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Advertise on the Tentacle

September 15, 2010

Writing a Book Now Comes the Hard Part

Tom McLaughlin

Kuching, Malaysian Borneo –I wrote a book and published myself. They delivered them here recently. And they are beautiful.


At first, I was going to write a scholarly tome complete with footnotes and a huge bibliography. There are three libraries here in Kuching, two within walking distance and they contain a wealth of information. I could have interviewed headmen about their lives and annotated the book with colonial literature. But that would have taken years.


My next thought was to scribe about the orangutans, proboscis monkeys and other critters that live here. But, I went to the bookstore and found there were already books about those creatures, many authored by those more qualified than myself.


Then I realized I already had the book. They were embodied in the columns that I had written for this website, I decided I would select the ones that pertained to my life in these islands.


But, I thought, who would buy a book that was just a collection of columns? How could I make the book different?


I thought about illustrating the book with pictures. I had taken thousands on my travels; but those just showed static snapshots of a point in time and no action. Besides, printing them would be prohibitively expensive and raise the cost of the book. It would be way out of budget for local people here.


Then, I saw Niki, an artist who sketches portraits of tourists who stroll along the Kuching waterfront next to the Sarawak River. I wondered if we could collaborate in producing a book. Niki, unfortunately, did not speak the National Malay language that I am versed in. He only communicated in the local dialect. Forget English.


Using my wife as an interpreter, I proposed my project to him and asked him if he wanted to try to illustrate it. He said he would. Sitting around the dining room table, I communicated in English and Malay what I wanted for one particular column to my wife and then she translated into the Sarawak Malay. It took us about 45 minutes of back and forth exchange to communicate across cultural boundaries.


The sketch he returned with was more than I ever expected. Over several months, conversing in English and the national language to Sarawak Malay we illustrated each story which showed the essence of the column.


As many of us who write, we do tend to have an ego and I am no different. However, I am not that centric to believe I am a great writer, up there with Conrad or Hemmingway. I am very far from those giants of the feather. I needed an editor. The next question was English English or American English.


After a couple of false starts, I settled into working relationship with Freya Martin, the wife of a teacher at a private school here in Kuching. She is an editor by trade, usually for Ph.D dissertations. I settled on English English because very few Americans visit here and I didn’t think, despite my marketing statements to the contrary, that I would sell many books in the states. She worked to shape and mold the columns into cohesive units correcting my mistakes.


Now, how was I going to sell the book? I knew that it would take many months to find an agent and then a publisher. Even then I would only make 12%-15% of the cover price. It would take years to get a return on my work and investment.


Everybody screamed at me AMAZON.COM! I had a look. They would take 55% off the cover price. When you included that plus the postage, I would lose money. “You have to have a presence on the holy book site” people kept telling me. Okay. I tripled the price of the book and am now on Amazon.



I realized I had to find another way to peddle the books. I read everything I could and decided to hire an Internet marketing firm and to find someone to build a proper web site. Yes, I could have tried to do all this myself as some recommended; but I did not know all the ins and outs and to be frank, I was heading to North America for six weeks and then our baby would be born after I returned. Besides, I was at the bottom of the learning curve.


I emailed a lady who spoke at a writer’s conference I had attended in Las Vegas. She wanted a phone interview first to make sure I had a viable project and not just throwing together a book of no consequence. Besides, who would believe a guy living in Borneo wanted to hire her?


I informed her this was not a book written by a menopausal old male securing his legacy in life, but one that attempts to transmit my love for the people of Sarawak and tropical Asia. I told her to read the columns on to see if she may be interested.


She emailed me back and stated I have a viable project. I sent her a few of the sketches and she became more excited. She then went on in Internet jargon that I didn’t understand and barely do now. Something about inbound marketing. I threw the dice; after all, I did meet her in Las Vegas, and took the gamble with her.


The next step was building a web site. If I was going to be serious, I was going to have one designed for me. I could cobble one together but I felt I wanted to employ the state of the art technology. My marketer had a friend and I gave her free reign on building it.


Distribution was the next problem. Books would have to be mailed from here in Borneo to world-wide points. How was I going to do that? American, Canadian and British companies all attested to the reliability of the Malaysian mail system. The problem was it was going to take two weeks to a month to arrive in the states.


Now I decided I needed a further incentive to entice people to buy the book and to wait for it to arrive. I devised a two-tier system where they could have the book sent by expensive UPS (they are just opening up here) and receive the book in a couple of days, or I would lower the postage price and include a free gift. But, they would have to wait.


Hmmm. What free gift, I wondered. Bookmark? Postcard? Pen or pencil with Borneo Tom on the side? A hat?


I had always loved the designs of the natives who crafted muted jungle colors on woven cloth. I also wanted something practical that could be used by both men and women. I looked throughout town at various items. My answer was the sling bag that could hold a wallet, keys and other items.


My wife, Suriani, took over. She took me to a crafts person who agreed to produce 500 of these at a nominal cost. Each was hand sewn to a design my wife specified. I was leery. What cheap piece of junk was she talking about? I had her produce a couple for my evaluation. They are attractive, practical and perfect for what I had in mind. And, the only place you can get one is if you buy my book or fly here.


I wanted to be able to give something back to the people of Sarawak. I decided I would have part of the proceeds benefit Matang Wildlife Center where orangutans and other endangered species are rehabbed and returned to the wild. I have friends there and have spent time observing their work with critically endangered species.


I asked what they needed and was informed they could use trip cameras to photograph animals in very remote areas. These pictures would assure them that orangs they had not seen in a long while are still around and the photos would give a general idea of their health. They also provided another important function and that is to photograph poachers and illegal loggers to be turned over to the police.


To demonstrate my sincerity, I have purchased five trip cameras and will donate them to the Matang Wildlife Center under the name “Borneo Tom.”


The next project is to build a platform deep in the jungle as a place for scientists and forest rangers to spend the night and use as a base. I will collect the funds as we sell books. I will go to the lumber yard and negotiate the lowest price possible. Then, I will send in my Malay wife who will negotiate the price down even further than I could.


The lumber, harvested from tree farms, will be delivered and I will count each board. Then park personnel will transport the pieces over land and build it in a designated area, much like a tree fort. Invoices will be posted on my web site to show exactly where the money is going and that it is not being used to pay for my condo or trips back to the states.


I am really proud of my book and the sling bag that will accompany it. I am also proud that I can contribute something back to help ensure the survival of orangutans; for what would the world be like without them? And, I will know that every dollar, pound, euro or other currency will be invested directly to the project.


To purchase the book and sling bag and to see my expensive new web site please go to, buy the book and thank you.


Yellow Cab
The Morning News Express with Bob Miller
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