Friday, June 30, 2006

Bestseller Lists

I was at MPH 1 Utama today, and voila! Dark City is on the bestseller lists!! They said it was a compiled list for the month of May, and they'd be changing it soon. Still, I'd better enjoy it while I can...who knows if I'd be there next month...

Anyhow, who would know more about being on the Bestseller List than Yvonne Lee at And exactly how many books do you have to sell to get on that bestseller list?

Note that the bestseller lists in the newspapers like Star and Sun reflect only the sales tally for ONE bookstore for that particular week, in Star's case MPH MidValley and for Sun, Kinokuniya. Popular has its own bestseller list tallying everything they have sold from all their stores.

(Estimates that to get on a bestseller list for that particular bookstore for that particular MONTH = you have to sell circa 100 books.)

What drives a book to a bestseller's list? The answer: concerted publicity in one concentrated period of time from the bookstore/media. Miss that time period, and you might never get on it again.

Let's listen to the guru herself!

"I think it's true that which genre ( Fiction or Non) your title falls into can make a difference. Mine was under Non-Fiction on the Kino BS listing. It was there for about a month, from no. 8 to 6 to 4 then no. 2, I was told. (Lucky thing I got hold of the paper which stated it was no.2)

But in Popular, it was best-seller under Fiction (?), together with all the Mat Salleh best-sellers. In all honesty, I wasn't able to find out how many copies sold in a week to be named BS.

Local books, if you want to compare with international bestseller, a bit susah laaa. When Tash's book came, with so much hype, of course his books sold like hot cakes. It has all to do with publicity and the fact that it is an international BS.

That also made stores anticipate by ordering by the hundreds. Here, if one local book is ordered by a hundred, can say the store is very " hor bin" or very confident of the author oredi ;) But that has its season. Whatever naysayers say about a title being a hot-for-the-moment thingy or not, if you can hit it off when it first comes out, it's better than never to hit it ever, betul?

But for the record ( some people are curious and ask about this), my title sold 6000 copies in over 8 months and is going for the 4th print run ( btw, if you see the fresh print, please check the additional endorsement page! Some more got my favourite cartoonist's endorsement, hehehe...)

Then again, I was told that 6000 reflects the copies taken by the retailers from our distributor but how many books actually left the stores to readers, must wait for ALL stores to tally their latest updates together (very susah....even the stores themselves don't update the computer on how many books sold by weekly basis, some stores, I mean. some are frank to tell me that they didn't update yet!)

PS, I think a good rule of thumb of whether a book has been a b/s or not is to check the copyright page. See the date first published and the gap between first print and subsequent reprints. The more frequent, the healthier laa. I think).

The lesson here is, book selling involves too many 'moving parts'. There must be synergy from all parties, author's gungho attitude, active distribution, retailers who are active in paying the distributors on time,in order to get their stock, the display effort in stores, the promotions by 1)author 2) publisher 3)stores 4)media.....oh, yes, one more, I personally believe that book cover is VERY VERY important."

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

They do it too in America!

I was reading this totally hilarious article the other day in the Star (it isn't online, otherwise I'd post it), and it seems most American authors are publicity whores too!

In fact, they do things like:
1. Shifting their books from the bottom shelves to the 'Hot and New' section, and getting caught by the store manager for doing it too
2. Handing out leaflets and flyers
3. Email their entire high school alumni to say 'Buy my book!'
4. Get their friends and relatives to post fake good reviews on
5. Check 200 times a day for reviews and sales charts

The reason? "You've worked incredibly hard on this book," says the article's author. "It's only natural you want to see it do well."

So I'm not the only one! (See my post on Begging, Pleading.) Though I must say I have NEVER done 1,2, 4 and 5. (affects holier-than-thou pose.)

What I did this week was check Popular Ikano (yes, they have my book right in front now! Sold out to only 1 remaining copy too) and Kinokuniya (yes, they've put it on the bestseller racks now.)

I wonder if I'll be this way about my 2nd book.
(I think I'll be.)

Friday, June 23, 2006

Plots that make no sense

Okay, I'm in the midst of watching summer movies, and I have to admit a couple of their plots make absolutely NO SENSE.

Take 'The Lake House', for example. Keanu Reeves and Sandra Bullock are not looking their middle-aged best in this one (they are both capable of grooming themselves much better in, say, 'Constantine' or 'Miss Congeniality'). They play two star-crossed lovers who are in 2 different time warps - he in 2004, she in 2006. And they communicate via a magical postbox.

And what does he do when he finds out he's talking to someone from the future?

Does he quickly say, "Quick, tell me all the World Cup results so I can place a 500-1 bet at Ladbroke's?" Or "Quick, tell me which Toto number is coming out on ____ so I can bet my life savings on it. I'll cut you a portion by placing 20% of my winnings in a safe deposit box for you to be opened at a time of your convenience."

Nope. All he cares about is taking magical walks with her, planting trees for her, kissing her love letters and reading them over and over.

Bottomline: Don't let me ever review a romantic movie. I can't see past the non-sense.

Jodi Piccoult is pretty much the same. Oh, she writes terribly well, but her plots don't make much sense. They're all pretty much the same as well - girl/boy gets caught in a controversial situation, gets arrested, reveals nothing/wrong things, hotshot lawyer gets to defend him/her, and girl/boy gets acquitted in the end no matter how guilty they are.

And I go: "I've read through 360 pages to get to this?"

I was just reading Nicholas Sparks's 'The Notebook' the other day, and the whole plot was boy is really in love with girl. And he REALLY REALLY loves her enough to rescue her from Alzheimer's. I was going, "So OK, he really really loves her. Big deal. What's the point of it all? Are you gonna tell me that's the whole plot?"

Or maybe I should never, ever read romantic books either.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Does grammar matter?

Just last week, I was meeting with a US-based publishing rep, who flipped through my book and said, "Uh oh."
"What?" I said in trepidation.
"Your English can be quite a problem." He pointed at a few passages. "Some of this is quite literary, you see, and in selling popular fiction, your grammar might work against you."
Oh. I didn't know grammar could ever work against you.
But apparently, sometimes it does.
"You see," said the rep, who is a 6' 2" blond, blue-eyed hunk by the way, "they prefer to segregate literary books to literary publishers and popular fiction to pulp fiction publishers and so on. You have a mixture of these in your stories. That's a problem."
I had never been told my English was a problem before. I only considered 2 stories in Dark City to be semi-literary i.e: 'Monster' and "The Scarlet Woman.' The rest were, well, pulp fiction.

In 'On Writing', Stephen King's book on, well, writing, the cardinal rule of any popular fiction writer is to tell the story without any fanfare.
"Write 'he said'," says King. "Don't write 'he said, desperately.' Just tell the story with minimal words and fuss possible."

And apparently, someone else was complaining about my grammar. The Malay translator was having problems translating Dark City into Malay.
"We're going to lose some of the gist of the original book," my publisher warned.
"I'm OK with that," I said, desperately. "You'll have to snip out the sex bits anyway and sanitize the book for the Malay version anyway."

But in writing for newspapers and magazines, grammar does matter a lot in fact. And if you're an unknown author, just to get the publisher to read your book is an achievement that goes with good grammar.

The moral of the story?
If you're writing literary fiction - let your grammar flow. (It would also help if it was a great story, like Margaret Atwood's 'The Blind Assassin.')
If you're writing pulp fiction - don't embellish it too much. Just go with the basics. The story matters most of all. Your grammar doesn't.

Saturday, June 17, 2006

Spin City and money off writing

Okay, I'm doing the back cover and first few pages thing already. So far, I've accumulated these for the 2nd edition of printing. Some of these are already up in the posters you might see in bookstores like MPH 1 Utama and Midvalley.

"...Scratches the soft underbelly of Malaysian life to reveal a seething mass of barely concealed dread....Each (story) contains a twist....a couple are utterly shocking. My favourite is 'The Resistance'...This remarkable story has all the elements of a suspense thriller.....The secret weapon revelation in the end (though it is not explicitly stated) is, pardon the pun, a real killer....This is the KL you fear to imagine." The Sun

"Why you should read this book: It's really good, that's why. Xeus has tapped into urban paranoia and everyday life in KL to produce situations that will leave you uneasy, yet are not too fantastic to be brushed aside as merely unrealistic. What is amazing is that the author has managed to slip in subtly sly comments on social issues alongside observations that will make any Malaysian nod... Particularly poignant and haunting is Trashcan Child, which looks at a current disturbing trend and fuses it with a heart as big as the Twin Towers. We won’t spoil it for you; but one read of this, and you’ll be bound to shed a tear or two."

The Malay Mail

“…An entertaining and creditable collection.....All 12 tales harbour suspense and surprises along the way and a particularly vicious twist at the end. See if you can spot it coming.”

The Star

“My favourite stories from Dark City are The Scarlet Woman, The Six Million Dollar Man, and Coup of the Century. They had especially ironic twists in them that I enjoyed immensely…..detailed writing is obviously Xeus’s forte.”

The New Straits Times

Hope to collect a lot more, esp from foreign press!

Anyhow, I was reading something interesting over at Sharon's blog. In my 11 year writing sub-career (I call it sub-career because I have a full day time job and writing is only a hobby, not what I do for a living), I think I have made over RM 300,000.

This is MOSTly made from writing for newspapers and magazines. Some of them pay fairly well, especially for columns. I run 3 columns now...just dropped 1 last year because I got too busy. And columns are extremely easy to write.

Can one sustain a living by writing? I don't know. I wouldn't recommend it, especially if you have expensive tastes, like me. Treat it as a supplementary hobby and don't do it for the money, and you'll be OK.

Friday, June 16, 2006

Malay Mail and NST Review

It's amazing how different everyone's tastes are. A lot of people have come up to me and said they liked a particular story, and that particular story varies so much from one person to another.

Just read these:

Books: Terror in this dark city -by Ahmad Azrai -

Dark CityXeus(Must read) What is it about?
It is with great pleasure that Books presents its first local feature – a mix of the macabre, twisted and bizarre that will change the way you see Malaysian city life.There are twelve diverse stories which run the gamut from the bizarre to the bittersweet. The kidnapping of a female bartender that doesn’t go quite the way her assailant expects it; the prisoner who is forced to solve a murder mystery or become the next victim; and the man who wakes up in his own coffin are just some of the stories that will get you hooked.

Particularly poignant and haunting is Trashcan Child, which looks at a current, disturbing trend and fuses it with a heart as big as the Twin Towers. We won’t spoil it for you; but one read of this, and you’ll be bound to shed a tear or two.

Why you should read this bookIt’s really good, that’s why. Xeus has tapped into urban paranoia and everyday life in KL to produce situations that will leave you uneasy, yet are not too fantastic to be brushed aside as merely unrealistic.

What is amazing is that the author has managed to slip in subtly sly comments on social issues alongside observations that will make any Malaysian nod – such as when it says “cars from either side streamed to avidly trail it; no better way to get out of a jam than to chase an ambulance”. Meant for mature readers, it may not be everyone’s cup of tea – but it’s one local effort that anyone can be proud to support.

Available at major bookshops – also check out for more from the writer.

Xeus speaks!How did you end up writing this?I have an agent who was contacted by several Western publishers interested in Asian erotica. But I can’t write straightforward erotica, so what I delivered was this.Erotica?!Yes. My agent told me to get it out of my system and do the psychosis thing.You have issues...Doesn’t everyone?

By Xeus
Venton Publishing (M) Sdn Bhd, 353 pages

AT first glance, it looks like just another one of those lame Malaysian horror books, or a pathetic Singapore Ghost Stories wannabe.If you bother to flip through the pages, though, you’ll find that it’s not quite what you expected (you might want to read as you’re flipping).On the book cover, it’s written “Expect the unexpected”. But if you expect the unexpected, then it’s no longer unexpected, is it? Of course, that’s irrelevant to this book review. Kinda. You see, you’d expect a book of Malaysian horror tales to include pontianaks or toyols, maybe a hantu kum-kum or two.

Surprisingly, this book has none of those. I know. I could hardly believe it myself.The short stories in here are more on the realistic side, revolving around pain, rape and murder. It’s about issues that could actually have happened to people you know; heck, it could have happened to me.Most of the stories are rather twisted and for some reason, left me feeling slightly disturbed.Prisoners are dropping dead in a jail for no apparent reason. A man finds himself attending his own funeral – in his coffin! Buried alive? Maybe. A man disappears without a trace. Could spiritual forces be at work here? A woman stabs her maid and finds herself bleeding instead. Why?

My favourite stories from Dark City are The Scarlet Woman, The Six Million Dollar Man, and Coup of the Century. They had especially ironic twists in them that I enjoyed immensely.

Another tale, The Resistance, confused me a little as the plot went round and round in circles without really going anywhere – exactly like a rabid dog chasing its own tail. The rest of the book was mediocre; moderately interesting but nothing to shout about.The stories, though well-written, are rather disjointed as they skip from one scene to another, mainly from present occurrences to flashbacks.

Xeus is a bit of a pervert, though, as his/her (the pseudonym doesn’t exactly clarify which) sex scenes are a little too graphic for my taste.This precise trait of his/hers can be turned around into a compliment when it comes to non-sexual scenes – detailed writing is obviously Xeus’s forte.One thing that really drove me insane was the endings. This is one of those guess-your-own-ending books.Each tale comes to an abrupt stop and leaves you hanging in mid-air, trying to figure out what happened after that. Talk about aggravating.All in all, this book was an interesting read. I still feel disturbed every time I look at it, though, so I doubt re-reading Dark City is going to be on my to-do list anytime soon.

Saturday, June 10, 2006

Begging, pleading

A big thanks to everyone for linking me and leaving comments - John, Yvonne, Sharon, Ted, Yvonne...!

I must say I learnt a lot about book marketing from my friend, Yvonne Lee. Hence the title of today's blog: Begging, Pleading.

I was reading the Asti Spumanti Code (I know, don't bother asking why), a parody of the Da Vinci Code; the former which I found truly atrocious. But one thing struck me about the main Tom Hanks character - whenever he would go to a bookstore anywhere in the world, he would ensure his books were well displayed on the shelves.

I find myself doing pretty much the same thing too.

And how do the books get there?
Back to my title: Begging, Pleading.

Your publisher's reps will definitely beg and plead and use whatever relationship they have with the purchaser. But don't forget, they market 100 other titles, and you might not be too high a priority on their list. So it all comes back to you - dear author - to beg and plead.

I was on leave for the whole of last week, and I went Begging and Pleading all over. A typical Begging, Pleading mission would go like this:
"Please give me a good display. Please, please, pretty please."
"Please put my posters up. Please, please, please."
"Please put my books up front in the Hot and New Section. Pl...." Uh, you get the drift.

The results of all that Begging, Pleading? It really works! Sometimes within minutes. Not only have I made new friends with the store people, various VERY major bookstores - both in Malaysia and Singapore - have given me:
1. Pillar display space with giant poster
2. Front rack display space
3. Hot and New display space
4. Front table at entrance display space
5. Cash register display space
6. Poster at entrance display
7. Sometimes all simultaneously in the same store!
I don't always get it, of course, but more often than not, I do.

Don't forget, the store managers genuinely want to help Malaysian authors. So a big thanks to Yvonne, the best author-marketeer I have ever known.

Friday, June 09, 2006

Dark City

Get a blog, everyone tells me. But I've never been blog-literate, not in that sense. So here's my first post. Just testing. And I'm linking it to this article I've written in today's Star.

Suspicious minds

What kind of research goes into book writing? Dark Cityauthor XEUS writes of researching pains and why a writer’s motives are always suspect.

Uh, how do you make a man, you know, go ka-boom?” The university chemistry professor sounded puzzled over the phone.

“What do you mean by . . . ka-boom?”

“You know . . . make him blow up.”

“You mean like spontaneous combustion?”

“No, it’s got to be a chemical equation. Like when you mix nitromethane and ammonia, and it goes ka-boom.”

The professor’s voice was suspicious. “Who did you say you were again?”

I will be the first to say this: researching a book isn’t easy.

OK, it’s easy when it’s your field subject in university. But when you’re writing a collection of short stories which are as twisted and disparate as possible, and they involve murder, mayhem, CSI and every one of the seven deadly sins, it appears you have to wear many hats.

I used to think Dan Brown must have taken a year off to research The Da Vinci Code, until I found out he hadn’t even been to Paris when he wrote it.

(For the uninitiated, The Da Vinci Code is set mostly in Paris. And because Brown hadn’t been to Paris then, he got most of his knowledge second-hand from his wife. That’s why he got the Parisian streets layout wrong.)

Michael Crichton goes one step further for his biblio-technical thrillers. He even quotes his references, journal-like, from research papers. Pick up State of Fear. His references alone take up a quarter of the book.

Prison isn’t that cramped, not really

In the course of writing Dark City: Psychotic and other twisted Malaysian tales, I interviewed a prison warden for one of the stories.

I could have easily made the whole thing up but I wanted authenticity.

He told me a lot of interesting things, like: “We only issue short-handled toothbrushes, two inches long, to the inmates. Once upon a time, when we gave them the regular long ones, a prisoner broke off the handle and used the jagged edge to gouge someone’s eye out.”

Or: “The prisoners are only given 20 minutes for meals. Dinner is early, sometimes at 4.30pm.”

In writing a book, you need to be nosy, sometimes pushy and have a measure of courage to visit places such as prisons and red light districts. —Filepix
“Prison is terribly cramped, right?” I said. “Like, you have four prisoners in a cell made for two?”

“Actually no. Each prisoner gets a bed nowadays.”

I was discontent. I wanted prison to be cramped, tiny cells packed with stifling humanity up to the ceiling. It made for a riveting story. I had visited Pudu Prison once, and the tour guide was telling us four prisoners were in a cell with two beds.

“Where did the others sleep?” I asked.

“On the floor, of course.”

“Without a mattress?”

“This is prison, you know, not the Hilton.”

Another thing I noticed, the cells were filled with gorgeous ink-drawn drawings. No careless graffiti like #%%* you on prison cell walls; it was as though the prisoners were trying to make their new homes as aesthetically pleasing as possible. And so I merged Pudu prison of the 80’s together with the new one of today, and voila! – I have references that make for good copy.

“So,” I asked the prison warden, “how does a prisoner escape?”

He eyeballed me suspiciously. “Why, do you want to help a prisoner escape?”

The bad things that happen to people

In stories, things must always be happening to the protagonists, usually a conflict of some sort, and the story must always be in dynamic movement, never static. Medicine (not the healing sort) plays a very important role.

“How do you kill someone with cyanide?” I asked a doctor friend.

He looked suitably alarmed. “Why, do you want to kill someone with cyanide?”

I waved him off. “It’s for a story. Cyanide hardly shows up on a toxicology screen, right?”

He was still suspicious.

Still more suspect is my insistence on visiting the back alleys of red light districts, where ladies of questionable virtue prowl and call out to customers in droves.

“Come on,” I urged my doctor friend. “Let’s go talk to them. You can make like a customer and I’ll take down notes.”

Research doesn’t have to be live, of course. The Internet and the library are always good places to start. But of course, one has to wade through the entire Inferno section of Dante’s The Divine Comedy to get to what happens in Purgatory.

“I want to write a story about Purgatory,” I insisted. “I have to do research on what happens in Purgatory.”

“The way you’re going now,” says my doctor friend, who thinks I’m going be the greatest serial killer since Hannibal Lecter, “that’s where you’re heading.”

And when the whole book is written, the National Library of a neighbouring country says, aghast (despite the local distribution rep pointing out that Dark City’s content is no different from the countless Western titles out there): “We can’t stock this. The sex and violence are all a bit too explicit, isn’t it?”

“It appears the Malaysians, both readers and writers,” the local rep replies smugly, “have matured to the next level.”

Last I heard, they’d shunted off my book to the mature readers’ section. Maybe I’ll research that instead. W