Oyez!Books founder Linda Tan has a sweet story about how she came up with the name for the children’s book publishing company she founded in 2008. “The books I read as a child were all from England, and one of my favourite stories was a medieval fairytale. On either side of the pages, there were courtiers making an announcement, and the text said ‘oyez!’ and I thought that would be appropriate because I was announcing the arrival of this new brand,” she explains, smiling.
A publishing house specialising in children’s books that highlight local heritage, Oyez!Books emphasises the art of picture books along with well-written stories that encourage reading. A fan of both literature and art, Tan’s idea was to establish a children’s book company that told local stories and that were beautifully illustrated — a move that would most importantly ensure that children have access to tales of their own land, while also raising the profile of Malaysian writers and artists.
Oyez!Books’ roster of books tells a predominantly English-speaking audience about Puteri Gunung Ledang and other magical princesses of Malaya and Borneo, exotic tales from East Malaysia and lilting stories of life in the kampung narrated by pigtailed little girls who daydream in their mother’s garden. A number of Oyez!Books’ titles have also been translated into German and Korean for international audiences.
Tan has many years of experience in publishing — legal books, mostly — and after her husband passed away, decided to indulge her love for children’s titles instead. She sought inspiration and direction at book fairs all over the world and found it in Italy.
“I had already realised a vacuum in this space, as the local children’s book market tends to be dominated by Western books with Western stories and pictures,” Tan says. “Malaysian stories were hardly being told, and rarely with a focus on illustrations. When I saw the quality of the books at the Bologna Book Fair — the illustrations, the storytelling and the level of production — I realised we had the same skill set in Malaysia, [it was] just that no one was tapping into it. That was where the plan for Oyez! really came to be.”
Serendipitously, she was about to leave for Italy when retired consultant Peter Duke walked into the small second-hand bookstore she was running at her condominium premises — they became friends, and he signed up as her first writer and eventual business partner. “I knew nothing about children’s books and now, I’ve written more than 100,” he quips good-naturedly.
Originally from London but presently based in both KL and Singapore, Duke maintains that the Oyez!Books creative spirit comes purely from Tan — “even if I have written a thing or two for her,” he jokes again — and provides support in terms of running the business. For example, he is in charge of maintaining a relationship with government-linked investment arm MyCreative Ventures, whose loan in 2016 allowed Oyez!Books to greatly expand its arsenal of titles and grow its reach. “Thanks to them, we managed to publish 52 books last year,” marvels Tan.
Shopping around for local writers and illustrators was not as difficult as she anticipated — after Duke’s first batch of books, Oyez!Books got a lot of attention. “Clearly, there were plenty of people wanting to write and illustrate; it’s just that there was a dearth of avenues for them,” Tan says. “Dewan Bahasa has a publishing arm, of course, but their emphasis isn’t children, and another children’s publisher, Pelangi, focuses on more educational stuff. Children’s picture books are costly to produce, so that’s why there weren’t too many outfits like ours back then.”
An important turning point for Oyez!Books was when artist Mohd Yusof Ismail, who more often goes by the name Yusof Gajah, signed on to collaborate with them. This resulted in an onslaught of other writers and illustrators who wanted to follow suit. Aside from Yusof, some of the names who have done work for Oyez!Books include Jainal Amambing, Awang Fadilah, Rossiti Aishah Rashidi, Farrah Asheila Samsuri, Emila Yusof, Peter Worthington, Khairul Azmir Shoib, Quek Sue Yian and Nur Azmi Mokhtar.
As much as the idea for Oyez!Books has taken off, this does not mean that it has been smooth sailing all this time — cash flow is a perennial issue, especially since this is a small, independent publisher playing in a big space. It innovated as much as it could by creating its own distribution channels, including its own website and working through community resellers outside the Klang Valley.
Interestingly, their target market now includes libraries. “They now constitute 40% of our bottom line because they make large orders and they pay in cash,” Duke shares. “This year, we have also been invited to place out books in the Kuching library. This business has been a good change from merely relying on booksellers and other traditional distribution channels. Schools are the next possibility; we are looking into that now.” Books published by Oyez!Books are also available on OverDrive, the Rakuten-owned digital distributor of eBooks, audiobooks and music and video titles.
The future looks bright for Oyez!Books, as Tan intends to expand its reach to overseas markets and, eventually, translate some of the illustrations in the books into merchandise. “A tote bag we made once to give away at a book fair we attended did so well, and that is something we are looking to develop in the future. Yes, we are a book publisher and book seller but our aim is also to highlight local imagery; so this is a good way to do this.”
This article first appeared on March 2, 2020 in The Edge Malaysia.