From Pen to Print: A Journey into Malaysia’s Publishing Industry 

Sunlight filters through glass windows, casting golden hues on rows upon rows of bookshelves that line the walls, each hiding literary wonders waiting to be discovered. The air hums with gentle whispers of manuscripts and the rustle of pages, a symphony of stories longing to be told. Editors, designers, and writers huddle in quiet corners, their pens dancing across paper. The rooms pulse with creativity, as vibrant imaginations intertwine. The raw essence of an author’s thoughts and dreams are transformed into ink and paper in this sanctuary, which is more than just a structure made of mortar and bricks. 

The publishing industry reveals a reality that is far from the glittering portrayals we often imagine. It is a world where tireless dedication meets countless challenges. Amidst the glimmers of success are countless rejection letters and sleepless nights that serve as reminders of the arduous journey that lies behind every published book. Despite the fact that the path is far from glamorous, the publishing industry is a testament to the resilience and unwavering passion of those who embrace the difficulties and intricacies of bringing words to life.

What is Publishing?

The publishing industry supports intellectual and literary growth by providing a platform for authors to communicate their thoughts and ideas to a global audience. Publishing encompasses the processes of producing and distributing written works to the public – editor’s labour over manuscripts, meticulously drafting each sentence as designers balance the fine line between their creative vision and market demands, and marketing teams work to stand out in an oversaturated market while publishers struggle with financial uncertainties and the ever-changing tides of reader preferences. 

Books were traditionally published by established publishing houses using a selective approach, where manuscripts were carefully picked for publication based on market trends and their quality. However, the introduction of digital platforms like Amazon Kindle Direct Publishing, Apple Books, and others, as well as self-publishing, has broadened the selection of methods available to authors and given them more freedom and flexibility in releasing their work. 

The Evolution of Malaysia’s Publishing Industry

In Malaysia, the first publishing initiatives didn’t begin until the early 1800s. Before that, books were primarily produced in England or imported for use by Chinese and Indian immigrants. The Translation Bureau of the Sultan Idris College, a special unit within the Malay Teachers Training College, was founded in 1924 with the main objective of producing as many books as possible for use in the Malay Schools and to produce reading materials for the general public. This was the first attempt at a properly organised and administered book development project. In those days, while book publishing in the private sector was not as well organised, the appearance of a sizable number of novelettes, most of which were original works, and a few translations from English and Arabic, were another significant milestone in the history of book development. 

The National Book Development Council (NBDC) was established as the government’s most viable endeavour to develop Malaysia’s publishing industry. On the advice of UNESCO, which had asked all developing nations to establish their own book councils, the NBDC was set up in 1968 under the supervision of the Ministry of Education. Local and foreign publishers were part of a temporary committee of the Malaysian Book Publishers Association (MABOPA) established on 24th July 1967, as a result of UNESCO’s significant role in promoting book publishing. On January 14, 1969, the MABOPA was officially registered to represent the interests of genuine publishers. The majority of the members are active and publish a variety of materials, including textbooks, revision course books, readers, magazines, and more.

Since then, the National Book Policy has been adopted, which suggests that the book industry should be recognised as a necessary industry and that support must be provided for its growth. The industry is so well-supported by the government that publishing and printing – two of the top five manufacturing industries – became key contributors to the nation in the early 2000s.

Despite the efforts, the landscape of locally published books tends to lean heavily towards educational resources and nonfiction works. Even when it comes to novels, the selection is also relatively limited and mostly available in Malay and Chinese language. This shortfall of English novels and range of genres is a notable gap in the market. 

Raman Krishnan, who is part of independent publisher Silverfish Books told Publishers Weekly, “The main challenges facing the Malaysian book industry are the lack of a writing culture, and a small population that is divided into several language groups and political affiliations.” He adds that, “The educational and political systems of Malaysia are the main causes for the limited market size. Schools are required to produce factory fodder and teach some higher ‘unthinking’ skills. Creative thinking is not encouraged, and writing skills taught are mostly functional. The position taken by the government is that culture is for tourists, and literature is elitist. Since we work very much in an anti-intellectual environment, creating a diverse and quality publishing industry is an uphill battle. Fortunately, the reading habit in Malaysia is fairly well developed considering our education and political system.”

Moreover, aspiring authors in Malaysia face a number of challenges in the publishing industry. The challenges that many authors  seeking publishing in Malaysia encounter are best illustrated by local writer Charissa Ong’s experience. According to Free Malaysia Today, Ong approached several publishers who bluntly told her not to expect much success in Malaysia and ‘Don’t get your hopes up too high. Malaysians don’t really read.’ Eventually, she received advice to consider self-publication. And despite her limited knowledge of the industry, she decided to take a leap of faith and embrace self-publishing as an avenue to share her writing with readers. In the process, she established Penwings, an independent publishing house in Malaysia.

Unveiling the Publishing Process with Local Author Lilian Li

Introducing Lilian Li, a local author who has captivated readers with her compelling storytelling. With her books House of Koi and Duet Me Not, she captures the essence of Malaysia and the nostalgic memories of her childhood. Join us as we delve into Lilian Li’s journey as an author, focusing on her experience and insights into the publishing world. 

House of Koi book cover
Duet Me Not book cover

Could you please share your personal journey of becoming a published author? What inspired you to start writing, and how did you navigate the publishing process? 

I was in my second year of university when a publishing programme was looking for students to join. I pitched an idea about Malaysian international schools and got accepted. My colleagues were writing longer theses and non-fiction books, and I realised I didn’t want that. I looked to my old notebooks, diaries, and short stories for inspiration. I wrote a lot about my grandmother when I spent time with her before studying abroad, so I decided to write a book about a Malaysian girl who had to live with her grandmother and their language barriers, as well as her journey to accepting herself. The publishing team was there to help navigate my journey, such as developmental and content editors, proofreaders, the publishing head, and more. For my second book, I always knew I wanted to write stories I wish I had growing up, and that includes being a state synchronised swimmer in Malaysia because I was in the Penang team when I was 8 to 13 years old. I wanted to share more about the sports culture as well as defining what perfectionism means to readers. I self-published this book after gaining experience from my first book, so it was easier to navigate. 

What were some of the biggest challenges you faced while seeking publication? How did you overcome those challenges? 

I wasn’t seeking publication. I just got extremely lucky to have found the opportunity and got accepted. The biggest challenge, apart from writing, was communicating my vision to the cover designers and making them see that I knew what was best for my story. I had to take matters into my own hands and Photoshop the idea I had until they eventually agreed. For my second book, the challenges were more on the distribution side, but I’m very grateful to have found a community on my social media that are willing to support me and help me push through the obstacles I faced. 

Did you pursue traditional publishing or choose self-publishing? What factors influenced your decision, and what were the advantages or disadvantages you experienced with your chosen path? 

Because this opportunity fell onto me, this was hybrid publishing. A mix of traditional publishing with a professional team and self-publishing where I owned all the rights. I always wanted to write a book, but I kept thinking I’ll wait for the perfect time. It was not the best time during my studies as I was overloading classes and representing the school in national synchronised swimming competitions, but I knew I would regret it if I didn’t take this chance. The advantage was that it was a great step into publishing and having a professional team and guidance. The disadvantage was not having the support post-publishing, as their only goal is to help in the writing, editing, and publishing process, so I had no clue what happened after the book was finished. 

Were there any significant revisions or rejections you encountered along the way? How did you handle rejection or feedback, and how did it shape your writing or publishing journey?

I did not have significant revisions to the book. I knew very early on how the story would begin and end and who the characters were. For rejections? Again, this book was already accepted since I pitched it and got into the programme. I also didn’t face rejections in my second book because I was self-publishing, so I had control over when and how to publish. I’m always open to feedback, so I welcome beta readers and people reading my manuscript to tell me constructive criticism to make the story better. 

How involved were you in the cover design and marketing aspects of your book? Did you have any input or control over these elements, and how important do you believe they are in the overall success of a book? 

I was very involved in the cover design and marketing because in hybrid and self publishing, the author has the control. I do believe we shouldn’t judge a book solely by its cover, but I knew I wanted a cover art that could pique readers and have a soft blue colour. After my first book, I was pretty content with having my friends and family reading my book, so I didn’t focus on marketing. It was only when my friends encouraged me to create a public Instagram that my book found readers, and I’m forever grateful to the Malaysian book community. For my second book, I’m happy that it was easier to share my journey with the readers who found House of Koi before. I think a cover is important to the success of a book because it’s the first impression to readers. 

Can you share any memorable or surprising moments from your publishing journey? Is there a particular highlight or achievement that stands out to you? 

Memorable moments were having my first book, House of Koi, reach MPH bestselling list twice and when I sold my books by myself, I sold out all my copies in a matter of days, which surprised me and made me so grateful for the books to find good homes. Another achievement and memorable moment recently is having a sold-out book launch for my second book, Duet Me Not, as well as a sold-out pre-order exclusive edition. 

Looking back, is there anything you would have done differently in terms of your approach to publishing or promoting your work? 

No, because I wouldn’t be where I am without having to learn and navigate the industry, especially in Malaysia. If I did know what I know now, there is still hardly anything different I would do because there aren’t many other choices in the publishing industry. 

Have you noticed any shifts or trends in the publishing industry since you first started your journey? How do you see the future of publishing evolving, and what advice would you give to authors navigating these changes? 

I haven’t started this journey for that long. I was still focused on graduating and getting a corporate job, so I was in and out of the publishing industry. I do feel the shift is giving more light and voice to local publishers and authors thankfully. I think people are becoming more open to self-publishing and selling their books on their own instead of relying on publishers or distributors. My advice would be to believe in yourself and your story and not let anyone tell you your worth. 

What improvements do you think the local publishing industry can make? In what ways can readers support local authors? 

Of course, there is a lot to improve in the publishing industry, not just locally in Malaysia. I think a main one is removing the stigma or discrimination to self published/indie authors and accepting all voices and stories matter. I hope distributors and bookstores would also stop categorising local writers in the Asian Fiction instead of their own genre, as if they cannot exist beyond being an Asian who is writing Fiction. Readers can support authors by buying their books and following their social media because even seeing comments or receiving messages will help authors more than you know. Also, telling your friends to support local will help a lot! 

Lastly, what advice would you give to aspiring authors who are starting their own journey towards publication? What key lessons or insights have you gained that you would like to pass on? 

Keep writing and write from the heart. Gain confidence first before diving into this crazy world because once you put your work out there, it doesn’t belong to you but to the readers. And you have to be okay with not everyone liking your story or even not being heard. As long as you can keep moving and be true to yourself and your writing, then you can make it. A lesson is to read over your contracts carefully and not be afraid to ask questions or try to negotiate. Make sure you have beta readers and strangers to read your work who are not afraid to tell you their mind before you publish, aside from your friends and family who might tell you everything you write is gold. Be open, be kind, and share stories that uplift the world.

References: malaysia.html#:~:text=Raman%20Krishnan%2C%20of%20independent%20publisher,is%20not%20a%20major%20problem.

Written By: Chloe
Edited By: Ruby

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