You guys ever read a book or watched a movie and got so obsessed that you wished you could live in that make-believe world forever?
Well, meet Tao Wong, a Canadian author of fantasy novels who lives and breathes his own make-believe worlds.
But Tao doesn’t just write your everyday fantasy stories, he specialises in LitRPG and xianxia— and yes, that’s the same Cdrama xianxia you’re thinking of, the one with the long-haired protagonists in flowy robes who fly from mountain to mountain.
LitRPG, on the other hand, is a little trickier to explain. Imagine playing a video game where you get to role-play as a character and complete all sorts of quests. Now imagine that in written form with those gaming elements included, like in this excerpt below:
It can sound a little confusing at first, but you’d be surprised to know there’s actually a pretty big interest in these genres, which is largely known by its umbrella term ‘progression fantasy’. In fact, Tao, who originally hails from Petaling Jaya, started out as a reader himself… except, he didn’t really like what he was reading.
Tao was annoyed most books would gloss over the ‘boring’ martial arts stuff he loved
Back when he was younger, Tao actually took up Tai Chi, and he had a really great teacher who taught him not just the movements but also the philosophical and practical aspects of martial arts. He actually loved it so much that he went on to learn 8 more disciplines, including karate and krav maga.
But with the novels he was reading, he noticed that all the hype was on the fights, and there was nothing on the essence of martial arts itself.
“I see in a lot of fight scenes, people don’t talk about the adrenaline crash, like crying and shaking hands, and there’s very little discussion about how you deal with these stuff up here (mentally), because no matter how great a hero you are, you’re still affected by it.”
And because he didn’t like what he was reading, Tao began writing his own stuff. Which is how one of his most famous series, A Thousand Li, was born.
Although this was technically his second book, Tao really hit his stride when A Thousand Li hit the market, and he began exploring other fantasy genres.
Tao’s repertoire ranges from apocalyptic fantasy to… cooking fantasy
At heart, Tao’s an anime nerd, but he also loves history and food and martial arts and almost all his books reflect those interests. In fact, his latest book, Nameless Restaurant, is something he describes as a cosy cooking fantasy, which is a big step away from his earlier works like A Thousand Li and System Apocalypse, both of which are very action and adventure heavy.
Reading is actually Tao’s biggest source of inspiration, and he does it not only to nurture his interests, but also to keep writing.
“As an author, a lot of my job is reading. You need to consume stuff, whether it’s media, history or whatever you know, you need to be consuming and doing things to get the flow going.”
And once he starts on a story, Tao can write up to 2000 words a day. Typically, he sets aside afternoons and nights for his writing sessions, and when he’s stuck on one of his stories, he’ll just switch over to another. This means that at any given time, he’ll be managing about 2 to 3 projects at once! Now we call that a multitasking kween, but Tao jokingly says it’s because he has a squirrel brain 😂
Well, with his work ethic, it’s probably no surprise that Tao has managed to pen over 40 books in his career. And with all those books he’s selling, you guys are probably curious about that million dollar question (hint: it is a million dollar question)… how much does Tao earn?
Tao makes about RM2 million a year from selling his books online
One word : 🤯
And here’s where it gets even more interesting– Tao is totally self-published! So he writes his books, throws them up on Amazon and lets the internet do its thing. Traditional publishing works differently (which you can read about here), but essentially, Tao has no deadlines, demands or any other finicky constraints to deal with– so he’s basically free to do as he wishes. And if that means publishing a whopping 20 books in a single year, then that’s exactly what he’ll do!
“I naturally suit being an independent publisher because I write fast, I edit fast and I can publish fast. If I had to wait, like in traditional publishing, where they give you a $50,000 advance to write a book but you publish only one book a year, I would be in a lot of trouble.”
But you know, Tao’s first book came out in 2017, about 6 years ago. And believe it or not, he had no writing experience prior to that at all. In fact…
Tao used to run his own business selling board games, comics and other merch
Like most other Malaysian Chinese, Tao had a pretty traditional education, graduating with degrees in Business and Accounting. He later pursued a masters in Marketing, then relocated to Canada where he started a business called Starlit Citadel selling stuff like board games, comics, novels and other merch.
But he noticed that his books were steadily doing better than his business, so he eventually switched to writing full-time. And during this rollercoaster journey of migrating, starting a business and transitioning into writing, Tao’s family has been pretty supportive throughout, at least by Asian standards. While his dad has mostly given up on him, his sister and brother have both read his books.
“My dad had given up on me by then, I mean, I ran a game store. But my sister and second brother have read some books. They’re a typical Chinese family. There’s no amazing praise or anything… I mean, they’ve been okay with it. Meh.”
Though Tao admits it gets a bit embarrassing at times when his family reads his stuff, it’s all just part and parcel of his job. And on that note…
Malaysians looking to make a career out of writing should consider self-publishing
In a saturated market, the key is to stand out. And Tao believes that because he was living in Canada– which influenced the setting of some of his stories– his books were unique enough to interest readers.
But when it comes to the business side of things, like the actual selling and marketing of books, Tao thinks it’s a level-playing field since everyone gets the same opportunities online. And because of that, he encourages young writers to just go for it.
“If I were a budding writer, I would definitely consider being an independent author and leverage on the online world. Everything is just easier, there’s no gatekeepers like agents or publishers.”