Interview: From the other side of the publishing fence

I often feature interviews with writers and artists who are mostly on one side of the publishing fence. Today, I interview Rosemary who is both a writer (having recently co-written a book titled “Happiness at the end of the world” with her writing group) & a publisher in Singapore. Time to find out more about the other side of the publishing fence~!

Tell us a little about yourself and your company. What do you guys primarily work on?

Two Trees is a tiny company with great ideas. That’s our tagline. We earn
our money editing books for larger publishing companies, running writing
and editing workshops and also a literary tour of Singapore. That gives us
the financing to then do small print runs for our publishing.

You collaborated with the Happy Smiley group to publish a book and took up most of the costs involved in getting it to print, what made you decide to do that?

I’m actually a member of the Happy Smiley Writers Group. The simple answer
is that I could do it so I did. There was all this talent and no outlet. It was an easy decision.

How did “happiness at the end of the world” first originate? What spurred you on to suggest this theme to your writing group?

The title comes from a short story I wrote about eight years ago. It was
published in a literary magazine in Australia and I decided it was time it
had another airing. Since HSWG writers are all good with speculative
fiction we decided to follow on the theme of a post-armageddon world where
someone, somewhere is happy. It is a thumbing the nose at the plethora of
misery literature that seems to define Asian writing nowadays. We wanted
to say that there are happy stories in Asia too.

How well do you think Happiness will do in the bookstores?

Not well. Bookstores are surprisingly the worst place to sell books,
especially Singapore books in Singapore book stores. Just walk into a
Singapore bookstore and you’ll see why. We sell online and through friends
and at events.

What are some of your marketing plans for this book?

Blog, blog, blog! Well, more than that actually. We’ll be doing some
sci-fi writing events and selling it through those, also we’re sending out
review copies to magazines and newspapers as well as to publishers and
agents overseas. We don’t expect to have a bite the first time out with
this book but it at least it lets the rest of the world know that Asia
writing is not just about miserable childhoods.

There must have been some hiccups during the production of this book, were there any particularly nerve-wrecking ones?

Deadlines, of course. We had a lot of fun with cover but there was a
hiccup there because of a lack of the necessary programs. Other than that
it was a straightforward edit and layout. I think it’s important for
writers to learn as much as they can about the publishing process so this
book was a good learning tool for the rest of the HSWG.

You have a second book titled “Bubble G.U.M” in the works, how is this book different from your first anthology?

Bubble G.U.M. is actually a novel rather than short stories. We each
contributed a section at the beginning and by the end of the first round
we had the characters and the basis of a plot. So what we have is Prix
Zero Noir entering National Service in 2045 when Singapore is a Green
Underwater Metropolis protected by a dome made of bubblegum, hence the
title. It has a bit of everything, mystery, love story, action, and lots
of comedy. We always have the happiness somewhere!

How is the collaboration on the second book different from the first book?

I have to admint that I ruled over its creation with an iron rod, or pen,
but that was as an editor because it needed to come together as a coherent
piece of writing seemingly by one writer and not six. It has been an
interesting journey and the world that has come out of it is so different
from what any of the six of us expected individually. It morphed into
something much bigger and better because of the collaboration. There are
many more stories from the Bubble G.U.M. to come.

I understand that you publish new writing to encourage greater creativity from local talents. What are some of the things that will interest you to even consider their queries?

We only publish two or three titles a year but I do have contacts with
other publishers. I think the best thing that local writing talent can do
is learn about how to submit to publishers, how to make a book proposal
and how to lay out their manuscript. The talent is there so I don’t worry
about the novels or stories being any good.

Usually it takes no more than 30 seconds to spot the talent. The editor will always do the job of shaping up the final work so perfection isn’t necessary but a good grab-them-by-the-throat opening is essential. It doesn’t have to be action packed or anything like that, just extremely well written, the best part of the book to keep the editor reading. One rule that I have is that I
don’t deal with misery literature, other than that I’m open to queries.

What do you think differentiates Singaporean writers from their international counterparts? Do you think we’ll stand a chance against them?

Not enough time to write is the simple answer. Too busy with work and
study stresses. Singapore has just as much talent as anywhere else in the
world, not just in writing but in all spheres. It’s a statistical certainty. The problem is the pressure to make a living in a high-cost environment. Singaporean writers certainly do stand a chance in the international arena and it will happen at some point. The HSWG and Two Trees are doing their best!

Thanks to Rosemary from Two Trees for taking the time to join me for the interview~! Check out their website if you’re interested.


Why am I not published yet?

This is the question we all ask ourselves at one point or another. Why is no one picking up our fabulous novel or manga? I’m pretty sure I can be as famous or EVEN MORE famous than J.K. Rowling or Stephanie Meyers!

Well folks…if your thinking is along this line…HOLD IT! You need to read THIS RIGHT NOW!

While publishing a book is something we all desire, sometimes poor publishing is worse than not publishing at all.


The Future of Publishing

This is a guest post by Mint Kang, the author of 6 Years of Parrot. It was first published on her blog.

I’ve been meaning to write on this topic for a while, and I happened to get some stimuli today – in the papers and in this month’s issue of the Silverfish Books newsletter, which carried a thought-provoking article on the situation of the publishing industry (read it here).  Essentially, people are not buying books as much as they used to – not in print form.  They are turning to e-books and digital libraries of the sort Google is creating.  And, according to an article reproduced in today’s Straits Times, piracy of e-books is shooting up, just as it did when music and video became digitised.

I’ve long believed that the present model of the publishing industry is becoming increasingly less sustainable.  Lessons can be drawn from the experiences of the video and music industries, especially the music industry.  Experts will say that prices are inflated and consumers are paying more for packaging than for actual content; they will also say that the drive to create the next big hit (note create, not find – read: more packaging), similar to the publishing industry’s current drive to find the next bestseller, has led to innovation and new content being stifled.

If we look away from blaming the big record companies, as tempting as many people find it, we can also single out the attitude of the Internet generation: the deep-rooted belief that everything on the Internet should be free, regardless of how much it cost to produce.  Newspapers in America are already foundering because their readership is migrating to free-access portals owned by content aggregators.  In fact, studies have shown that while the digital age has brought about a massive boom in content aggregation, it has not led to a corresponding increase in content generation.  Those who carry out research via the Internet will be familiar with the phenomenon.  It involves finding the self-same article repeated across a dozen different sites, sometimes without even being attributed to the original creator.  Why?  Because it is so much easier to collect and re-host content than to create it.

What does this mean for content generators – in the specific context I address daily, small-time content generators such as freelance writers, artists and designers, people with limited access to the market?

I see four key challenges here.  The first is the challenge of exposure.  As so many people have already pointed out and will continue to point out, the Internet is the great saviour of freelancers.  It’s the place where you can sell yourself for free, with just a little ingenuity and careful management.  In an earlier post, I advised aspiring teenage writers to clean up their online profiles, and here I’ll share a brief example of why this is so important.

I maintain a profile on WritersNet, brushed up and worded to look like an online CV.  A few months ago, someone from the ACCA AB Magazine was looking for writers based in Singapore and the region, with experience in producing business/finance/accounting articles.  He found my profile, decided it was suitable, and contacted me.  Sounds simple?  But think of how easily it might NOT have happened.  If I had kept my WritersNet profile to the level that most aspiring writers do – focusing on the “creativity for its own sake” aspect and not selling anything of commercial value – the AB Magazine person wouldn’t have given it a second look, and I would be out one opportunity.

The challenge of exposure is therefore to make use of it.  The powerful publicity machines of the big companies are no longer necessary for up-and-coming artists, no matter of what stripe.  Technology long ago made it possible to create your own work without needing access to the expensive equipment used by professionals; now technology has made it possible for you to promote your own work without needing an entire team of spin doctors and media experts.

Exposure is two-edged, however.  The other side of the challenge is not to drown in other people’s exposure.  You are not and will never be the only person selling yourself out there.  Every mouse click brings up an entire directory of other writers and artists, good and bad, prolific and one-hit wonders.  You have to find a way to stay ahead of the pack and not just be another grain of sand among many, waiting on the vagaries of a search engine to throw up your work.

In response to the challenge of exposure, I believe that the publishing industry will, in time, no longer be dominated by large print publishing houses.  Instead we will see Internet content aggregators who collect the works of small independent writers and artists, moderate and edit them to meet certain standards, and release them – for free.

This is the second challenge: revenue.  Traditionally, content generators in the publishing industry derive the bulk of their revenue from selling their work: either one-off payments, royalties over a period of time, or percentages of sales.  This model runs into difficulties in several places, however.  Firstly, there is the issue of quality control becoming overly tight.  When people have to pay you for your work, they will naturally want to make sure they are getting their money’s worth.  The immediate result is a high entry barrier for newcomers, because publishers, producers and everyone else who is going to invest in a new release are wary of trying out anything that might potentially make a loss.  (Those who are not wary and charge idealistically ahead usually do end up making a loss; but that’s another story.)  They prefer to stick with tried-and-tested writers and artists, people who have already succeeded, and often they stick with these big names to the point where the name becomes more important than the quality of the product; quite the reverse of what new entrants face.

The other difficulty is what I mentioned above: the growing reluctance of consumers to pay for content.  They want it free.  If the consumer isn’t going to pay, the content generator isn’t going to be able to get money from selling the content.

Does this mean that we, the small-time content generators and newcomers, should hop on the piracy-smashing bandwagon and restrict the release of our work to only those companies big enough and with enough legal clout to protect it from freeloaders?  I think not.  That is sheer counterproductiveness.  When we restrict the release of our work, we restrict our own market.  We end up creating a little bubble of inflation where a select group of readers and viewers are paying more for the packaging and delivery of the content than they are for the content itself – and not only that, the bubble is vulnerable to anyone creative enough or disgruntled enough to crack the protection.

The solution, as I see it, is to go along with the freeloaders.  We have to create a new Internet business model where content generators need no longer rely purely on selling their content.  In fact, content sales should make up only a small proportion of their revenue.  The rest ought to come from value-added services.  These can take the form of advertising – simple endorsements, covert support – or expertise in the content generator’s own area, as consultancies do.  They could even be spinoff products.  Take a random novelist who self-publishes independently, through their own free-access website, and has a small readership of a few thousand a month.  They could offer advertising space to related products – cosmetics for the chick-lit genre?  Computer accessories for science fiction?  Dating services for romance?  And not just any advertisement that comes past – a little moderation of the kind of advertising would be very useful, because people do know how to tune out web ads and they will tune them out if they once perceive that there is no value in them.

The example above is really the most basic kind.  People have already come up with even more sophisticated concepts and will continue to do so.  In short, the bulk of publishing revenue in the future is not going to come from charging people for content that can be easily duplicated and distributed for free.  It will come from value-added services that are complementary to the content itself, and which people are willing to pay for.

This comes to the third challenge: intellectual property, that perennial hot potato topic.  There has been an enormous amount of debate on the value of patents and copyrights.  There is the undeniable argument that it helps newcomers establish themselves free of competition that would otherwise stamp them out.  But there is also the argument that it equally helps anti-competitive actions by large and established parties that do not even need the monopoly.  In today’s newspaper, in fact – the same paper that ran a story on e-book piracy – a reader’s letter was published, mentioning that farmers who grow GM crops are prevented by patent laws from using the seed for more than one harvest.  If this is indeed true, it ranks up with the withholding of HIV treatment drugs as a self-defeating abuse of intellectual property laws – but that is an argument for another place.  The point I prefer to make is that intellectual property laws, for small-timers, can very often end up as a legal headache – whether you are seeking their protection or trying to evade it.

Simply put, when it comes to content that can be released on the Internet, you have only two choices.  You can follow the example of the music industry and cling onto your intellectual property with all your might and main, going to great costs and extreme lengths, alienating many of your own customers, and finally drawing a little Berlin Wall around your part of the Internet and spending the rest of your shelf life defending it against anyone who tries to come in without buying a parking ticket.

Or, you can let it go to whoever wants it – make it freely available, put minimal restrictions on it (consider, for instance, a file uploaded under a Creative Commons license, for anyone to access and redistribute as they like) and trust that people will enjoy your work enough to keep coming back for more.

Or – you can strike a compromise between the two, as many game developers are doing by releasing preview versions of their games, risking cracks and duplications but also increasing the number of people who download and try it, and thereby increasing the chance that people will actually find the game good enough to buy the full version.  But even this compromise will eventually drift one way or another.

I think that the final version of intellectual property, at some time very far off in the future, will be exactly what the freeloaders want – the majority of creative content freely available, but packaged with other necessary or value-added service that people will have the choice to pay for or not, as they wish. Bestsellers and chart-toppers will be decided not by how many copies are sold in stores, but by how many copies are floating around the Internet on various hosts and how many hits they total in a month.  The cost of putting them up and hosting them in the first place will be borne not by publishing entities, but by the individual content generator.

(Note that I am not mentioning professional content such as research and statistics data.  That is a completely different sector altogether.)

All of the above put together adds up to the fourth challenge: mindset.  I strongly believe that all this is going to happen whether we like it or not.  In fact, it is already happening to one extent or another, to the point that I could write an entire research paper on it and still not cover the entire phenomenon.  (I’ve barely scratched the surface here as it is.)  Resisting it will simply put us inside self-built wells, like the proverbial frog.

Writers and other content generators need to accept that we will have to take full responsibility for the publication and production of our own work.  Going through publishing houses is becoming less and less viable, and this is so exaggeratedly the case in Singapore that it almost seems redundant to mention it here.  And full responsibility means not only creating it, but editing, moderating and polishing it to meet standards that are acceptable not just to ourselves but to people who possess higher levels of skill and discernment than we do.  (Yes, go and find people like that.  Make them read your work and give you genuine, critical feedback.  How else do you expect to advance?)  In other words, we need to take ownership of our work from inception to infinity.  Just throwing it out there and basking in satisfaction at its completion is not enough.

We need to accept that we are not necessarily going to get paid for our work.  If it was commissioned by an external party, that is a different matter; but creative work that we do without commission has to be treated like a cold call for a job application.  We are not guaranteed payment.  We are not guaranteed a good reception.  We are not even guaranteed readership.  The dream of fame and riches is just that – a dream.  For that matter, it was always a dream.

And we need to accept that we cannot hold onto our work.  Once it is uploaded to the Internet, we no longer have any control over who sees it, who downloads it, who copies and redistributes it.  All we can do is ensure that we are properly recognized as the creator.  (For this, tools such as Copyscape and the Creative Commons licenses exist; how far you want to take them depends on you.)  We need to accept the old saw about imitation and even outright theft being the sincerest form of flattery; we need to stop thinking of it as theft, full stop.

This is not a freeloader’s point of view.  It is a content generator’s point of view.  The industry is going to change, because its current model is not viable.  We’d better change along with it.

A creator’s journey: part 1

If you’re a frequent reader of this blog, you’ll know that I often post links to useful information on how to hone your writing/drawing skills. =D Now that you’re finally done, it’s time to move on to the next stage. Here are a few steps that you can take in order to make the world know of your existence.

Don’t worry if you’ve yet to do something you think you can show the world, because no unpublished manuscript is a wasted effort. And remember, there’s no absolute shortcut. You have to be prepared to spend lots of time on your book, be it formatting or marketing.

Publish it

There are three ways to doing this.

NUMBER ONE: You can approach a publisher/agent (agents are mainly for writers/mangaka can approach publishers directly) in hopes that you can impress them enough that they’ll take on your book. But this method requires large amounts of patience and persistence. Your synopsis must be outstanding enough and well-timed to attract a publisher.

No matter how groundbreaking you think your story is, chances are you won’t be able to get your foot in a publisher’s front door because they have so many queries to look through. Not to mention the current market forces (sparkling vampires, anyone?) that are in play at the time you submit your query.

NUMBER TWO: If you decide to take your chances and self-publish your work, you could approach a printer. Minimum print runs in Singapore tend to be from 1k-5k or so. Before you approach the printer however, you have to make sure that your book is properly formatted and edited for errors. It would be most embarrassing if readers were to spot a mistake that could have been avoided.

Writers can use a software known as Scribus (free) to format their writings while mangaka can use software such as Manga Studio (trial version only). To ensure that your work is error free, enlist the help of a keen-eyed friend.

A good editor should be able to spot spelling, grammar mistakes, sentence structure etc. The same goes for manga editors, who are responsible for checking if the story runs smoothly, paneling is immaculate in addition to the usual grammar, spelling mistakes etc.

In the meantime, you’ll have to decide on the cover of your book. It’s easier on mangaka in a way because they can draw their own but for writers who don’t have an artistic bone in them, you could either hire someone to do the cover for you or source for royalty free pictures.

The most important thing is to remember that books are indeed judged by their covers. If your cover is not attractive (or looks cheap), no matter how wonderful your story is, people will overlook it.

One example of a not-so-impressive book cover that I always like to use: No money, No honey! =x I have nothing against the content, I just don’t like the cover enough to pick the book up.

NUMBER THREE: If you’re broke like me, then publishing it online is the best way to go about it. E-books are the rage these days. Manufacturers such as Kindle have developed E-Readers for digitally-inclined people. E-book clubs have sprang up all over the place and people are talking about e-books all the time. With such odds in the e-book’s favour, it is indeed a good time to have an e-book in your name. A good website you can go to is Smashwords.

Smashwords enables your book to be read in different formats so it appeals to a large variety of readers. However, you will have to read their style guide to ensure that your book is completely free of any formatting. You can set your e-book as free or any price you determine BUT remember that you’re still an unknown at this point. Setting your e-book for free may contribute towards gaining a steady readership in time to come.

Smashwords also lets you create coupons that you can distribute to selected readers in order to entice them. They can read your book for free and in return, perhaps, promote your book to their own circle.

Another site you can consider is Lulu and CreateSpace. They not only print on demand but ship the books to your readers as well. They’re not so much for mangakas however so I’ll recommend you to set up a website to display your work. There are many websites that offer free hosting so take your pick from websites like WordPress, Blogger, Webs etc.

Mangakas who have done so include Anninhell, By moon alone etc.You can also read up on how to go about hosting your own webcomic. If you google webcomic hosting, you can easily find hosts such as:

(info from Webcomic Hosting)

Publishing on the internet is attractive because it involves smaller overheads and it reaches more people across the world more effectively. Where there are search engines and the internet, you can be sure that people can access your webcomic easily. Provided effective marketing is done, which I will talk about in my next post. =D


Singaporean writers do write fiction

Thanks to all who shared their thoughts on local fiction writing in Singapore. Today, I too shall share my feelings from a reader’s point of view.

As a fiction writer myself, I tend to write fantasy because that is the genre I enjoy reading the most. I do venture into horror, sci-fi and romance but above all, fantasy stirs my cup of tea. In fact, I owe this addiction to David Eddings whom I see as my inspiration and biggest influence. I absolutely dig his Belgariad and Malloreon series. I never get tired of his books, despite reading them for countless of times. And then there is Mercedes Lackey, Jim Butcher, and Laurell K. Hamilton. Louisa May Alcott and Lucy Maud Montgomery were the earliest influences who got me into serious writing.

If you notice, not one of my influence is Singaporean. Why? Coz there is not a single Singaporean writer I can recall who writes fantasy or anything else for that matter. Most, if not all of them, write about all things Singaporean. Even local writing competitions require works that specifically touch on the Singapore culture.

I do not deny that we have writers who are very good at writing on those themes and they rightly deserve their awards or prizes. But can we please not have such boring themes all the time? I mean, people read so they can forget stress temporarily and immerse themselves in a magical world of imagination, right? Why would anyone want to read something that is not new to them or worse, something they experience on a daily basis?

Ahem. Yes, I know. I’m biased.

But surely we Singaporeans can imagine a world that is at least as fantastic as JK Rowlings’ wizarding world! I’m pretty sure I’m not the only fiction writer in Singapore who wants out of the “No Money, No Honey” type of books that seem to grace every shelf in the local fiction section of any bookstore.

If I have to pick a local author, I’ll go for Jason Hahn. Yes, you heard me right. The dude who writes the Saffy/Amanda column in the weekly 8Days magazine. Coz I never fail to be amazed by his deadpan humour and his rather cynical but accurate observations of humankind in general. And most importantly, his writings doesn’t sound too Singapore-ish.  Now that’s a local author I can imagine myself reading. =3

So yup…while I acknowledge that non-fiction and self-help books are more commercially viable. I believe that Singaporeans possess a piece of the imagination pie as well. We shouldn’t limit ourselves to memoirs, self-help, honest looks at Singapore’s sex trade or whatever.

It’s the same thing for local manga. Don’t limit yourself just because no one around you draws manga. Do it because you have a story to tell. You can always publish it online if you have no funds to print the book yourself.

But of course, be sure to practise quality control before hitting that publish button. =3

And to the rest of the world out there. Yes, we Singaporeans do write fiction. =)