by Maria Mahat

Bismillah ir-Rahman ir-Rahim

I’ve always said that I am the accidental author. But I also believed that it is all part of His grand plans for me to be in publishing.

thetruthseekers

Many have asked me about writing and publishing, and I hope that this article will shed some light on my writing and publishing journey, and maybe it will help you to see which route you’d like to take.

I thought that to write in a disciplined manner was hard. But then, when I moved on to publishing my first book, I realised publishing was harder than writing. After publishing my first book, I realised even much more so that marketing the book was the hardest.

The reason to write and publish my first ever book, a novella, The Truth Seekers @ Haji Lane was due to a divine guidance. I prayed istikharah and I believed that the signs shown to me pointed me to the direction of authoring. I had never really harbour big dreams of becoming an author except for being a children’s book author.

Though I had some publishing experience in academic journals and company-related magazines, I had never write and publish a novella before. I am not JK Rowling, and closer to home, neither an Isa Kamari or an Alfian Sa’at.

I also asked myself, “Who would ever want to read what I had to write? Which sane publishing house would accept an unknown person, with not much of a writing experience to ever want to publish my book and especially in the Islamic romance genre?”

Since it was divine guidance, I chanced upon an online course on how to publish on Amazon. Perhaps, there was my answer.

Publishing on Amazon means I could do it on my own, without having to send my manuscript and be rejected by any publishing houses and also, I could create a pen name without anyone discovering that it was me. I thought I could just write and publish this one piece of work and by then, I would have discovered my real passion and get into the kind of business that I was meant to get myself into.

It was a step by step Amazon course by an FB contact, Sam Choo. When I saw the steps, I gulped. It was many nitty-gritty eye-rolling tasks to go through the entire publishing process on Amazon – from creating an account on Kindle Direct Publishing, the e-book arm of Amazon to signing-up with a payment portal so that you will get paid (if you make any money that is), and even designing your own e-book cover using some free software.

I persevered and finally, I published the e-version of my novella, The Truth Seekers @ Haji Laneย on Amazon in May 2015.

After the gulps, the process seemed doable.

But what’s the point of creating a story and publishing it and not getting the word out there? Who would pick up a Maryam Amelie novella? Maryam Amelie who? That’s the pen name I use but without promotion and marketing, no one will know, and no one will read. So I took the rather painful decision to announce to my FB network that I had published a book and it’s available on Amazon.

Congratulations ensued but there was a minor glitch. What many people don’t tell you about publishing on Amazon is that: Singapore / Singaporeans don’t have access to most of the KDP books unless they have a KDP account (which is different from an Amazon account) or a Kindle tablet. And by and large, Singaporeans have not taken to e-books as the world would expect of them. So my book is not read by Singaporeans unless they live in America or Canada (or have American/Canadian addresses) or have a Kindle tablet for that matter.

Of course, I was hoping that The Truth Seekers @ Haji Lane by Maryam Amelieย with its universal theme of love and God could be read by anyone, of any nationality, just like how Khaled Hosseini’s and Paulo Coelho’s novels are widely read. The location of the story is just the backdrop.

Then, a friend on FB asked for a hard copy of the book. Without much thought, I said, “ok, I will get it done.” That started another journey in finding out how to publish the physical books.

The good thing is that Amazon has a physical book publishing arm called Createspace. You create an e-version and you can also publish the hardcopies under Createspace and vice-versa. The best thing is, it is “publish on demand”. You want one copy, they will print one copy for you. It is inexpensive to print but it is expensive to ship the book over to Singapore from the US where it’s being printed.

In a way, I didn’t expect the heartwarming reception for the physical copies. It wasn’t like a super bestseller or anything but it garnered enough interest. When I asked the owner of Wardah Books, Ibrahim, if he was willing to sell my book at his shop, he accepted it after going through and reviewing a copy. I was thrilled and at the same time nervous.

I didn’t know Ibrahim personally prior to this but here’s a tip: List a reviewer on the book cover who is credible and well-known. ๐Ÿ™‚ It was divine grace that Ibrahim and I had a mutual friend whom I had requested for a review, and I printed her review in my book.

When I met him, we had conversations on book publishing and how to go about marketing my book further. Being an editor himself, Ibrahim was honest and yet encouraging. What gave me the morale booster was when Ibrahim and Ismail Kassim, a retired Straits Times correspondent, agreed that “I was probably the first Malay Singaporean who wrote an English-language novella”. Even Alfian Sa’at’s “Malay Sketches” was of a different genre – a compilation of short stories. Isa Kamari and Mohamed Latiff wrote all their works in Malay, and had others to translate for them. Only after my novella, other young adult fiction works by Muslim and/or Malay Singaporean authors in English came sprouting out like First Fires by Jinat Rehana Begum, Tweet by Isa Kamari and The Gatekeeper by Nuraliah Norasid.

[I later discovered that Suffian Hakim had started to write Harris Bin Potter and the Stoned Philosopher in 2013 but only published it in 2017.]

Honestly, I didn’t expect that the book had good enough momentum that I had printed a total of 200 copies from Createspace. Of course, not all were sold as some were given away complimentary. But yeah, that’s awesome enough. Through emails, calls and store walk-ins that I had made personally, I managed to get the books into boutique bookstores such as Wardah Books, Salaam Media International, Darul Arqam, a cafe, an art gallery and several online bookstores.

That’s when I thought that I should take this book seriously and believed in my own writing, and my own signs.

Ibrahim had suggested that I sent my book to a local publisher who are more supportive of new local authors.

I sent my books to two. One of them replied, and gave a very kind and polite rejection email. He mentioned that his publishing company may not be able to do justice to the book’s value/worth.ย  Okayyy. I took it that because the The Truth Seekers @ Haji Lane had many Islamic elements for them to be supporting. I even sent several chapters of The Truth Seekers @ Haji Lane to a Malaysian publishing house not realising that they were also Chinese-owned. But the email discussion went a step further in them wanting to have a meeting with me until they realised that I’m a Singaporean based in Singapore. For some reasons unknown to me, they felt that it was better for me to get it published in Singapore.

After receiving some positive and constructive feedback, I felt that it is even more important that the messages in the story be heard/read/shared. In order to push the book forward and hoping to get it widely distributed, I decided to go on my own independent publishing route. But before I can do that, I needed to polish my work – incorporating all the feedback without changing the storyline because the storyline is a “page-turner” in itself. Of course some readers may have different opinions about a character or particular plot development.

Nevertheless, before I can revamp and polish my book, I needed to know that there will be a market for it – that the mega bookstores will buy them.

I sent emails directly to the local mega bookstores but the mega bookstores did not entertain my request. Only one directed me to go through a distributor instead.

I googled for a list of distributors, emailed them and got only one reply. One reply that was enough and willing to distribute my books but which came with a hefty fee.

After signing the contract, I then proceeded to revamp the look of the book, engaged a publishing editor with the re-editing, got a student-designer to design my book cover and my design-trained sister to help me with the initial book formatting. My editor also proofread the book for me. I had to stretch my already limited funds into this, but my husband asked me to take the plunge and print 1000 copies. Bismillah and Go!

That was a lot of printed copies by an unknown Singaporean author who did not get much responses for all my emails / calls or very “polite” rejections.

The distributor got my books into our local mega bookstores like Kinokuniya, Popular, MPH and The Select Centre. He was not aggressive enough in pushing it to the overseas markets because of the exchange rate.

Later on, due to my own family circumstances, we opened our lifestyle store, Ungu Pen, to sell my books and giving a platform to other quality local authors’ books and some other products. Both publishing and retail are not easy entrepreneurial journeys but most business endeavours are not easy anyway. InshaAllah, with His guidance, I have build in some dreams now on the authoring and publishing route, which is probably the enterprise that He had set for me to go through (and yet I kept defying it initially) on top of the many other interesting roles that I am currently juggling. Bismillah, Go!

If you need more info on authoring and publishing, email me at info@ungupen.com and shoot me with your questions. I will try my best to answer them or collate them into an article.