Update: Colour it is…

This is an update to my post, Judging a book by its cover

May 26th 2012

Dear reader,

Thanks a lot to those who sent me comments and feedback on the book’s cover. It’s really something that has dominated my thoughts over the past couple of weeks–more so than I ever expected. Interesting to see the split in opinions. I got good explanations that have made me think about the issue in new ways. If I ever write another book–fingers crossed–I’ll be much better prepared for Cover issues…

Anyway, a rough count of my Facebook, Gmail and Blog responses show a 60/40 vote in favour of the Black and White shot. I, admittedly, am also partial to the B&W.

And yet, we have decided to go with the Colour shot. Why? In a nutshell, the two publishers–Hong Kong University Press and NUS Press–are STRONGLY in favour of Colour. After a fairly thorough discussion with them yesterday, I have conceded. They knew that I was canvassing opinion online, and so waited for that.

If the straw poll was 90/10 or 80/20, then we might have gone B&W. But at 60/40, it does seem that there are a fair number of people who also think Colour. Incidentally, the two people who have read the whole book–Simon Long and Sumana Rajarethnam–prefer different covers.

Some of you might have seen the book listed on Amazon and other retailers, with the B&W photo. Well, that was the 6-month advance catalogue posting. We’re going to have to change the cover now….boo. Thankfully, we will be able to modify the Colour photo slightly–some of you commented about it being too busy, the wording not being correct. We’re going to fix all that hopefully–not in time for the new catalogue posting, but certainly for the actual book.

I’ll explain a bit more about the thinking below–revolves around book publishing processes, politics of publishing, and marketing. But before that, I’d like to talk a bit about the two photographs, partly cos some of you have asked. Both are from our bicycling trip in 2004, when Sumana and I cycled 1000km around the whole of Peninsular Malaysia.

The B&W shot was taken at Nenasi, a small kampung about 100km south of Kuantan in Pahang. That beach is one of the many gorgeous white-yellow sanders on Malaysia’s East Coast. At Nenasi, we met a young, long-haired Malay chap named Mi, who spends every day fishing off the beach. You’d likely find him standing, facing the ocean, fishing rod by his side. He stays in that shack. He let us sleep in there for the night, after entertaining–or scaring–us with stories of village scooter racing (Mat rempits), drug addictions and AIDS over a bonfire. Might seem spartan, but one of our best sleeps of the trip. I describe our encounter with Mi in the book.

Here are a couple more shots from Nenasi:

The Colour shot is taken on Highway 3 from Kota Tinggi to Mersing in Johor. One of the best things about cycling around Malaysia is that fruit sellers bombard you with goodies. Every single time we stopped at a fruit shop, we had our fill of free rambutans, mangosteens and durians. Perhaps they take pity on parched cyclists. Of course, we realised this only after a few sheepish encounters. The very first few of those were along Highway 3.

Here are a couple more shots from there:

Why are some of our shots in B&W and some in Colour? Well, in 2004, when we were deciding what to leave behind and what to bring on the trip–weight being an issue, since everything had to be carried on our bike’s saddle bags–we opted for one small simple 35mm camera. At any point, we had only one roll in there–so, really, it just depended on where we were on our photo cycle.

In today’s digital age, I’m going to shoot everything in Colour!!! ūüôā Which can easily be modified after…

What were some of your comments about the B&W? Positive: Nice composition, matches the title, breezy, floating, idyllic, classic feel. Criticisms: too academic, stuffy, old school, represents a Malaysia of yesterday, not modern, too “kampungy”.

Comments about Colour? Positive: Eye-catching, colours represent Malaysia’s diversity; more light-hearted, more reflective of book’s tone. Criticisms: Poor composition, too crowded, could be a book about fruits, colour for the sake of colour.

There were many fans of colour who asked if I could use a Colour version of the Nenasi B&W shot (don’t have one). Interestingly, there were also a couple of B&W fans who suggested changing the Colour fruits photo to B&W.

Finally, I will come to the Publishers’ Marketing teams’ comments. They–both HKUP and NUS–are strongly in favour because the Colour cover will apparently draw a lot more attention on catalogues, websites and stores. Also, there is some worry that the B&W photo shows an antiquated “Malaysia”, rather than the modern country it is/is trying to be. So, perhaps the Colour one is more politically neutral. I agree with the first argument, not really the second.

Some of you asked whether I could get a better designer, sketch an original image, etc. etc. Which brings me to my second point. The publisher, HKUP, is not big–publishes only around 50 books a year. It doesn’t have a big budget for design. At the moment, there are about 30 other books that need cover designs. According to HKUP, I am spoilt for choice, i.e. both of my covers will work well; and are better than what other books have to contend with. So, me being struggling first-time author, and it being small publisher, not much wiggle room here.

Finally, politics. As in many other areas of life, I may want to conserve my political capital for bigger battles. As I’m learning, there are many decisions during the entire book production process–How much time for review of proofs? B&W or Colour photos within the book? Do we want to have a jacket for the paperback? How much can we rush the production?–that are essentially mini tug-of-wars between author (no name, first-time author, with little leverage) and the publisher and team, who have limited resources and capacity.

So, if I give a little here, I may be able to take a bigger bite elsewhere.

Lastly, Sales. I want to make sure that the publishers sell out the first run, at the very least–2000 copies. If they don’t break even, it’ll be harder for them–or any other publisher, for that matter–to do business with me again. So, at the end of the day, if they think Colour sells better, I don’t want to really oppose them–even though it is my book, and I can force the issue. From a different angle, if the book doesn’t sell well, I’d rather the post-mortem be about the actual text, rather than a non-marketable cover.

Which is why, dear reader, your comments were really quite useful. There were some 40% of you who wanted Colour–not my first choice–so I’ve decided to let it be. I’d gotten quite attached to the Nenasi B&W shot. It brought back good memories. Anyway, that photograph will be featured in the book’s middle “photo section”.

Colour it is. Will take me some time to get used to it. But that’s life…

Judging a book by its cover

May 22nd 2012

Dear reader,

B&W or Colour?

One thing that has completely blindsided me is the importance of the book’s cover. Who knew? I thought that once the manuscript is done, I could put my legs up. Oh no. I’ve spent countless hours over the past few weeks talking about the cover, driving to Malaysia with bicycle to take new photographs, etc etc.

Anyway, it has boiled down to these two. I know nothing about design and marketing. I’ve heard good arguments for either, but not sure which way to go. We have to make a decision in the next few days.

So I hope you can help me with some comments and insights. Do comment below, on my FB posting, or email me directly: sudhir.vadaketh@gmail.com. Thank you!

Update!: Decided on Colour–read here


p.s. You can read more about the book via the link “Floating on a Malayan Breeze” above. Or click on the covers to read the book’s synopsis on Amazon.

The early days, 2003-04

The early days were filled with mixed emotions. On the one hand, Sumana and I were terribly excited to be embarking on this bicycle journey across Malaysia. On the other hand, there were a fair number of people who thought we were wasting a summer that might have been spent more productively on a more “normal” internship.

But there was certainly lots of raw energy. Many authors, most notably Haruki Murakami, like to talk about running and writing, and the relationship between the two. Having now run a couple of half-marathons–no way I can do a full–and almost done with the book, the one parallel I see is in motivational levels.

For both running and writing, the beginning and the end are filled with hope and feverish excitement. The middle, unfortunately, can be one long, tedious slog, where you start to seriously question the reasons for being where you are, doing what you’re doing. I imagine it’s similar to many other long, creative processes with uncertain outcomes.

Let’s start at the top. Not sure if you remember, dear reader, but back in 2003, there were some clear political tensions between Malaysia and Singapore, around airspace, land, water, crime and other things. Both sides’ newspapers, nationalist as they are, were driving citizens into a frenzy with their editorials. Politicians even alluded to war. Many of our Singaporean friends kept commenting that Malaysia is a dangerous place that should be avoided–“Drive straight to KL, but don’t stop anywhere on the way.”

Both Sumana and I have always loved Malaysia, so we found all this a bit unsettling and unfair. The problem, in our mind, was that ordinary Malaysians and Singaporeans did not really have a chance to understand each other. There is really very little dialogue between us. Our national media channels are essentially government mouthpieces. In any case, we can’t even buy each others’ newspapers. In Singapore, it’s easier to get a copy of Le Monde or the New York Times than the Malaysian Star.

So, just get ordinary people talking, and all our problems would be solved. Having just spent four years studying in California, that’s what our idealistic souls told us. In Dec 2003, I asked Sumana, “Why don’t we walk across Malaysia in our sarongs and see who we meet, and write about our encounters?”

From that rather flippant thought, a much more workable idea evolved. By Mar 2004 we had decided that we should bicycle across Malaysia. A bicycle was good, because we did not want to visit as the typical Singaporean did, barrelling through small towns in a sedan, or dropping in to tourist magnets in tour buses. A bicycle would allow us to approach kampungs and people quietly, unassumingly. Everybody wants to chat to a cyclist from far away, right? (Not really.)

And so then, like many insecure artists, we started seeking affirmation and approval from saner souls close to us. When I look back at this period now, it really went by in a blur, because we were so excited, every day was filled with new ideas about the what, how and where of the trip.

Amid all that, it’s sometimes easy to forget, or downplay, the impact of our conversations with our four mentors: Linda Lim, Sharon Siddique, Pete Gosling and Koh Buck Song. If they hadn’t prodded us on, we would have probably spent that summer doing something a lot more boring; a ‘normal’ internship somewhere.

“What will you achieve with the book? Don’t you need a regular internship to find a job? Is this a productive use of your Masters Programme Summer? How can you write a book based on one trip? Cycling?!?!”

It would take me far too long to catalogue the stream of dissuasions that we listened to. Unsurprisingly, almost all of them came from Singaporeans (plus 1 or 2 Malaysians).

Perhaps the most discouraging bit of advice I got came from an unlikely source–a researcher at one of Singapore’s think tanks. Up till that point, all academics we spoke with had egged us on, each providing his or her own perspective on our trip. But there was this one person–a Malaysian who had lived in Singapore for a long time–who threw cold water all over us. telling us “You Singaporeans think you can understand Malaysia with just one trip. There is nothing more I can help you with, sorry.”

At that point, I remember feeling surprised, saddened, a bit incensed even.

That is why we are eternally grateful to Linda, Sharon, Pete and Buck Song. They were four beacons of encouragement in a sea of bemusement.