New Straits Times, Malaysia (4 June 2005)

POINT BLANK: Why the book industry needs Oprah
Johan Jaafar

IMAGINE this: Authors can’t get by without Oprah Winfrey. They "begged" her to resume picking up novels for her Book Club. To quote a spokesperson for Word of Mouth, a loose alliance of women authors, "there’s a widely-held belief that the landscape of literary fiction is now a gloomy place". Please!

Let’s get real. The book industry today badly needs celebrities to sell its wares. Does that mean people buy books because people like Oprah are promoting them in her hugely popular show? Or have we come to a stage where we can’t even decide what books to buy unless a celebrity tells us what is good for us?

Oprah is no scholar nor intellectual and she never claims to be one. Yet, Oprah makes books "hip" and "chic", and talking about books on TV, "the in-thing". Would you believe East of Eden or Anna Karenina are the kind of books ordinary buyers would go for? These novels by John Steinbeck and Leo Tolstoy respectively are "tough" to say the least. But any mention by Oprah could mean even difficult books could sell more than a million copies. Another member of Word of Mouth said: "Oprah got so many people to read contemporary fiction in a way nobody else has ever done."

Since books were mass-produced with the invention of the printing press in the 15th century, more than 50 million titles have been published so far. Today, more than a million titles are published in 200 countries each year. But let’s take a look at the book industry. The United Kingdom’s publishing industry will give you a clue how troubling the book world is. Every year, 116,000 new titles are published, only a handful of these titles make money. Bloomsbury, the UK publisher of the Harry Potter books, initially survived by re-launching Enid Blyton’s titles in its stable. The publisher badly needed a best-seller. The first book by an unknown author, J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, was the answer to their prayers.

Five books and more than 200 million copies later, Rowling has single-handedly saved the children’s book industry both in the UK and the US. According to Andrew Blake in his book The Irresistible Rise of Harry Potter, the US publisher for the book, Scholastic, was also saved by the first book (the US title is Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone). The title was at the top of the New York Times best-seller list for 15 weeks, the first ever for a children’s book.

When the second book appeared, the company pushed seven million books within the first 12 weeks of its release in the US. Harry Potter contributes at least RM190 million to Scholastic’s coffers every year. Again, to quote Blake, since the launch of the first novel, sales of children’s fiction has increased by over 25 per cent in both the UK and US. See what a successful title can do to the industry.

Rowling’s books can certainly "fly" without Oprah’s help. But how many such titles are there? In the UK alone 300,000 books are pulped each week. So, if you hear of publishers’ inventories in the tens of millions of ringgit, do not be alarmed. Most books don’t make money. Most publishers need one or two best-sellers to make up for the other losses. Remember, books move slowly. Unlike vegetables, they are not perishable goods, but people can do without them.

Publishers like to kid themselves that they are interested in quality books rather than popular books. Or, those that have literary merits rather than those that promise sales potential. The truth is, publishing is a huge industry and the biggest publishers are part of large conglomerates that are more worried about the bottom line than whether "critical readers" are interested in the books they produce. We can talk about "canons" by great writers but the moral of the story is, even James Joyce, Milan Kundera or Gabriel Marquez attained their "canonised" stature because their books are read by millions.

Publishers need the right mix — books that are serious enough to be taken seriously and yet successful commercially. But for the buying public and those who are not familiar with the Times Literary Supplement or New York Review of Books, books are merely products. Unless you promote them, they won’t buy.

Publishers do factor in the cost of promotion for the books they publish. A publisher like Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka (DBP) publishes an average of 300 new titles every year. But they can’t promote every single one. A fiction title in Bahasa Malaysia can’t sell more than 2,000 copies. Unless you are Liana Afira Malik or Akhdiat Akasah. These authors write popular novels (picisan, if you are comfortable with the term used by their detractors). For them, a sale of 10,000 copies for each title is a no-go. Liana’s latest book, Puteri Lindungan Bulan, retailing at RM49.90, has sold more than 100,000 copies.

People read. But what they read is another matter. If you go to MPH or Kinokuniya stores, you will find Malay titles like Gua Caya Lu, Lu Cun, Cinta Bermimpi Sepi, Ops!, Sekuntum Bunga Sekeping Kad and Kulabuhkan Cintaku Di Dadamu eclipsing titles by our own laureates. People simply don’t read "serious" books in this country, and the world over.

Why buy books in the first place? And why bother to read Moby Dick, The Joy Luck Club or Not A Penny More, Not A Penny Less? After all many of us declared our "independence" from books the moment we left school. Reading enriches one’s life, some would argue. Others would beg to differ. Why waste time reading boring classics like Lord of the Rings, Narnia or The Name of the Rose if you can enjoy their adaptation on the screen?

If you read 20 titles a year and your neighbour finds reading a wasteful vocation, ask yourself, are you better off than him or her? There is no "economic value" to reading, whether you like it or not. Hermione, a character in the Harry Potter series, has this to say: "Books and cleverness, there are more important things." She is probably right. Since not many contemporary icons — sportspersons, entertainers and politicians — are taking pride in telling the world of the books they have read (if they read at all), we need Oprah after all.


New Straits Times, Malaysia (11 June 2005)

POINK BLANK: We should return to the roots of literature
Johan Jaafar

SOMEONE took offence at a statement in my column "Why the book industry needs Oprah" last week.

Among other things, I wrote that there was no "economic value" in reading. In her e-mail, a reader argued that reading was as "valuable" to the economy as, say, buying and selling products or producing goods or engaging in the world of finance.

"What good is a person without any ‘additional knowledge’ of his trade or vocation? Didn’t we all get educated through the reading of books and living for at least (for a graduate) 14 years in the world of books?"

That is precisely the problem. We read what is required of us and no more. Reading has become too utilitarian an endeavour. One reads to learn certain things: a student to pass examinations, a mechanic to learn about engines and a teacher in preparation to face the class. Most of us find it "unnecessary" to read literature (novels, short stories, plays) or even newspapers and magazines.

Yes, people are getting more affluent. More books are being bought but few get the attention they should, by being read. A friend of mine subscribes to almost all local "mainstream" newspapers, four foreign weeklies and the Asian Wall Street Journal, but he confesses that the best he can do is "to skim though the pages". He does not read any literary work. For the record he is one of the country’s premier real estate developers.

I don’t blame him, or many others. Pragmatism rules. Reading is time-consuming. There is always the question of opportunity cost. Why spend time reading if you can do something more "productive" and economically rewarding?

After all, many of the most successful investors, bankers and businessmen claim never to have read much after "engrossing" themselves in the world of money- making. I have never heard the world’s wealthiest men and women regale us with stories of the books they have read.

Probably some motivational authors or books might have inspired them, but that’s about it. In fact, they became textbook material for us to read!

In the movie Wall Street, the character Gordon Gekko, played by Michael Douglas, famously said, "Greed is good".

The movie, made in 1987 by Oliver Stone, celebrated the Era of Greed of the 1980s. Can he spare any time for lunch? No way. "Lunch is for wimps!" he thundered. Gekko certainly has no time to read a novel.

Remember, there are many Gekkos around making tons of money while you are reading Milan Kundera or Jeffrey Archer’s Prison Diaries or A. Samad Said’s Hujan Pagi, trying to be clever and cultured. Or, at least, trying to convince yourself that reading will enrich your life.

Don’t get me wrong. I am a voracious reader myself. But I must admit I make a living toiling in the sun as a farmer or getting involved in business ventures. Reading makes me happy and perhaps "contented" but nothing more.

Perhaps it is true there is such a thing as "the disappearance of reading" as argued by Robert Alter in The Pleasures of Reading In An Ideological Age. While he is more concerned about literature being less read, the same argument is valid in the case of other disciplines.

Alter’s contention is that as we are surrounded more and more by "electronic texts" that distract more than engage us, reading a work of literature becomes more valuable.

The power of reading is unique. The "sheer vitality of literature and the satisfaction of a close, informed engagement with it" is beyond explanation.

Yet, he finds it beguiling that "a whole generation of professional students of literature have turned away from reading".

Alter puts the blame on literature being treated not just as literature but studied with intellectual vigour against the backdrop of all things non-literature — philosophy, psychology, anthropology, linguistics, you name it.

Literature is "hijacked" by politics, gender studies, history and everything else under the sun. And literature is getting trendy, too. Fashion wars in academia are brewing under such labels as deconstruction, phenomenology, hermeneutics, all in the name of literature.

The moral of the story is that less time is devoted to encouraging the reading of literature and too much wasted on arguing obscure theories little understood and appreciated by few. Again, I’m no hater of Derrida and gang.

Perhaps as argued by Alter, "peculiar things have clearly been happening in the academic study of literature". Or perhaps we have failed to produce classy works to warrant the attention of the reading public. Too much Umberto Eco, Gabriel Garcia Marquez or Vikram Seth is not good for less critical readers.

Let’s go back to the Malay classics of yesteryear, Chinese and Indian legends and myths, Shakespeare and many of the modern popular writers. Few would want to be associated with Jacqueline Susanne, Barbara Cartland or Robert Ludlum.

Many would find James A. Michener, Tom Clancy and Michael Critchton "too popular". My argument is, get them engaged first. Read the manga (Japanese comics) or even "trash novels" (picisan) to attract young readers. And start them with Little Red Riding Hood or Batu Belah Batu Bertangkup. Or better still, with Harry Potter.

After all, we read Enid Blyton novels before we "graduated" to King Solomon’s Mines and later to Chinua Achebe. Only very much later did James Joyce, Leo Tolstoy or Emile Zola make sense to us. Our children are living in a totally different world. They can survive without reading.

Reading has too many competitors. Information technology has changed the way we live, communicate and do business. We must encourage reading among the young, more than ever.

The last thing we want to hear is another Gekko claiming "Reading is for wimps!"