Monday, September 25, 2006

E-books a hot topic at session with authors

The Star, 28 Aug 2006

PETALING JAYA: The question of whether consumers would switch from conventional books to virtual books was the hot topic of discussion at the MPH Megastore at 1 Utama Shopping Centre here.

Moderated by Lydia Teh, author of Life’s Like That, the two-member panel comprising author Shoba Mano and writer-cum-editor Eric Forbes discussed the topic ‘Virtual Books and its Impact on the Book Industry in the Future.’

The event was held during the ‘Hi-Tea with Local Authors’ session organised by MPH Bookstore. It was part of MPH’s ‘Support Malaysian Authors Campaign,’ which was launched three years ago.

“There is a definite future for e-books (electronic version of books) as it is slowly entering the lives of Malaysians today,” said Shoba, the author of Prodigal Child.

Forbes said that he would not rule out the possibility of reading an e-book despite his profound love for print work.

Around 50 local authors were at the event to show their support for the campaign as well as to meet their fans and share their experiences with aspiring writers.

Friday, September 22, 2006

On the tail of copycats : Star, 2/4/2006

The Sunday Star

SIMON Khong (not his real name) was loath to admit that he had cheated in a contest a few years ago.

“I don’t really feel comfortable talking about it,” says the 28-year-old.

“But I suppose it’s all right as long as I remain anonymous.”

Khong, an engineer in the IT industry, confessed that he had resorted to plagiarism when he entered a contest sponsored by a well-known food company.

“Participants were supposed to include the wrapper of a certain kind of chocolate and complete a slogan in not more than 15 words,” he says.

The top prize was a television set and Khong, who had just started working at the time, was keen to win it.

“I’m not creative enough to come up with a good slogan so I looked it up in the Net using a few key words,” he says, rather sheepishly.

Khong’s deception was not detected, which was fortunate for him but unfortunate for other participants who had spent time coming up with original slogans.

Khong says he did not win the TV but received a consolation prize. “I’m sure I’m not the only one who has cheated,” he says, rather defensively.

Lydia Teh believes that there are indeed many people who resort to plagiarism when it comes to contests that require entrants to submit a slogan.

Teh is author of Congratulations! You have won!, a book on how to win commercial contests and competitions.

A housewife in her 40s, Teh says she enjoys taking part in all sorts of contests, especially those that require writing a slogan. She has won an array of prizes including RM30,000 cash and a trip to Greece.

It is indeed unfortunate that people resort to plagiarism and seem to have no qualms about “borrowing” creativity from another source, usually via the Internet, she says.

Teh relates how, a few years ago, she came across a letter in the “Letters to The Editor” page of a national daily. The writer was complaining about a winning entry in a slogan-based contest.

“Apparently, the person who wrote the letter had read my book and realised that the guy who won the contest actually used a slogan, word for word, from my book,” she says. Her book has a chapter with a compilation of slogans.

“The slogans that I compiled in my book are not mine and have actually been published before so they are public domain. The guy who plagiarised the thing either read it from my book or copied it from somewhere else,” she says.

There is little that can be done to curb this kind of blatant plagiarism, Teh says.

“As far as I know, nobody came up to explain anything. The person who complained can highlight it but the fact remains that people can plagiarise all they want.”

Teh’s matter-of-fact stance stems from her belief that it is nearly impossible to identify plagiarism in contests. There is no foolproof method of distinguishing between original slogans and plagiarised ones, she says. “There is no way to check. They (the judges) can use the Internet to do a search but not every slogan is there.”

Despite her conviction that copycats are hard to pin down, Teh offers a suggestion on how to reduce their numbers. A comprehensive database of past winners could be the answer, she suggests.

“Let’s say a PR company is organising a contest for their client. They should create a database of the slogans on every entry. Perhaps the database can even be shared between PR agencies.”

The existence of a master list of slogans would, at the very least, make people think twice about using someone else’s creative output, Teh reasons.

“If people know that there is such a system in place, they may think twice before they plagiarise.”

Josephine Lim, managing director of a promotions agency who has been in the public relations industry for more than 10 years, has organised slogan-writing contests as well as judged some of them. But her viewpoint is totally different from Teh's.

Lim, 39, says she has never really come across any winners who submitted answers copied from somewhere else. She feels that plagiarism in slogan-based contests is not a serious problem because it is really not that easy for participants to cheat.

“Judges look at three main criteria in slogans – creativity, originality and brand relevance,” she says.

In other words, says Lim, each contest requires a vastly different kind of slogan and that is why lifting from other sources to fit in with a particular contest is quite a challenge.

“Some contests need a 15-word slogan and some just two words. There are so many variations and criteria.”

Besides, says Lim, the issue of plagiarism in slogan-writing contests may be irrelevant soon because contests themselves are becoming a thing of the past.

“Slogan writing appeals to only a select group of people,” she says.

“That’s why many of my client companies tell me that they don’t want to organise contests that require slogans to promote their products.”

However, Lim does acknowledge that there will always be people who will try to win in less than honest ways.

“I have no doubt that if there is an opportunity to cheat people will try because it makes life easier,” she states.

“But, when all is said and done, there is no guarantee that the copycat is the one who will walk away with a prize.”

Monday, September 18, 2006

The Power to Publish : The Star, 19/12/2005


It was a cold, dark night in suburban Petaling Jaya. Rain lashed the window and lightning streaked shadows on the walls. In the lull between the crashes and grumbles from the sky came a soft rapping at my chamber door. Who could it be?

Certainly not fame, let alone that agent of fame otherwise known as The Publisher. They don’t tend to come a-knocking, as any struggling author will tell you.
Got a killer manuscript though? Why not have a go at publishing it yourself? You might just follow in the footsteps of 19-year-old Christopher Paolini (of Inheritance trilogy fame), Alan and Barbara Pease (Why Men Don’t Listen and Why Women Can’t Read Maps) and James Redfield (the Celestine Prophecy). All of whom landed contracts with publishing colossus Random House at the end of the road less travelled.

Perhaps their talents (I use that term loosely) would not have gone unnoticed by mainstream publishers for long. Maybe self-publishing just catapulted them to a position they would have attained in time anyway. But what about the other authors out there whose sole asset is of the liquid sort?

For up until recently, only professionals dedicated to the business of producing books could afford to run a printing press, and pay their menagerie of: authors, editors, sub-editors, designers, layout artists, proofreaders, typesetters, printers, distributors, marketing and administrative executives (phew).

With such a set-up, small print-runs were too expensive. So publishers printed large runs, which they had to make sure were saleable.

Got a killer manuscript? Why not have a go at publishing it yourself?
This forced them to screen manuscripts with a fine comb.

After all, while writing might be an art, publishing is a business. Every business needs to make money.

But that was before the advent of digital technology and desktop publishing (creating book layouts with computers). Since the late 1980s/early 90s, the status quo between authors and publishers has changed slightly.

Conventional publishers will always hold the lion’s share of the market. But now more people can afford to produce small runs of books for themselves. And such authors – self-publishers – don’t have to brave a gauntlet of scrutiny and approval to do so. But to who’s benefit/detriment is this: theirs or the reading public? For if money buys the last word, what watchdog is left to guard the final product?

Are all self-published books self-serving and self-indulgent? What function does self-publishing fulfil? Is it something to be proud of, as a fast-track way to catch the eye of publishers? Or a last ditch resort taken when publisher after publisher has rejected your manuscript?

“I don’t doubt that there are good writers struggling to get published, but I don’t think we can blame publishing houses for rejecting a majority of manuscripts. Their role to filter out gratuitous writing and to publish works that appeal to the larger audience is very important,” says one freelance book reviewer.
Lydia Teh, a local freelance writer, advocates going with convention for the serious author.

“Personally, I would stick with the publishers. I feel it’s important to get the input of a third party who’s objective because it gives us more credibility,” she says.

Teh’s collection of short articles, Life’s Like That, was published by Pelanduk Publications published last year. Tony Lacey, publishing director of Viking UK, Penguin’s most diverse publishing arm, is more direct.

“Self-published books hardly figure in the stores at all. I don’t think it is snobbery; the fact is, most self-published books are not very good. Otherwise they would be picked up by the many mainstream publishers.

“They can be therapeutic for the author, and admired by his family, but that doesn’t make them good or saleable,” he says.

On the flipside, there are authors who take pride in self-publishing. “If I can do it on my own, I don’t see why I should go to a (conventional) publisher. I know what I want; I know what the book should be,” said Datin Anna Lim. Lim, who recently released her self-published memoirs Beauty & Beyond: The Journey of a Beauty Queen.
Georgianna Das is another local author who took the self-publishing plunge with The Goddess Within in 2004. She initially approached a regional publisher, but deemed their terms unrealistic.

“I would have had to come up with quite a lot of money up front (an advance) for printing etc. and sign a lot of my rights over,’’ she says. “I felt I would be losing as an author.”

From a publisher’s view, Das’ self-enrichment book could be considered too personal and a high risk. Hence the advance as a financial guarantee. However, Das’ first edition of 1,000 books has since sold out, and she is in the process of producing a second edition of 5,000. So it would seem she hasn’t done that badly.

“If you want to pay me, fine, I’ll take a risk. (But) why should I pay somebody to boss me around? I am not going to fight a publishing system that is not mature,” she says.

Which reminds us that publishers, or reviewers within publishing houses, are human. As such, their judgements are not infallible.

“A publisher might think there’s a market for a book, but only time will tell whether it will sell or not,” cautions Teh.

Indeed, Lacey concedes that there are exceptions to publishing convention when it comes to the genre of non-fiction.

“There are a myriad niche markets with highly specialised authors. The individual guru is a romantic concept, and the self-publisher can build on that,” he says.
British publishing authority Jonathon Clifford has this sensible piece of parting advice for would-be self-publishers:

“You must look on the whole process of publishing not as money to make a return, but as money spent on a pleasurable hobby ... providing you with well-manufactured copies of your book.

“If you do also manage to make a small profit, then that should be looked upon as a bonus!”

And if you’re still worried about bookstores being flooded by indiscriminate rubbish (much in the same way the Internet has been flooded by rubbish blogs because of a similar lack of screening), take comfort in bookstore democracy.
One book reviewer put it thus, “I don’t really care whether a book is self-published or not, as long as the content itself is good. I think most people would consider the writer first, then whether the book appeals to them."

The pros and cons of self-publishing

• You’re in control of the book; it can be whatever you want it to be. Datin Anna Lim’s Beauty & Beyond: “ I love this concept where it’s not a book you read, look at the pictures and you’re finished with it. To me it’s like a life story, a coffee table book, but a collector’s item as well.” Indeed, “you don’t have to be a young aspiring beauty queen to read the book”, but it would be “good if you were, and wanted to understand what a beauty queen’s life is like”.
• Lydia Teh: “You work at your own pace; with a publisher, you need to have lots of patience. Publishing houses have their own schedules drawn out, and lots of other titles ahead of yours. The basic time frame from acceptance to rolling off the press (locally) is one year to one and a half years.”
• You might catch the eye of mainstream publishers; Georgianna Das claims she has requests to ghostwrite other books following the production of The Goddess Within.
• You can set your own price. Lim’s B&B for example, is going for RM99.
Lim: “I think RM99 is a price most people can afford. It’s less than RM100, I spent so much time and effort on it, and it’s quite good quality.
“I think it’s quite fair, and not too much for a young lady who really wants to buy the book.”
Having said that, leading regional distributor Pansing says authors should generally expect a lot less than half the sale price of the book after factoring in the bookstore’s cut and discounts, distributors cuts, transportation, etc.
• You can dictate where your books go. Das: “Local publishers’ distribution channels are not fantastic. There are so many local books I don’t see when I go to bookshops overseas. I don’t want my book to get stuck and be caught in an agreement where you can’t do any distribution myself.”
• You keep all your revenue; standard royalty payments at Pelanduk Publishing are set at about 10%. Local publishers do not offer advances but they do review unsolicited manuscripts. Viking UK, a division of Penguin UK, typically offers advances that vary from £1,000 to £1mil, and royalties between 7.5% and 10%.
• Lim: “You have to oversee the whole project yourself; it’s so hands-on. If you’re a self-publisher, a lot of time and effort has to be spent if you want to do a really good book. If someone else does it for you, you can just hand it to them.”
• As such, you need the right contacts. Das: “I know some of the top editors in town, I had a very good photographer and graphic designer. You have to think about whether you have these resources.”
• Teh: “The biggest headache is distribution; no matter how good your book is. If it’s not in the bookshop then everything is futile.”
• Das: You have to be in a place or business where you know you can push the book (Das runs her own training academy); if you’re not confident about how the book is going to do or how to sell the book, you shouldn’t take this route. It’s a risky one.
• Tony Lacey: “You’re taking all the financial risk with no income upfront. Fundamentally, writers should reserve their energies for writing! Do they really want to spend their time worrying about stock control, distribution, etc?”
How much are we talking about here? Das’ outlay for her first run of 1,000 copies was in the region of RM50,000, supported by revenue from her business. Lim’s ran up to RM200,000, most of which came from corporate sponsors.
• You won’t get the validation / credibility, call it brand name recognition if you like, that comes with being accepted by a respected publisher. Leading regional distribution group Pansing feels that while an author might have what he thinks is a good book, a publisher would be able to decide if it will be successful in the general market.
• And while Pansing won’t turn them down cold, they feel publishers with small portfolios are not economically viable.
An irreducible amount of expenditure is incurred in any interaction between a publisher and distributor. The more books the publisher has to sell, the more worthwhile they are to talk to. A distributor can’t afford to have too many expensive conversations.
• For the same reason, bookstores do not generally deal directly with authors. Renee Koh, marketing manager of MPH Sdn Bhd: “Where we can, we always try to help local authors who self publish. Even so, they need to go through a distributor first to ensure their books are ‘taken care of’.”

Friday, September 15, 2006

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Five Teleworking Mothers Honoured As Best In Contest

The Star, 31 May 2004

KUALA LUMPUR: For writer Lydia Teh, playing jigsaw puzzle with her daughter and making roast chicken and home-baked buns are the “luxuries” of working from home.

“I wanted to be a stay-at-home mum. Initially, I was contented being a homemaker, but over time I realised that I could work from home and start a writing career,” she said.

HONOURED HOMEMAKERS: Four of the winners (from left) legal practitioner Sophia Chew, co-founder and director Tiffany Tan, Teh and Dayang Lily at the prize presentation ceremony in Kuala Lumpur yesterday. The fifth winner is freelance translator Ramona Azlinda Ali.

The 42-year-old from Klang quit her secretarial work 11 years ago to spend more time with her family.

Teh, who writes on parenting and lifestyle issues, said teleworking enabled her to be at home when she was needed, send her children to school, coach them with their homework and cook for the family.

This mother of four was one of the five winners of the Best Teleworking Moms Contest 2004. She was speaking to reporters at a prize presentation yesterday. Also present was Human Resources Minister Datuk Dr Fong Chan Onn.

For 33-year-old Dayang Lily Abang Musa, the first two months of working from home were “not easy” as her children were not used to her being at home.
“Working at home meant that the children become more attached to you and they can get quite demanding,” said this mother of four.

This entrepreneur and founder of Ummiku said she was a systems engineer and had done research on the feasibility of setting up a home-based business. She said her family has been very supportive when she quit from her engineering firm.
“Being isolated and away from other professionals was something new I had to get used to, but to overcome this, I roped in my children to help me in my business.
“I got them to help out in pasting labels and price tags on the childrens books I was selling,” she said.

At a press conference later, Dr Fong said the ministry encouraged companies to introduce flexi-working hours or working-from-home to help reduce the dependency on foreign labour and reduce overhead costs.

He said the ministry was working on changes to the Employment Act to recognise that flexi-working hours would be defined as official working hours to enable proper protection for the workers.

Dr Fong said manufacturing companies, mostly from the garment and plastic industries, in smaller towns were already conducting teleworking arrangements for housewives to work from home.

“Part of the operations are being subcontracted to homemakers for garments to be sewn or cut; even simple machinery is set up at home to assist in the plastic industries,” he said, adding that factories in Kulim, Batu Pahat and Kluang were sourcing out work to people who stayed at home.

Friday, September 08, 2006

Wednesday, September 06, 2006