Live From Thailand
Publishing is never easy. You feel like an outsider. And being an American in Bangkok, you are.
This is bestselling author Jake Needham’s story in his own words. They say persistence pays. Persistence also gives the last laugh…hundreds of thousands of copies later.
Here’s Jake’s story Live from Bangkok.
Some Notes On A Long Strange Journey
By Jake Needham
In a review of one of my crime novels a few years ago, the Bangkok Post said this:
“Needham may be the best known American novelist almost no one in America has ever heard of.”
The Post meant it as a compliment, at least I think they did, and there are days on which I can see the humor in their observation. Really, there are. But on other days…well, maybe not so much.
What the Post was referring to, of course, was the oddity that my books were being published in Asia and widely read there when they had never been published in the United States. Worse, at least from my point of view, my books were only being sold in a few countries in Asia and in Europe, and not anywhere else. In spite of my first crime novel selling well over a hundred thousand copies in the handful of countries where it was distributed, not one copy of it or one copy of any of my seven subsequent books has ever been on the shelves of any bookseller in the United States or Canada.
Strange, huh? Take a seat and let me tell you how all that came about…
Once upon a time I wrote a few screenplays, mostly for the sort of uninspired movies cable television loved broadcasting back in the 80’s and 90’s. Occasionally, but not always, I even got credit for them, but at least I always got paid. After a few years, I realized that the movie and television business wasn’t really for me. To tell the truth, I don’t think the movie and television business is for anyone who sees himself as a grown up, but that’s a story for another day.
Anyway, as an escape from writing screenplays, I decided to see if I could figure out how to write a novel. I had always been intrigued by the fall of Saigon in 1975 and I had wondered more than once what had happened to all the currency and gold reserves held in the city’s banks when the North Vietnamese army suddenly rolled into town. I imagined a CIA operation to ship it all to safety and hide it somewhere in Southeast Asia, and from that idea my first novel, The Big Mango, just sort of wrote itself.
When I finished The Big Mango, I carefully composed letters to a list of literary agents whose names I had found in a directory I bought at Barnes & Noble and pitched it to them. Several agents asked to read my manuscript, but then that raised another problem. We were living in Bangkok at the time and we’re talking the 90s here, so forget electronic submission. Can you imagine what it cost to mail six copies of a four-hundred-page printed manuscript from Bangkok to New York? Don’t ask. Just don’t ask.
Anyway, I figured all that postage had turned into a pretty good investment when the legendary Perry Knowlton, the founder of Curtis Brown Ltd, asked to represent me. As it turned out, I was being wildly optimistic. Perry tried for nearly a year, but even an agent as respected as he was could never interest a single American publisher in my novel. It’s just too foreign, New York editors mostly said, and Americans don’t want to read foreign-set novels. Particularly not when they’re set in Asia. Bad memories of Vietnam and all that, don’t you see?
I was less disappointed than you might expect since I really wasn’t all that emotionally invested in the idea of becoming a novelist. Still, naturally I did want to see The Big Mango published somewhere so I gave the manuscript to a small Bangkok-based company that back then was the only English-language publisher in East Asia. They were quite happy to have it because of the story’s roots in the region and they published it almost immediately.
Helped along by the chain of Southeast Asian bookstores the company owned and the near monopoly they enjoyed over the distribution of English-language books in the region, they sold over a hundred thousand copies of The Big Mango within a couple of years in spite of the book’s distribution being limited to a handful of countries where hardly anyone spoke English (but where there were a ton of tourists and business travelers every year who certainly did).
I suspect my publishers were very pleasantly surprised at the book’s success. I certainly was. And that was when I decided I had better start taking this novel writing thing seriously.
After The Big Mango had made its splash, I published four more crime novels over the next five years, but each of them turned out to be with a different publisher. In quick succession I had two publishers in Hong Kong where I published Laundry Man and Killing Plato, one in Singapore where I published The Ambassador’s Wife, and one in the UK where I published A World of Trouble that was acquired by a Singaporean media group barely a month after I signed with them. Try as I might, I just couldn’t get away from Asian publishers.
I didn’t change publishers that often because I was disloyal or indecisive or certainly not greedy. It was simply that each of my publishing relationships quickly became too difficult to survive more than one book. Each was difficult in a slightly different way, of course, but the core issue was the always exactly same. Asian publishers wanted my books because I had a reputation for writing books that sold well, something that very few of their books did, but there were inevitably strong undercurrents of resentment over having to publish a white guy in order to sell books.
Asia cultures are ethnocentric to a degree most Americans have difficulty appreciating. If you’re a visitor, Asia cultures can seem welcoming, even friendly. But if you live there and you’re the wrong ethnicity, it’s made very plain every day that you’re not wanted. Now don’t misunderstand me. The problem wasn’t that I was an American. The problem was that in Thailand I wasn’t Thai, in Hong Kong I wasn’t Chinese, and in Singapore I wasn’t Singaporean.
Because I was an outsider, most editors at my publishers didn’t want to work with me, most PR people didn’t want to promote me, and most sales people certainly didn’t want to sell me. In spite of everybody dragging their feet, however, I got a lot of good press and consistently favorable reviews from most of the major media outlets in the region, and tourists and foreign residents bought a ton of my books…when they could find them.
After publishing five books in environments that ranged from unhappy to down right antagonistic, I’d had enough. I terminated my last print publishing deal and starting bringing out my own titles as e-books. I’ve since published three new books that way – The Umbrella Man, The Dead American, and The King of Macau –and I was also able to bring out all five of my older titles as e-books since I’d hung onto the digital rights to all my titles throughout the publishing deals I had done up until then.
I didn’t take the considerable step of terminating my print licenses simply because of the unhappy experiences I’d had with my publishers in Asia, but far more importantly because of the limited distribution my books were getting. Some of my titles had been published in translation, but the core of my readership was primarily native English-speakers who had either lived in Asia or discovered my books when they were visiting there, and I constantly received emails from people complaining that they couldn’t find copies of my books after they left Asia.
A few titles were sold in the UK and in English-language bookstores in Europe, but not all of them, and not a single title had ever graced the shelves of any bookseller in the United States, Canada, or Australia. Foreign publishers have great difficulty competing with the local players in those markets, so mostly they don’t even try.
E-books have changed all that for me. I no longer get those emails complaining that people can’t find my titles. Now anyone can buy any title of mine in any country at any time of the day or night.
And you want to know in which country I now sell the most copies of my e-books, thousands of them every month? The United States, of course. The very place where my agent was told by nearly everybody in publishing fifteen years ago that no one wanted to read foreign-set books.
Perry Knowlton died in 2007. But I can absolutely swear that somewhere out there I can hear him laughing.
Jake Needham is the author of eight contemporary crime novels set in Singapore, Hong Kong, and Bangkok. Called “Michael Connelly with steamed rice” by the Bangkok Post, and “Asia’s most stylish and atmospheric writer of crime fiction” by the Singapore Straits Times, his books have sold hundreds of thousands of copies in those Asian and European countries where they have been available. You can learn more about Jake and his books at his website: www.JakeNeedham.com.
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