Wednesday, December 21, 2005

A Publishing Ecosystem?

Philip Tatham of Monsoon Books sent me an interesting snippet from last Saturday's Straits Times (which I can't link to because it is already behind subscription which pisses me off no end!*). In an article about the Singaporean publishing scene in 2005, one of Philip's authors caused a stir:
Gerrie Lim is not one to shy away from taboo topics or mince his words. Which is why the 46-year-old pop culture critic, who writes on topics ranging from porn to rock music, is a publisher's dream.

His book about sex escorts in Asia, Invisible Trade, has shifted nearly 18,000 copies since it hit the shelves last year. He is planning a sex industry sequel next year.

This year, he launched Idol To Icon, which examines how celebrities such as Tom Cruise and Jennifer Lopez become mega brands. It was published by UK's Cyan Books.

The iconoclast says his independent-minded, questioning streak is a result of his disgust for the repressive environment he grew up in during the 1970s. 'The school system here sucked. If you asked a question that was not part of what the teacher put on the board, she would say: 'It's not in the syllabus, you don't need to know.' How stupid is that?' he vents.

In 1980, the former St Joseph's Institution and Catholic Junior College student went to Perth to study political philosophy at the University of Western Australia.

'I didn't really want to do a degree here. I just couldn't see myself fitting into NUS. Yuck! You can quote me on that!' he says.

The eldest of three children of middle-class Catholic parents, Mr Lim went on to attend journalism school at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. His brother is a bank executive and his sister is a school teacher in Canada.

It was in the City of Angels, capital of pop culture, that he felt at home for the first time. He spent close to 15 years there, writing features and music reviews for magazines like Billboard, LA Weekly and Playboy from a Santa Monica rental flat, earning 'enough to get by'.

His first book, Inside The Outsider, featuring a series of interviews with rock stars like David Bowie and Patti Smith, was published here by Big O in 1997. It sold just 500 copies.

In 2001, he moved back to Singapore to be with his family and Chinese Singaporean girlfriend. He is now part of a rare species in Singapore - the full-time writer. 'I'm famous but not rich,' quips the writer, who lives off his royalties, in a condominium in Holland Village with his girlfriend.

Quoting an Elvis Costello song, (The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes, he says: 'I used to be disgusted, now I try to be amused. ... Singapore is basically a country that likes to think of itself as a First World country. But it's not. It's really a Third World country that pretends to be a First World country.'

This Third World mentality, he charges, also permeates the publishing industry. Many publishers are queasy about what can or cannot be published.

'Even expats have told me: 'I'm surprised that your book can be published.' But why? Doesn't it say something?' he asks. 'Creativity doesn't grow on trees. How are you going to create an ecosystem of publishers and authors when everything seems to be done by government edict?'

He is scornful that publishers here churn out cheap-looking books for the local market, 'underestimating the intelligence of local readers'. Part of the problem is that few publishers here are prepared to pay advances to authors, unlike in the US and Britain. He received undisclosed advances for his two books.

'It's very Third World thinking. How are you going to foster a publishing culture if you are going to treat writers like that?' he rants.
* Philip also forwarded the link to another article from the Strait's Times, reproduced here. It makes terribly depressing reading. It also makes the publishing situation in Malaysia seems not quite so bad after all!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

It's a question of perception. A twenty-cent (paradigm) shift seems to have happened somewhere along the line, and no one seems to have recognized it.