Tuesday, April 01, 2014

The Good Books Advocate

KUALA LUMPUR, Jan. 3 — Behind every great book is a seasoned book editor toiling away at the manuscript, often not merely correcting it but improving the final product. Eric Forbes, senior editor at MPH Publishing, has seen it all—the good, the bad and the ugly—and the years haven’t dimmed his love for good books and stories. In addition to his day job, Forbes blogs at Eric Forbes’s Book Addict’s Guide to Good Books (http://goodbooksguide.blogspot.com) and continues to introduce readers to a new generation of interesting writers and books.

How do you go about choosing the right books for publication?
Sourcing for manuscripts is always a challenge. You never know whether a book will be successful. We can’t exactly wait for manuscripts to land on our laps. Very often the manuscripts that land on our desks are unpublishable. Our strategy is to be proactive in developing new manuscripts through the commissioning of work and contract publishing. We tend to reject more books than we publish for obvious reasons. Out of over a hundred manuscripts we receive annually, perhaps around 30 to 40 end up being published. The rest is made up of commissioned work and contract publishing.

Describe the editor’s role.
Writing well will always be a challenge. Getting an editor to like your manuscript enough to publish it is another. Writers need to write better and editors need to edit better. Writers tend to write without perfecting their work before submitting their manuscripts to publishers while local publishing is often done in a hurried manner without rigorous editing. Editing a manuscript is no piece of cake. Those were the days when editors line-edit text, check facts and figures, weed out inconsistencies and clichés, etc. Sad to say, such days are long gone. We are also short of good editors, especially those who excel in fiction and children’s books. The task of editing a typescript is nerve-wracking. Most of the typescripts are not only badly written but lack content or substance; there’s not much in the way of depth or breadth or width in the writing. Writers must learn to write the best books of their lives, ones that editors can sink their teeth into. It is essential that editors not only have a flair for writing but write well. Excellence in language is a definite must. You cannot edit without understanding the mechanics of writing. Editors must be well read in as many genres as possible, both fiction and non-fiction, and be excellent in grammar and syntax, the twist and turns of language. Most editors are especially weak in grammar and make no effort in checking out grammar texts for reference. You must develop a perfect ear for tone when it comes to constructing or rewriting sentences. Editors who are weak in grammar tend to introduce more errors to the text they are editing rather than minimising or fixing them. Editing must add clarity and layers to the text. Editors very often fail in this regard because they are resistant to change and thus do not grow intellectually. Always consult the dictionary when you are in doubt. Most of the editors working in publishing today seem to have an aversion to using the dictionary.

What is the state of the English-language publishing industry in Malaysia today?
One challenge we face is foreign competition. We are spoilt for choice when it comes to good books by international writers. Local books will always end up the poor cousins of foreign books. Quality and quantity must improve; otherwise nothing much will change in the long term. There is also this unseemly haste to get books to market before they are ready. The editorial process is not taking as long as it should. There are so many books out there. Some of them are worthy of the reader’s time, but most aren’t. However, we need more publishers who appreciate the value of good editing, especially those who attempt to grapple with the conflict between perfectionism and commercialism and at the same time try to find ways to improve public taste.

How about local writers and readers?
There’s not much range in contemporary Malaysian writing. Malaysian writers tend to write the same stuff again and again: how to make a million bucks, feng shui, self-improvement, etc. Our range is limited; though we have lots of cultural, historical, educational, lifestyle and anecdotal stuff, there’s somehow a shortfall in these genres. There’s not much local fiction and essay collections. There’s more money to be made in non-fiction than fiction in Malaysia. Malaysian writers therefore tend to write more non-fiction. Another challenge is readership—or the lack thereof. If the readership is small, it isn’t viable to publish. It is clearly a vicious cycle we have here. I don’t think we have much of a reading culture here in Malaysia. We are still a long way from that.

What are your thoughts on traditional print books vs. e-books?
For better or worse we have to change with the times. It has been a year since we started publishing e-books through the MPH Digital imprint.

How far can a book published in Malaysia reach other markets?
Online bookstores and e-books will help overcome this hurdle. If we cannot physically export books overseas (due to the non-feasibility or non-viability of transporting books overseas) then Malaysian publishers must focus on e-books and the selling of foreign and translation rights to increase the sales of Malaysian books overseas. As a reader, I hope e-books will never totally replace print books. There’s something about turning the pages that adds to the experience of reading. I believe that both e-books and print books in time will have their share of the market.

This story was first published in Crave in the print edition of The Malay Mail on January 2, 2014


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