of Asia where worrying about the quality of the writing probably should take second place to worrying about the content - I'm thinking of, for example, the story snippets dribbling out of North Korea, or the stories of girls sold into the sex trade by their parents, or, less dramatically, the stories of migrant domestic workers.  

But perhaps, even when they're writing autobiographies, and telling of harrowing things, it's wrong, or condescending, not to hold writers to the highest standards of good writing?  But does good writing mean (so-called) literary fiction? What about genre writing?  This rarely wins literary prizes, except those specific to the relevant genre.  So if a writer set her story in a galaxy far, far away would that count against her winning the Commonwealth Short Story Prize? Ellah reassured not: "Speaking personally, a setting in a galaxy far, far away would probably count in an author’s favour. I'm a huge fan of genre fiction and fervently hope we do get submissions this year that push boundaries. It is, perhaps, harder to achieve literary merit that can be agreed on when one is writing in genre, but take, for example, the work of two great Commonwealth writers, Margaret Atwood and Doris Lessing: Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and the Oryx and Crake trilogy; Lessing’s Mara and Dan saga. These are life-changing books - and great literature at the same time."

I'm a fan of genre fiction too, but surely a prize celebrating the power of writing to bring about social change must encourage writers to set their stories in their communities, not in distant galaxies? "No. There is nothing prescriptive about this prize. We want good stories, wherever they are set. Obviously, for many readers, there is a great desire to read writers exploring stories in their own communities. But a good story is one that transcends its boundaries - it has to be able to travel, to have universal meaning even if the setting and scene is closely bound geographically. In the end, we want writers to send us their best stories, wherever they are set."

Okay, but what makes a good story? And what is good writing? All my other questions to Ellah were perhaps dancing around these two. The judges working alongside her are Doreen Baingana, Michelle de Kretser, Marlon James, Courttia Newland and Jeet Thayil.  You can read about them here. I asked Ellah what she and her panel were looking for? Did they have some sort of checklist against which to appraise submissions? "There is absolutely no checklist. The judges I am lucky enough to be working with represent a great deal of experience and varied reading tastes. That range in itself, I’m convinced, ensures that we approach the entries with different expectations, with keen eyes attracted to different aspects of storytelling and style. Different things will thrill us - and the winning stories will be those we feel, collectively, are the best."

Did Ellah have any particular message for writers in Asia?  For readers in Asia? "This is a wonderful opportunity for a new work to reach an international audience. My ambition is to have a surfeit of original, confident, accomplished voices in the submission pile. So the message to the writers is to send us good submissions. To readers: we look forward to sharing many stories with you."

So, writers from Asia's Commonwealth countries, get writing! You are eligible if you are a citizen of one of the following: Bangladesh; Brunei Darussalam; India; Malaysia; Maldives; Pakistan; Singapore; Sri Lanka. The overall winner will receive £5,000 (approx US$7,750) and the remaining four regional winners £2,500 (approx US$3,785). Translators of winning stories will also receive prize money. UK literary magazine Granta will provide winners with an opportunity to have their stories published online, and selected writers will be offered a chance to work with the London-based literary agency Blake Friedmann.  If you are writing in an Asian language, and your story wins in translation, the original will be published on the Commonwealth Writers website, alongside the English language translation - Ellah told me she hopes that by welcoming submission of translated pieces, the Prize will be able to draw attention to the best of these, along with other winning entries.

Sunday, 29 September 2013

Book Club: Crazy Rich Asians, and October's pick

Since this a book club, I assume you've read September's pick, Crazy Rich Asians, by Kevin Kwan, so I'm not going to give a plot summary.  If you need one see here for the UK publisher, Corvus, where you'll find details.

For context, Crazy Rich Asians has been wildly successful in the West, and has now won a Hollywood movie deal.  It's a comedy of manners set amongst the secretive ultra-rich in Singapore, where the luckiest 0.0001% exists in a bubble of extraordinary privilege and luxury. It’s about the clashes between their intensely private world of arcane social codes designed to keep out non-squillionaires, and the brasher one of the nouveau riche; about inter-generational clashes; about clashes between Mainland Chinese and Overseas Chinese.  But above all it’s about the lust for money, money, money. "You're way cuter now I know you're loaded."  Says Rachel, Our Heroine, to Nick, Our Hero, in what I thought was the most honest line in the book, even though both Rachel and Nick are presented as being non-materialistic, and the line is ostensibly offered, and received, as a joke.

You'll gather immediately this is not typical of novels by Asians that make it in the West: it's not a literary examination by an Indian of the legacy of colonialism in that country.  No, Kwan has, in Amartya Sen's term, a non-colonised mind. Crazy Rich Asians is post-post-colonial fiction that assumes Asia, not the West, is where the money, and hence the power, lies; that it's Asia, not the West, that's now in the vanguard of global materialism.  

I thought this freedom from the past was refreshing, as was the novel's confidence, and brashness. How great that a popular, genre novel from Asia has made it internationally.  You can see at once why Crazy Rich Asians has won that movie deal: not only does it hold the promise of enabling Hollywood to conquer lucrative Asian markets, it reads as a fantasy-fulfilling mash-up between Downton Abbey and James Bond, and thus as suitable for any market where people dream of money.  Downton Abby even gets a name check: "The fact is that you grew up in friggin' Downton Abbey."  Says Rachel to Nick in the midst of a row that you know is certainly not going to lead to their break-up. As for James Bond, how about this? "Twenty minutes later, as Bernard sat in the diamond-shaped jacuzzi on the uppermost deck while a half-Portuguese girl tried to swallow both his testicles under the bubbly water jets, a white Sikorsky helicopter appeared out of the sky and began to descend onto the yacht's helipad."

Bernard is one of the frightfully vulgar nouveau characters, and I sympathised with him, despite the fact that he's the only son of a man worth four billion, and he's presented as a twit.  I also liked Kitty with whom he's surprised in flagrante in a cupboard. Trashy Kitty is a soap star with fake boobs and a penchant for see-through dresses. She's also an out-and-out gold-digger, unlike the more circumspect gold-diggers of the old-money set. I much preferred the honesty of the various nouveau characters to the establishment squillionaires who disguise their money-lust with codes and so-called breeding. 

There are of course nods to non-materialism. As I said Rachel's and Nick's story presents them as being uninterested in money, and Michael apparently rejects it. But there's no suggestion that Nick will ever renounce his fortune, and the end hints that Michael is going to end up a squillionaire himself, and back in the folds of the mega-bucks family he's apparently just departed.

Overall, I found this an enjoyable, original romp, funny, and well deserving of the praise that's been lavished on it. I thought the best joke came when a clutch of middle-aged, ultra-rich Singaporean matrons were shopping for fake goods in Shenzhen. One whispered to another: "See, the only people shopping here are tourists like us. These days, the Mainlanders only want the real thing."

As minor criticisms I couldn't keep the characters and their relationships straight, despite the family tree provided at the beginning, and I found the footnotes explaining aspects of Singaporean culture distracting.

Alison Harvey shared this last concern: "The need for footnotes and explanations inevitably slows down the narrative. Local colour is part of the appeal of the book but I did find the explanations irritating and some incorrect statements really grated (silly, but Sauternes in not described as 'late vintage'). I think the author should have found another way to convey some of this detail."

Alison's other gripe concerned the subject matter: "Having lived in Singapore for over 12 years I have met plenty of aspiring Chanel handbag owners, young girls who prefer to live with Mum and Dad so they can spend an entire month’s salary on a bag, and I think an exploration of the insecurities that fire this sort of obsession would be more interesting than reading about the mega-rich who, frankly, can afford any number of these luxury items anyway. I can’t help but feel that an exploration of this side of the crazy rich phenomenon would have been more interesting than focusing on those who have it all because they can afford it all easily. But maybe that’s another book altogether…"

It is indeed, although you can scarcely see Wannabee Crazy Rich Asians as this book's follow-up, and if Kwan decided to write about the ultra-rich, not the aspirational classes, none of us can really argue with his choice: an author's subject is up to him, or her. 


My book club pick for October is Golden Parasol: A Daughter's Memoir of Burma, by Wendy Law-Yone, published by Chatto & Windus. 

At the time of Burma’s military coup in 1962, Wendy Law-Yone was fifteen. A year later, her father Ed Law-Yone, daredevil proprietor of The Nation newspaper, was arrested and his newspaper shut down. Eventually, Wendy was herself briefly imprisoned before managing to escape the country.

Ed would spend five years as a political prisoner. But from the moment he was freed he set about forming a government-in-exile in neighbouring Thailand. There he tried, unsuccessfully, to stage a revolution. Yet even after emigrating to America, he never gave up hope for the restoration of democracy in Burma. He died disappointed – but not before placing in his daughter’s hands an extraordinary bequest.

Ed had asked Wendy for help in editing his papers, but year after year she avoided the daunting task. When at last she found the confidence to take up the neglected manuscript, she discovered a captivating saga. Here was the forceful testimony of an ambitious, audacious, idiosyncratic and determined patriot whose career had spanned Burma under colonial rule, under Japanese occupation, through the turbulence of the post-war years, and into the catastrophe of a military dictatorship.

The result of this discovery is Golden Parasol: a unique portrait of Burma, a nation whose vicissitudes continue to intrigue the world. It is also a powerfully evocative family memoir: a daughter’s journey of reconciliation that illuminates the twin histories of country and kin.

Since this is supposed to be a book club - a discussion not a monologue from me - please do post with your comments. I'll post my thoughts on Sunday 27th October.

If you are a member of a real-world book club either devoted to books about Asia, or planning to read Golden Parasol, please get in touch: