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Wednesday 8 February 2012

The Penang Bookshelf New Year 2012 Newsletter

The Penang Bookshelf
New Year 2012 Newsletter
From The Penang Bookshelf
Dear Friend

Please, Lord Murugan 

This newsletter's been in draft form for a month or more as I and many other Penang residents have been battered by a succession of cultural and religious events, Christmas, 'English' New Year, Chinese New Year, The Prophet Mohammed's Birthday and then, yesterday, the finale - Thaipusam in honour of Lord Murugan. He's got so much oomph that I noticed a smattering of worshippers who weren't from Malaysia's Tamil community at the festivities. He and his pals were an inspiration for me more than ten years ago in the midst of Sri Lanka's civil war, when I had pretensions of being a poet, so maybe he'll get me to buck up and finish this off before May Day, which I see is the next major holiday on Malaysia's crowded public holiday calendar.

Where to Start?

There have been two major upheavals in the business since I last wrote. Firstly I decided to pull the shutters down on trying to maintain a shop in the backstreets of Penang. Within six months of arriving in the internet, prostituting myself for the sake of sales and then flinging books to all parts of this country and many others has dominated The Penang Bookshelf's business. Meeting real customers on my market stall or in the shop can be an antidote to loneliness, but it really doesn't pay - for me, at any rate.

Before I reteated into my garret with a sea view I was yanked out again by the team at Areca Books, Penang's top publisher, I guess. They stroked my ego sufficiently to persuade me that The Penang Bookshelf shopfront would be missed, so please would I scrap my plans to exclude myself from real book browsers and come and cuddle up with them? When I've caused sufficient destruction to create more book space, the flat - 'apartment' in Penang lingo - will be the nerve centre of The Penang Bookshelf, while, for the time being, 70, Lebuh Acheh (Acheen Street) will be its public face. I can't say I have high hopes for the shop. Penangites aren't fantastic readers, I have been warned many times. "Ah, what a waste!" was the reaction of one Penangite on hearing that I was cramming an 'apartment' full of books. The shop will be where there will be most of the Malaysian catalogue and a few books on the rest of Asia, while the flat will house the rest. A phone call  is always advisable before you visit either. Opening hours are below.

The other main event was a Christmas present from Malaysia's top selling English daily, The Star, when they decided not to publish one, but two articles about The Penang Bookshelf on the same day! Of course the response swamped me, especially an order from one new customer who bought this heap of books. The bit I liked best about the publicity splash was the title of one of the articles, "The Accidental Bookseller," coined by the journalist herself. This so accurately describes how I feel about my dabblings that I was sorely tempted to rename the business.

Nose for Books

One of the reasons why this customer bought so many book was because he went beyond the pretty pictures on the website and bothered to have a look at The Penang Bookshelf Catalogue which also shows books that are still too shy to appear in front of the camera.
Of course he also knew what he was looking for. One of the books, Paul Wheatley's The Golden Khersonese is a 'rare' book that I have sold several times. I first sold it in April 2011 for RM400 and have sold it for three times that price recently. Of course, every time I obtain the book, it costs me more - so you pay more :) - but it would still be difficult to find copies of the book cheaper than at the Penang Bookshelf.

This book was only written in the 1960s, but there are even other more recently published books that are not only wonderful to own and read but have high chances of being an investment. I have mentioned China in Those Days in the past as a possibility. This month another book that's just arrived, History of the Dutch in Malaysia, has possibilities too. Although this is the third edition. I think it's the first time it's been in hardback and the edition is 'limited.' which, I guess, may mean that there may not be reprinted again. For the lazy scum who want their pictures, I have been adding quite a few more books to the site both last month and this month. I now seldom describe books as 'rare.' 'scarce' and certainly not as 'a terrific investment.' However if you want advice, without obligation, liability and any other exclusion this jaded ex-lawyer can think of, do contact me.

Any More Readers Out There?

Since joining The IOBA most of my emails seem to come from their various mailing lists and there have been quite a few gems which already make membership worthwhile. One of them that recently caught my attention was
 World Book Night that takes place on Shakepeare's birthday. Basically volunteers are recruited to give away free copies of popular books, mainly fiction, to members of the public who don't, or rarely, read books. As you'll see from the titles, it's not just a chance for publishers and booksellers to dump their remaindered stock. I wondered if authors, booksellers and publishers, both here and in Singapore, would be interested in trying something like this sometime. When I have the time I might write directly to them, but, if any of you who are reading this want to take it further, do let me know.

In Penang I've been having a chat recently with Michelle Grimsley of Spiral Synergy, Penang's main events organiser, about combining to stage some book related events. While we expect to have meetings with visiting authors in future, we thought we would start by getting a book reading and discussion group going. They're not new in Penang, but here they seldom catch readers who are out of the home for most of the working week. We wouldn't like to exclude anyone, but would particularly like to attract those looking for an alternative to cafes and shopping malls as a way to unwind. If you're even remotely interested, do contact me.    

Final Jumble
Some of you will have noticed that the once regular Customer's wish list, i.e. books people are searching for, but can't find, has been missing from the newsletter. It was taking up too much space, so I've now added it as a new page to The Penang Bookshelf Blog. In that way I'll be able to update it more frequently as new wants come up and others are met. If any of yours have been missed from the current list, do let me know.
It's possible that you may find some of your wants on this list compiled by David Tett, a very good friend of The Penang Bookshelf. Although David's based in the UK and has never lived in Malaysia he's a world renowned authority on the postal history of prisoners of war under the Japanese. Having produced six volumes, he's obviously decided to pack it in and sell off his extensive library on the period. You can contact David yourself about any books in which you may be interested. However if you want me to hold your hand  and act as an intermediary,  do let me know.
As I mentioned in the interview with Tan Twan Eng, he was not shy about suggesting other Malaysian literary contacts. Most of them are for me to follow up on, but there's one, Sharon Barkar, whom I'd strongly recommend you to follow up. Her apparent energy makes me wilt!
Speaking of which, my energy's sapped.

Enjoy yourself till we're in touch again, unless you've made other plans   

William Knox
The Penang Bookshelf

2011 Bestsellers
The Penang Bookshelf 

As part of my end of year stocktaking I thought it might be interesting to see what sold best this year. I must say I was surprised at how Penang and 'heritage' dominated the list. I suppose, being a Penang bookseller, I just take it for granted.

In The Top Spot   

A surprise? Well, no it's The Streets of George Town.  As an old Penang hand who's always ready with an opinion on my stock said at the market last month, "It is simply the best." If you want to get stuck into Penang and heritage, there isn't any better place to start. It just chugs on selling throughout the year.

Sniffing at its Heels 

surprised at this achievement. It complements Streets of George Town, by covering not only a wider area of the island, but also  filling you in with a bit of gossip as to what supposedly went on behind the doors that you pass by. I'm not sure that there's much stock remaining in town, but i still have a few.

A Well Deserved Third 

I make no apologies for the amount of times I plug The Penang Sketchbook  since among the Penang picture books, I don't think it has an equal. Maybe it's because it doesn't contain single photograph! Surprisingly some Penang bookstores don't stock it. At The Penang Bookshelf we always sell it at 10% less than the retail price.

Controversially Fourth 
The same fella at the market who praises No 1 always rubbishes The Penang Adventure as being full of inaccuracies. He's not alone. However I always plug the book because I don't know of any  better popular history of the island. It's cheap, readable and just keeps selling. If the moaners could produce something better, I'd listen to 'em. 

 Top Publisher 

Appropriately, as I'm going to be working more closely with them (see opposite column) The Penang Bookshelf sold more books published by Areca Books than any other publisher. Until I compiled this list, I hadn't realised how many Penang books, from Areca and other publishers, I sell. It looks as if they account for about 20% of The Penang Bookshelf's sales. Maybe I'm dumb, but I was surprised.

Honourable Mention

Considering he was a late arrival and controversial, The Malayan Spymaster, surprised me coming in at sixth position. I am sure that the review  
of the book on The Penang Bookshelf Blog did help. It's been one of the most read posts on the blog. So I hope that will encourage others to write reviews of books I have in stock. I will dispense at least 10% of the cost of the book as an incentive. More if I'm feeling generous.
Top Fiction 

The only Malaysian writer to fare well was Tan Twan Eng whose Gift of Rain is - yes, you 
 guessed it - another Penang book. However, this is a Penang book with a difference - a) it's fiction and b) literary big wigs outside Penang have noticed it. The book was long listed for the Booker Prize shortly after it was published. The book has also sold over 60,000 copies internationally. This book came in at 11th place rubbing shoulders with perennial favourites like Anthony Burgess' Malayan Trilogy and Paul Theroux's The Consul's File.   
Sorry, It's Tea Time Again

With apologies to this newsletter's regular readers, I must just mention this book, The 
Yixing Teapots Beauty of Chinese Yixing Teapots again. Not only does it have the distinction of being the book most shamelessly plugged in this newsletter, it also has another distinction. It's the only book where customers fairly frequently buy more than one copy of the book. Four copies once went to Thailand and two copies each have recently gone to Switzerland and Wales.  

But Don't Forget... 
I was really pleased to see that the second best selling Malaysian publisher for 2011 at the Penang Bookshelf was Matahari Books who, as you will see from their catalogue, haven't - yet - published a book on Penang or on anything else to do with 'heritage.' (I tried to persuade the Areca Books team to fine anyone when they used that word in the office, but I can't say that the suggestion was rapturously received.) This book, Orang Macam Kita, a collection of gay and lesbian writing, was their top seller at The Penang Bookshelf. I have most of their catalogue in stock and must make an effort to put more of it onto the website.
Points Make Prizes. Really? 

Past readers of the newsletter have a chance to groan again as I bring up my complicated way of giving discounts. (Confusing explanation at the end of this newsletter.) Since the last newsletter I've been giving discounts to rather bemused customers and also the prize for variety in book buying. The KL based winner of RM100 credit off his next purchase at the Penang Bookshelf bought mainly books about Malaysia's history and culture, then gave an indicator of his qualifications by buying some novels. However he then went right off the map and bought a biography of a British romantic novelist whose stories are based in India. Although the prize has been won, I'll probably award it again if I'm equally impressed by anyone's wide range of book choice in their purchases.

Books Make Prizes Too

One of the side benefits of rubbing shoulders with Areca Books will probably be that The Penang Bookshelf is exposed to more booklovers. Well, it seems to be working out that way. As you will see from The Penang Bookshelf Blog, Tan Twan Eng has been in town and we managed to meet up for a long rambling chat. As I live in my own little dream world I hadn't realised he was just about to launch The Garden of Evening Mists, his second novel. The new novel is in the process of being zapped out to Malaysia, but I did get him to sign a copy or two of The Gift of Rain. So how about it? A free copy of a signed copy of The Gift of Rain to the person who buys the most fiction books from The Penang Bookshelf in February. Also - just imagine it - free surface mail postage on the book to anywhere in the world! Can't say  fairer than that, can you?

Chinese & Tamil Malaysian Fiction

Tan Twan Eng mentioned there's a significant body of Chinese and Tamil fiction written by Malaysians. If you know of any you would recommend that should be stocked at The Penang Bookshelf, do scream.
About The Penang Bookshelf
The Penang Bookshelf specialises in providing book lovers with a broad range of new and second-hand books, both fiction and non-fiction, primarily about Malaysia, but also about other parts of Asia as well. 

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Telephone: +60-12-972-6485 
Shop: c/o Areca Books, 70 Lebuh Acheh (Acheen Street), George Town Penang. (Opening Hours: Monday, Wednesday and Friday 11am - 3pm & Saturdays 10am - 1pm. Other times by appointment.) 
Business Address:  Aquarius, 4-8-8 Jalan Low Yat, Batu Ferringhi, 11100, Penang. (Opening hours by appointment only.) 
Mailing Address: 36, Cheeseman Road, 11600 Penang, Malaysia

Registered Business No: PG0282219-D
The Penang Bookshelf's Loyalty Points   
Whenever you make a purchase from The Penang Bookshelf, while being a subscriber to this news letter, 10% of the purchase price of the book excluding postage will be credited to you to use to discount the price of your next purchase.You will not earn points if the purchase price was discounted or the book was on special order where a service fee is charged. Points will also be awarded as special prizes announced in the newsletter. Points will expire six months after they have been earned.  Points will be recorded in Malaysian Ringgit and you may check your available points balance by contacting The Penang Bookshelf at any time.
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Tuesday 7 February 2012

Tan Twan Eng Visits The Penang Bookshelf

A Chat with Tan Twan Eng

This month Tan Twan Eng, Penang's best selling literary author of the Gift of Rain, was in town, killing time before his next book is launched in Malaysia and Singapore. I was unaware that he was already a customer of The Penang Bookshelf and only managed to meet him  when he visited the new shop at 70 Lebuh Acheh (Acheen Street). Apart from buying a couple of books, he agreed to spend a bit more time chatting about himself and his writing.

Although his family, academic studies and career took him away from Penang, he still loves to come back to the place that formed him. He particularly misses not being able to speak Penang Hokkien, which is still the predominant language spoken in the city. Like most creoles it's probably a language that appeals to writers because of its free and haphazard use of words from a whole range of languages that have swirled through the island at one time or another.

I found him amazingly relaxed considering that he was waiting for the launch of his second novel, The Garden of Evening Mists. Not only, like most second novels, it was more difficult to write than the first, but, of course, there was the slight anxiety as to how the book was going to be received. As it's just in the process of being launched it hadn't yet been reviewed at the time of our meeting. Although he didn't say it, I guess that the wait for the first reviews and first sales figures must be particularly nerve wracking when your first novel has made such an impact.

When he talked about his new book, I noticed that there were a couple of common threads between this book and The Gift of Rain, i.e. World War II and the Japanese. Although this novel is set during the Malayan Emergency, the main protagonist suffered at the hands of the Japanese during the war and was a prosecutor of Japanese war criminals. Tan Twan Eng, who has a first dan ranking in akido, admits that he's drawn to the 'refined' elements of Japanese culture, but at the same time is troubled by the country's war time atrocities and particularly their refusal or difficulty in coming to terms with some of the after effects. Like many he is also puzzled as to how people so cultured can also be so brutal.

Such complexity makes good grist for novelists such as Tan Twan Eng who allows his works to develop through his characters meeting or shying away from the challenges that they present to each other. He's developed this ability not through psychological training, he says, but rather through reading books, both fiction and historical. He'd always wanted to be a writer after living in a household where his parents gave him free rein in his reading. However probably even the most supportive parents would find it difficult to imagine their child moving straight from university into the uncertainties of a literary career. Instead he went into the law and specilised in copyright law with a leading Kuala Lumpur firm. However he found himself being employed as an enforcer - often in dangerous circumstances - rather than as an adviser to clients on the finer points of the law. 

When he did leave the law to write, he went in feet first. He didn't try and build a reputation with short story writing first. In fact he's never been very happy with the short stories he's written. Instead he went headlong into his first novel. Even when it was written it took some time to find a publisher since the general response was that it would 'be difficult to market.' Malaysian fiction writing in English has never had the cachet that, for example, similar writing from India does. So he ended up with a publisher, Myrmidon Books, who were just starting out as well. For both author and publisher the partnership is obviously beginning to pay off. Tan Twang Eng says that even after publishing his first novel he's managing to earn enough to live on - as long as he watches his budget!

He now lives in South Africa for much of the time. It was there that he met a retired Gardener to the Emperor of Japan. The meeting sparked him into thinking about the form of his second novel. One of the differences between The Garden of Evening Mists and The Gift of Rain is the rural setting, Malaysia's Cameron Highlands, of the new novel. He says one of the differences between Malaysia and South Africa is the greater appreciation of nature in South Africa, which has enthused him. I mentioned that at the Penang Bookshelf, I have always been surpised at how poorly nature and wildlife books sell despite all that Malaysia has to offer. 

At our couple of meetings I was particularly impressed by Tan Twan Eng's diffidence. He only spoke about his writing when asked to do so. We didn't discuss his significant achievements and he never sought to bring them up. He spoke with clarity, sometimes passion, about his work and interests, but never gave the impression of trying to ram any point home. One of the results of his early success has been to receive invitations to literary festivals where he meets other writers. Without me asking he's put me in touch with other Malaysian writers whom he sugests are featured at the Penang Bookshelf - and he keeps on suggesting more.

It was only after our meeting that I discovered that The Gift of Rain has sold over 60,000 copies and has never been out of the literary fiction e-book top 100 since the book was issued in that format. I have yet to get my hands on a copy of The Garden of Evening Mists, but based on the man I got to know briefly and what he's written before, I wish him even greater success.