Founded by Khoo Salma Nasution and her husband Abdur-Razzaq Lubis, Areca Books, an independent publisher cum bookstore, set up shop in 2005. The publishing house has over 40 titles focusing on social history, biographies, cultural heritage, architecture, the environment and visual arts to its name.
“We are very interested in the subject of Malaysiana. Our cultural diversity has been sadly reduced to a trichotomy of Malay, Indian and Chinese, but our social history is much more nuanced than that; peoples’ identities tend to overlap. So, this is one of the key areas in which Areca Books is actively involved in,” says Khoo.
“Also, both my husband and I are writers, but the topics we write about are sometimes too specialised for a regional publisher.” She cites The Chulia in Penang: Patronage and Place-Making around the Kapitan Kling Mosque 1786-1957 and Sutan Puasa, Founder of Kuala Lumpur as examples. “These are some of the books that we spent a lot of time developing, and this is where Areca steps in as a publishing platform.”
Development, Khoo explains, requires supporting the publications with an added layer of informed research. “It is typically tied to local knowledge as some of our books are very location-centric. The first book we published was Penang Trams, Trolleybuses and Railways by Ric Francis and Colin Ganley. Francis is knowledgeable about the history of Penang’s transportation, but we helped the book by providing photos and cross-checking local facts. These foreign writers may be experts in their field, but when it comes to local context, they can sometimes get it wrong. This is where we come in; and if we know of information that adds more relevance to the book, we will propose the material for the writer to consider incorporating.”
It is difficult for Malaysian publishers to penetrate the international market, says Khoo. “The big distributors are all based in Singapore, not KL, but readers can still buy our books online. Our next project will also be our first fiction titled Beyond The Sea. It is a translation of a Tamil novel by P. Singaram set in 1940s Penang, and is currently being crowdfunded on MyStartr for electronic publishing.” — Regina Hoo
This article was first published in Penang Monthly, Issue 11.18 (Nov 2018)