“WE’RE running out of books,” says Buku Fixi founder Amir Muhammad unwrapping another box to stock the rapidly depleting bookshelf.
It’s 4pm on the third day of the Malaysian Book Publishing Association (Mabopa) Fair, and there are three hours to go before closing time.
Held at MAEPS, Serdang, the Mabopa Fair’s weekend slot coincides with the sixth installment of Malaysia’s premier custom automotive event, The Art of Speed. Weaving through the exhibition space is a throng of readers, revheads and revellers. It’s an unexpected collision of unlikely worlds, but testimony to what we’ve always known - that Malaysians are curious folk and where there’s action, there’s a gravitational pull. Pure physics, really.
Book fairs are a boon for local independent publishers when achieving visibility in major chain bookstores remains elusive, with many making big returns in just a few days. Three-for-two discounts, slashed-to-half price and membership bonuses have rendered the pinch of the GST almost insignificant with our tightened purse strings loosening to take advantage of some great deals.
With the rise of the small press made possible with the introduction of digital printing and internet-based marketing, the world of book publishing is today more diversified and innovative than ever before. And all this kicked off after 2008, under the umbrella of financial doom and gloom.
Speaking to Amir in 2010 about his plans to unveil Fixi the following year, I was unconvinced of its potential to be profitable. Kindle, after all, had big plans to revolutionise how we read, with the traditional book format tipped to join the graveyard, with fiction already one foot deep.
Were there even readers out there? Six years on, Buku Fixi has over 160 titles, a bricks-and-mortar shop, half a dozen imprints and an award bagged at the 2014 London Book Fair. Evidently there were readers, just as there are today.
MAKING WAVES IN LOCAL “GRIP LIT”
Buku Fixi’s success owes much to tapping into the niche market of contemporary books in Bahasa Malaysia that are considered too cool for school, or for “the establishment”. When it was launched in 2011, Amir already had Matahari Books under his belt, publishing non-fiction titles in both English and Malay.
But the general absence of Malay fiction outside of the dominant romance genre loomed large over the local literature landscape. Surely there’s an alternative to books that have “cinta”, “kasih” and “rindu” in their titles, Amir famously wondered.
With bold one-word titles, a technique he attributes to the late filmmaker Yasmin Ahmad, like Sunyi (Desolate), Janji (Vow) and Gantung (Hanging), with Paranormal, Paranoia and Delima taking the guesswork out of the genre altogether, Fixi continues to make waves in the local “grip lit” scene, showing few signs of slowing down.
Sure, it’s every publisher’s dream to redefine the tastes of readers, but just as local cinemas continue to fill up with the latest zombie flick, it’s hardly a revelation to discover that it’s the horse that pulls the cart, and not the other way around.
Of the dozen or so manuscripts that land on Fixi Buku desk every month, more than half are paranormal-inspired or crime-related, revealing the insatiable thirst for the sensational, the hysterical and the mental. Horror, crime, law and disorder with a sprinkle of black magic, is the local cinema genre replicated in book form.
“Actually those are all somewhat unconventional when seen in the context of Malay fiction in the past few decades, which has been dominated by only romance and religious-themed books,” says Amir.
And a trip to the bookstore in one of our many malls will confirm that this is still very much the case.
BITING THE BULLET
Buku Fixi is in the business of selling books; unashamedly cornering the market, if not flooding it in its early days with pulp fiction of questionable quality in some instances. But it has undeniably a cult following, a phenomenon in itself, with other indie publishers surfacing at about the same time, dreaming of having the same impact, indeed the same profit margins.
Buku Fixi’s bestseller is Muhammad Fatrim’s 2013 novel Asrama (Dormitory), which is about 15-year-old Dahlia who attends a mixed boarding school in Sabah.
Launched at Mabopa, Fatrim’s sequel Asrama 2 sold faster than the chicken burger from the food trucks downstairs. Unable to put a figure on it, Fatrim was jubilant. Jeehan, with her first Fixi novel Bingit, which coincidentally starts off in a boarding school with a character also named Dahlia, but later focuses on kidnapping survivor Lily, was equally pleased with her sales following her book launch.
Genre speaking, originality may not be Fixi’s strongest point but as Amir asserts: “Not all our works are straight-forward genre pieces. We’ve published a few that are more subtle or realistic”.
Fahmi Mustaffa’s Laknat and Amsterdam are just two novels under Fixi which have achieved an emerging fan base for being wildly creative, with intellect and brilliance crafted in his prose. Hitting on the challenging issues of faith and doubt in religion, incest and homosexuality, he’s a standout, a real wild-child artist in all manner of ways.
“I think people like to stand on the edge; to find themselves challenged with certain ideas about culture, religion and the composition of emotion,” says Fahmi, adding: “My novels are a kind of platform, sort of like a starter kit for their own journey of challenging social construct and narratives.”
Fixi’s recent decision to drop most of its labels to focus almost exclusively on local material written in Malay will be met with disappointment by the likes of myself, who has enjoyed an English language book or two.
“When something is unprofitable, one must bite the bullet. In publishing, as in writing, one must be prepared to kill one’s darlings,” says Amir.
One can only hope to be haunted!