How to propel a book to bestseller status

James Gomez

The Malaysia Insider

Once a Jolly Hangman: Singapore Justice in the Docks” is about to become Malaysia’s Strategic Information and Research Development Centre’s (SIRD) bestseller to date.

The book has seen four print runs of 2,000, 1,000, 1,000 and 2,000 in just five months, totalling 6,000 copies with over 5,500 copies already sold.

If the British author of “Once a Jolly Hangman”, Alan Shadrake, had not been arrested, prevented from leaving Singapore, prosecuted for contempt of court and investigated for criminal defamation, the book at best might have sold only 1,500 copies over a full year, said Chong Ton Sin, the face of the Malaysian book distributing company and publishing imprint SIRD.

From October 18-20, Shadrake faced contempt of court proceedings over charges of scandalising the Singapore judiciary. Judgment is due on October 26. Meanwhile, Shadrake is being separately investigated by the Singapore police for criminal defamation, an offence which carries a maximum two-year jail term and fine.

With such scandalous news, Chong is expecting that the book by the end of 12 calendar months will easily surpass 8,000 copies and outdo a previous SIRD Malaysian title which sold 7,000 copies.

According to Chong, before Shadrake’s arrest, not many people knew about issues surrounding the mandatory death penalty. Thus interest in the book would have been nothing like present sales if not for the legal prosecution of the author.

Ever since the book was removed from Singapore bookshops and its author arrested, sales of Shadrake’s book have been fast and furious with the bulk being sold in bookshops in Johor Baru.

The book was first launched on June 26 in Kuala Lumpur and later on July 17 in Singapore where the author was promptly arrested the next day.

Chong, who was in Singapore together with author at the book launch, left Singapore the next day on the 11am bus back to Kuala Lumpur. He was unaware that Shadrake had been arrested until he reached Kuala Lumpur later that afternoon.

Ten days before Shadrake’s arrest, Singapore’s de facto censor, the Media Development Authority, sent letters of warning to the book’s local distributor as well as retailer Kinokuniya who both withdrew the books from distribution and sales respectively.

K. Gunavathay, on behalf of the Controller of Undesirable Publications, wrote on July 7 to the local distributor: “Due to the book’s content, you are advised to consult your lawyers on the import and distribution of the book to ensure that the content of the book does not contravene Singapore’s laws.”

“Once a Jolly Hangman” features exclusive interviews with chief hangman Darshan Singh and researched stories of high-profile death penalty case studies which question Singapore’s death penalty system.

This is not SIRD’s first Singapore publication. It has also published other Singapore-focused publications such as “The Fajar Generation: The University Socialist Club and the Politics of Postwar Malaysia and Singapore”. The print run for this book was 1,800 softcover copies and 200 hardcover copies, of which a total of 1,600 copies have been sold to date.

SIRD also lent its imprint to a Singapore-based publisher to bring out Teo Soh Lung’s “Beyond The Blue Gate: Recollections of a Political Prisoner”. Two thousand copies of Teo’s book were printed of which 300 (150 sold to date) are being distributed by Gerakbudaya in Malaysia. Most of the remaining 1,700 copies, according to Chong, have been nearly sold out in Singapore.

“Beyond the Blue Gate: Recollections of a Political Prisoner” will be launched in Kuala Lumpur on October 27 at 7.30pm at the Selangor Chinese Assembly Hall in Jalan Maharajalela. It will be launched together with the third edition of “445 Days under the ISA” by Dr Kua Kia Soong who was arrested under Operation Lalang on October 27, 1987.

Meanwhile, Shadrake has his sights set higher. He is looking to see if he can get a book deal with an international publisher so that his book can go global and put Singapore’s death penalty controversy further on the world’s map.

Whatever the outcome of his contempt of court trial and ongoing investigations into criminal defamation, we can certainly expect a long postscript to “Once a Jolly Hangman: Singapore Justice in the Docks” — a bestseller by any standards.

Dr James Gomez is active in academia, civil society and politics. He is presently Deputy Associate Dean (International) and Head of Public Relations at Monash University, Australia.


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