Survival tactics of the political authors

29 Oct 2006
Abdul Razak Ahmad

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They are masters of the bestseller on Malay politics, offering a heady mix of sensationalism and controversy. But Umno’s ban on the sale of such books at its general assembly has affected the business. ABDUL RAZAK AHMAD looks at how these writers are faring.

POLITICAL writer Syed Hussein Alattas intends to “gatecrash” the Umno general assembly next month to promote his two latest books.

Well, sort of. Syed Hussein, better known by the byline S.H. Alattas, says he plans to take up space at the bazaar on the sidelines of the annual party gathering, held in Kuala Lumpur’s Putra World Trade Centre.

He wants to sell to the thousands of party delegates and visitors who throng the bazaar each year in search of stuff ranging from the tastiest kuih to the latest songket designs.

His problem is that the organisers will be keeping a close eye out for him and his entire ilk.

Umno has strictly enforced a curb on the sale of books on politics at the party’s assembly in the last few years.

“The ban is killing our business. They allow people to sell all sorts of things, even cars, at the bazaar. Why can’t we sell our books?”

The ban is mainly because of their content. Critics say some of the books are short on facts but long on allegations.

Proponents, on the other hand, stoutly defend their work as independent commentaries targeted at a mass audience.

Despite the curb, Syed Hussein claims to have verbal permission from a party official to sell his books at this year’s Umno bazaar. It’s why he’s taking a chance by being there.

And the titles of his upcoming books?

Siapa halang Umno masuk Sarawak? (Who prevented Umno from entering Sara- wak?) and Mahathir Menggila, Pak Lah Derita: Antara Al Quran, Al Dollar dan Alkohol (Mahathir Goes Crazy, Pak Lah Suffers: Between the Al Quran, the Al Dollar, and Alcohol).

For Syed Hussein, his planned return to the Umno assembly marks a comeback of sorts. Since his major work this year was a book on the other hot topic in the Malay world, singer Datuk Siti Nurhaliza’s romance with Datuk Khalid Mohd Jiwa, some wondered if he had become disheartened over the restriction and decided not to write another political book.

When asked, Syed Hussein merely cites examples of how merajuk is a very Johorean Malay trait.

The Johorean says he was surprised that the Siti Nurhaliza book, Kalau Jodoh Tak Ke Mana, sold well not only in Malaysia, but in Indonesia as well.

But he says that politics will always be his first love. And Syed Hussein isn’t the only one hoping to cash in on the Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad-Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi issue.

Two other writers, Yahaya Ismail and Mohd Sayuti Omar, are offering new books on the subject.

Yahaya says he has almost finished his yet-to-be-titled book. Sayuti just recently released his, which throws Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim into the mix. It’s title: Kemelut Mahathir-Abdullah, Bagaimana Anwar? (The Mahathir-Abdullah crisis, what about Anwar?)

The three have produced a total of about 130 books. Assuming that each sells an average of 5,000 copies — which the three say is the norm — their combined output has totalled 650,000 copies.

All hope to make a big impact at the coming assembly. Syed Hussein, 66, claims to have pioneered the genre. The Form Three dropout has written 49 books on politics, the first in 1972. He is aware of the flak his work has drawn.

“Even back then (1970s) people criticised me because I pasted newspaper cuttings and photos in my book. But many now do the same thing.”

Political analyst Professor Datuk Syed Ahmad Hussein of Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM) describes this type of work as “populist political commentary”, which features a combination of drama, scandal and exaggeration.

“They’re not ‘heavy’; they reveal things, some questionable, some factual, some fictional, and people are hungry for this kind of sensational writing,” says Syed Ahmad.

Such reading material isn’t unique to the country.

“You get an equivalent in publications like the National Enquirer in the United States, for example, which specialises in sexing up stories,” says Syed Ahmad.

A measure of chutzpah is needed for those trying to break into the business.

“In this business, it’s not the book that sells, it’s the writer,” says Syed Hussein, known for his flamboyant personality and penchant for wearing huge rings.

Another requirement is capital. A typical 200-page book with glossy photos, in a print run of 5,000, costs RM4 per copy to produce.

That works out to RM20,000 paid in advance per book. Political writers, says Sayuti, are often the last people to whom a printer will extend credit.

The established writers publish their own work to keep costs down. But Sayuti admits that another, smaller, errant breed takes a short cut and accepts offers to write books for their politician subjects.

“I don’t deny the phenomenon of paying writers to write, especially when an Umno election comes around,” says Sayuti, author of 41 books.

“You’ll see it in some writers, who have not produced anything for years, suddenly appearing in the run-up to an Umno assembly with a new book praising a certain candidate.

“Some “Others get paid to write books that run down their sponsor’s opponents,” he adds, noting that the phenomenon was marked during the 1993 Umno elections.

Apart from Umno, Sayuti has released books at the sidelines of Pas’ annual muktamar but sales were disappointing.

“Pas elections are not as hot as Umno’s. Not yet, anyway,” says Sayuti with a laugh.

There’ll be no election at this year’s Umno assembly, so the number of new titles is likely to be limited. But the restrictions imposed will still hurt.

“I don’t time my releases to coincide with Umno assemblies, but I have heard that some sell thousands of copies at the bazaar,” says Yahaya, author of more than 40 books and a former USM lecturer.

Demand went through the roof during the reformasi period in the late 1990s.

Syed Hussein says that period produced what he believes is the all-time best-seller: Datuk Shahnon Ahmad’s highly controversial Shit, though he cannot confirm the actual number sold.

It is a peak that’s not about to recur any time soon. Sales have gradually fallen to levels Sayuti says are similar to the early 1980s.

Syed Ahmad says the rise of the Internet is one reason. As fast as these authors can produce books on current issues, the Internet is much faster and offers “juicier” material from people who can choose anonymity.

Some of the writers have an online presence, either blogs or web columns. But books retain an importance. Unlike books, the Internet, notes Syed Ahmad, doesn’t offer any real income.

Whatever the future holds, Sayuti, Yahaya and Syed Hussein are the last of their kind: Writers producing new titles every year.

No major figure from the younger generation has come up to replace them, though Syed Hussein begs to differ.

He says he has groomed two — Norzah Kepol and Raihan Sulaiman, daughter of the late Umno stalwart Sulaiman Palestin — to continue the tradition.