To keep our expectations clear, I’ll start off the article with this statement: most people don’t earn that much money from publishing books.
In fact, if your sole aim to write one is to make money from it, and you’re in a fairly tight financial situation, I’d recommend you to try other ways to make money from freelance writing. If you’re adamant, then your best bet is to pick and write about topics that tend to sell well in Malaysia, like religion, finance and self-help.
That being said, if you have always wanted to know how to publish a book in Malaysia, for personal or professional reasons – self-satisfaction, to establish yourself as a subject matter expert, to leave behind a legacy, to call yourself an author, etc – then it’s a worthwhile endeavour to take.
In this article, I will cover the processes involved in publishing a book in Malaysia (but not HOW to write a book – that one different story).
Step 0: Write the manuscript
For new, never-before-published writers, you will probably need to write that book first, or at least finish a few chapters. You probably won’t get anyone to agree to publish your book without something to show for it. ‘Hi I have a book idea in my head’ won’t work.
Sometimes, the publisher may be able to commit to publishing a non-fiction book without the manuscript. However, this privilege is only reserved for selected people, such as authors who have written commercially-successful books and authority figures with a large following.
I’ll go ahead and assume you have not been published before, but would like to. Let’s go on to the first actual step.
Step 1: Choosing the publisher (or not)
So you wrote your first draft, got it edited, collected feedback from beta readers, worked on it a bit more, re-edited it, and repeated this process again and again until you’re satisfied with your manuscript. Now you’re ready to publish it!
You have three options:
- Option 1: Traditional publishing. Aside from the writing part, they will do everything for you – edit, format, proofread, print, distribute, do marketing*, you name it. In return, they will take a 90%** cut. That means if your book sells for RM29.90, you’ll get RM2.90 or 10% from each book.
- Option 2: Half/Half publishing (also called Vanity publishing). You will be paying companies an upfront fee to turn your manuscript into a book. By the end of the arrangement, you will have your final-version book. You get 100% of the profits from the book sales, minus the upfront cost and whatever expenses you incur while selling it.
- Option 3: Self-publishing. You do everything yourself, either DIY or outsource people to take over specific tasks (designing the book cover, for example). You get 100% of the profits from the book sales, minus the upfront cost and whatever expenses you incur while selling it.
IMPORTANT: Companies categorised under Option 2 (Half/half / Vanity publishing) frequently use the term ‘supported self-publishing’, ‘assisted self-publishing’ or ‘guided publishing’ to encourage writers into engaging their services, which makes things a tad confusing. The biggest difference between option 2 and option 3 is using a company vs doing it yourself.
*Note: You are expected to do some marketing on your end as well to boost book sales
**Note: All numbers are based on current book publishing trends in Malaysia. Specific publishers may use different figures or structures.
Each publishing option has its pros and cons. Let’s explore them.
Traditional publishing is great for:
- Wide distribution – They tend to be big names, and have branches at many locations thus maximising reach for your books. Also, being ‘endorsed’ by these brands will greatly increase your credibility as an author
- Least work – Your job is to write, and market the books afterwards. That’s it.
- No upfront cost – All you need is brain power and writing tools
Traditional publishing is NOT great for:
- Profit cut – You only get 10% of book sales
- Customisation – The publisher usually get the final say on editing, design, book cover, and things like that
- Some genre not accepted – To minimise the likelihood of low book sales (and therefore losses for the company), traditional publishers may not accept some types of content
Note: Always check the publisher’s page and check the submission requirements BEFORE you send off your manuscript. Make sure to give them the information they need, or chances are you won’t hear back from them.
Half/half / Vanity publishing
Half/Half / vanity publishing is great for:
- Outsourcing some work out – Depending on which package you select, they can help you sort out editing, formatting, cover design and printing (other services may be available). Example of packages with transparent pricing (Singapore).
- Book and Ebook distribution – Some of them can help you place your books at bookstores, as well as help you turn your book into an ebook and list them at ebook-selling networks
Half/Half publishing is NOT great for:
- Consistent quality – They may do a good job, they may not. The only way to find out is to find their past customers and ask for an honest review. Here are some things to note.
- People without capital – You will need to pay a hefty sum upfront. Check out Anna’s cost comparison post below
Self-publishing is great for:
- Complete control – You get to choose what subjects to write about, how you want the final version to look like, who to hire (book printer, editor, etc) and more. You will also learn how to publish a book (or ebook, or both), from start to finish, during the process
- Maximum profit – No one gets to take a cut of your profit without your consent
Self-publishing is NOT great for:
- Those without marketing skills – Unless you just want to keep a stack of books in your house, the selling part is all up to you
- Those who just want to write and not deal with the business side of book publishing – it takes a fair amount of organisational skills and discipline to do everything by yourself
Technically, you can create and publish a book with zero cost if you do everything yourself (minus printing costs, unless your work is purely digital).
There are plenty of online tools, guides and resources that can help you write, edit, proofread, design, format your book and more. You can also sell your work via free online selling platforms, including directly from your social media profiles.
However, you might want to invest some money to make your book look more professional and attractive to your target audience. Some to consider:
- Book cover design
- ISBN registration (How to apply for ISBN in Malaysia)
- Professional editing and formatting
- Marketing materials and tools
- Website/landing page
- And more
Notes on book printing:
- As a rule of thumb, the more copies you print, the lower the cost-per-book
- Custom (book size, shape and measurements, etc) might incur higher charges
- Keep the colours minimal for reduced printing costs
Which publishing option to pick?
Which option(s) are the best? Up to you. If all you want to do is write, pick traditional publishing. If you want to test your business and marketing skills, try the other options.
You may also do a bit of mix and match. For example, you may go with traditional publishing for the physical book, but self-publishing for the ebook version. There are ebook distributor platforms in Malaysia where you can submit and list your ebooks for sale.
E-Sentral, the largest of such platform takes a 50% cut from each ebook sold. You can also choose to list your ebooks in your own platforms (websites, etc), or platforms like Smashwords, Amazon Publishing (35-70% cut, depending on pricing) and Google Play (50% cut). Related:
Step 2: Reading the contract
If you go with the traditional publishing or half/half / vanity publishing route, you will probably need to sign a contract.
Make sure to read and understand what you’re signing. Some may include clauses that prohibit you from selling on other platforms. Some limits your rights to your own work. Some are time-bound. Get a lawyer friend to help you decipher the document if you must.
When you’re happy with what you’re getting into, go ahead and sign that contract 🙂
Step 3: Do the work, if any
Depending on what’s required of you, work with whoever you need to work with and do what you need to do to get your manuscript finalised into the final product, a book.
Step 4: Market the book and collect royalty/sales
By this stage, your book is out! Congratulations!
From here onwards is the fun part 🙂 The company(ies) you enlist with might have payment schedules, and all you have to do is to wait for the money to come in. Obviously, with some marketing effort on your end to encourage demand for your book, you can ensure continuous sales and maybe even re-prints (for physical books).
If you choose to sell your books yourself without the help of a book distributor, then marketing and sales are more important than ever. Don’t forget to factor in expenses in your book prices, or you might be selling your books at cost price or even worse, make a loss!
What’s next after this step? Write another book and do it all over again!
I know nothing about how to publish a book in Malaysia if not for the kind contributions of our local writers and members of the Malaysian Writers’ Society. My sincerest thanks to Gina Yap Lai Yoong and Anna Tan (click the names to see their writing portfolio).
Published writers, I need your input here to make this article even better. Please comment tips you know about publishing a book in Malaysia. What worked for you? What didn’t? What could’ve been better? Let us know!