By SHARMILA NAIR
ADMIT IT. You have dreamt of writing a book and seeing it published. Well, it’s not such an impossible dream. Some teenagers have gotten their work published, with some talent and lots of determination. If you harbour such a dream but don’t know where to start, MPH Group Publishing editor Janet Tay has a few pointers and advice for you.
What does your publishing house look for in a newcomer’s manuscript before agreeing to publish it?
For fiction, we want a good writing style, a compelling story—the usual basic requirements. For nonfiction, it is also good writing and also whether the manuscript is on a topic or area that is of current or popular interest.
What about the storylines? Are they any good? What makes a good book?
Some are. In fact, there have been times where the story is better than the language, but sadly we’ve had to reject the manuscript because of poor English or a bad writing style. There’s no fixed formula to what makes a good book, and every book would have different requirements. I reiterate what I said earlier—the basic requirements are that the book has to be well-written, and for non-fiction, ideally something that would sell (popular topics, etc.) A good storyline is anything that’s interesting, and also delivered well. Any story can be interesting, really, if it’s written well.
Is it difficult to get published in Malaysia?
I don’t think our requirements are as stringent as British or American publishers, mainly because there isn’t as much competition here. But to maintain standards, we do still try to be as discerning as possible.
What is the level of writing among young writers who have sent their manuscripts to MPH Publishing?
I think there’s definitely a lot of potential but young writers still have a long way to go, especially with regard to fiction. There are one or two good young writers in our upcoming anthology of short stories and creative fiction, Urban Odysseys: KL Stories (forthcoming in February 2009), and from those pieces of work, I feel quite optimistic but there must be consistent efforts by the authors themselves to improve if they want to be good enough to be published not only in Malaysia but possibly even in Britain or the United States.
What are the common mistakes potential authors make in their manuscripts?
By the time a manuscript is sent to a publishing house, it should already be very clean, without grammatical or typographical errors. Typographical and grammatical errors, lazy writing or badly structured sentences can annoy the editor perusing your manuscript at the publishing house, because the message you’re sending out is, “I don’t care about my work”—so if you don’t, why should the editor? Sadly, there have been many instances where even manuscripts in incoherent English have been sent to us.
What should writers include when sending in their manuscripts?
A cover letter with the first three chapters of the manuscript, or even the whole manuscript, a brief biodata with writing credentials, and contact details. We accept submissions by email too and usually do peruse the whole manuscript. Publishers in the U.K. or U.S. usually only ask for three chapters before expressing an interest, but we don’t have thousands of manuscripts flooding in like they do so we usually ask for the whole thing. I think some of the things one can leave out in their biodata are irrelevant credentials or even who they know! We don’t really care who the authors know or need to be convinced by how many copies they think their books can sell. As long as the writing is impeccable, we’re interested. So keep it simple: cover letter that briefly states the synopsis of the book, a brief biodata with writing credentials, and contact details. There’re many samples of cover or query letters on the Internet as reference.
Does the length of the manuscript matter?
The average length of novels, for example, would be in the range of 60,000 to 100,000 words or more. I would say for a proper book, perhaps at least 40,000 or 50,000 words minimum. Anything shorter would depend on what kind of book it is (picture book, children’s book, etc.)
Do you really read the whole manuscript before agreeing to publish it?
I’ve sort of answered that above, but to be more precise, it depends. There are manuscripts where you can almost immediately tell whether it’s good or bad. There are also some in-between ones that we take a pretty long time to pore over, to make sure that we’re not rejecting a potentially good book. But yes, unlike most British or American publishers, we do take time to give the whole manuscript a quick read.
What are the genres that are currently famous among beginners? Should they stick to that? Is there market for such genres in Malaysia?
I don’t think there’s such a thing. Every genre is specialised. Beginner writers should read whatever they want to write, for e.g., if you want to write horror, read Stephen King or any other famous horror writers; for literary fiction there’s a wide variety of writers to read and so on. So, no, there aren’t any training wheels for this, if that’s what you mean. All genres are unique and require different skills. There aren’t “easy” books to write.
What kind of money can young writers see? Can they expect to get rich after publishing just one book?
Far from it. Very, very few writers make money from writing (another point I can’t overemphasise enough). I think it’s best to just be happy if one is published—the money should be ancillary. You have to also consider the Malaysian market, which is tiny compared to that in Britain or the U.S., for example. The standard publishing contract offers 10 per cent of the book’s published price in royalties--you can imagine how little that can be if sales don’t do as well as expected. So, if one wants to write to make money, it’s a long shot.
What happens after a manuscript has been accepted for publication? How does a book end up on the shelf of a bookstore?
Briefly, once a manuscript is accepted, a publishing contract is negotiated then signed. The editing process then begins, and this may take anything between two and five months, depending. In the meantime, endorsements are also sought and sometimes pre-publicity reviews. Once the editing process is over, the draft is typeset and more proofreading or a last round of edits is done. In the meantime the cover would also be designed. Everything is then sent to the printers, and once the books are printed, they’re sent to the distributors and then to the bookstores.
Do you have any advice for budding writers?
Read, read, read. I can’t emphasise that enough. I think we do encounter a fair bit of writers who want to write but don’t pick up books themselves. It’s like a chef who doesn’t know how to eat or taste his food. It also depends on each individual, what works for them. Some choose to take writing classes or attend workshops. These can help, too. Or read their favourite authors and analyse styles. Also, self-editing is very important. I think another salient point I can raise is being professional. Being a published writer isn’t just about the glamour or being famous, if at all that happens. It’s a lot of hard work, a lot of rejections and a lot of determination, resillience. It’s very much about being a strong person, having to weather all sorts of conditions, while maintaining a balance between being humble and being confident of your work. So for young writers, I would advise doing a lot of research (not just on improving their writing but also how to approach agents or publishers, etc.) and being very serious in the type of writing genre they intend to pursue. And never give up!
Are Malaysian readers into reading books by Malaysian authors? Namely the works of the young ones?
I’m afraid I don’t really know but I’ll have to assume that Malaysians would read books/stories that are well-written.
What kind of support does your publishing house give to the young authors under its banner? How does your publishing house support up and coming young authors? Are there any programmes or workshops that they can join?
At the moment MPH Bookstores does organise writing workshops now and then. There are plans to encourage writing short stories underway, but we’ll only be announcing these plans later in October. There are some workshops being planned for the end of the year and next year.
Do you think that most young authors there deserve to have their work published? If no, why?
I can’t say I’ve read many young authors who’ve had their books in print. But at the moment, I haven’t read any Malaysian young writers who have made any kind of impact to the literary world. Take Booker Prize-winning Ben Okri, for example, who published his first novel at 18. I haven’t read any young Malaysian writer of his calibre at that age.
What do you think of self-publishing young authors? Any advice for them? How different is self-publishing from getting published by an organisation like yours?
Self-publishing just means the authors would have to pay for printing costs themselves. They would have to decide everything--layout, cover, edit text themselves and so on. I think it can be pretty tough unless you know exactly what you want. Being published in a publishing house just means everything’s more or less done for you, but of course for a publishing house to invest in that kind of time and money, the quality of the book has to be high. For people who decide to self-publish, it’s important to consider how you would want to market your book and yourself, how big your budget is, who can distribute for you and who you can approach to edit your book. Even if you’re excellent at self-editing, it never hurts to get a fresh pair of eyes to look at your work.
How long does it take before one knows whether their work is accepted or not?
It depends. It can range from a week to a month or two. Usually it’s not that difficult to spot something we definitely don’t want to publish or ones that we want to. It’s the in-betweens that usually make us very indecisive. So for young writers, I would advise doing a lot of research (not just on improving their writing but also how to approach publishers, agents, etc.) and being very serious in the type of writing/genre they want to pursue. And never give up!
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Star of September 24, 2008