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The Business of selling Books in Thailand

I’ve have asked Bookazine’s Robert Pfaff a number of questions about the state of the book business in Thailand. Bookazine is one of the leading booksellers in Thailand with a chain of bookstores in Thailand. This is the first part of the Q and A. The second part will be posted tomorrow.

What is the breakdown of Thai, expat and tourists buying books at Bookazine? - I’m not sure we know the specific breakdown, and it certainly varies across the entire chain. For example, we know the splits – Thai/Farang - are closer to 50/50 throughout the 9 Bangkok stores but probably about 90% of our 8 stores outside of Bangkok cater to the farang tourists and expat markets. We have 3 stores in Pattaya, 2 on Samui, 1 on Phuket, 1 in Chiang Mai, and 1 in Hua Hin and those customers are naturally tourists. We sell predominately English-language books and magazines, but we also cater to a smaller group of Europeans looking for German, French, and Italian-language books and magazines, and there is also a growing group of Russian and Swedish-speaking customers.

Are the sales for fiction up or down over last year? - Fiction sales are down, which is really rather surprising this year in which a number of literary heavyweights published new novels. Honestly it should have been a phenomenal year for fiction, with a slew of great new books – many earning awards – from Rushdie, Ishiguro, Ian McEwan, Cormac Mccarthy, and many others. Apparently this is also true for booksellers in the US and UK markets. I just read an article in the NYTimes yesterday that confirmed sales of fiction are down in the US market. The article quotes some of the larger publishing houses in suggesting that, since the events of 9/11, readers have become more interested in works of non-fiction. That corresponds with our experiences over the last couple of years. Through the US elections we were selling large numbers of books about the US, and Bush in particular. Since the elections we’ve seen an increase sales of books about Islam, the war in Iraq, critiques of America’s use of power around the globe, etc. It’s really too bad because many of the new novels this year have been great. Salman Rushdie’s Shalimar the Clown is an amazing book crafted by a true giant of an author. Read it if you find the time.

Are your Thai customers buying English language fiction? - Yes. In the fiction category, our Thai customers are reading some of the usual suspects – Da Vinci Code, Angels and Demons, Rule of Four, and at the most recent Queen Sirikit fair we sold a large number of chick-lit type titles to Thai teenaged girls and even some older Thai women. However our Thai customers tend to spend their money with us on magazines and illustrated books, in categories such as fashion, photography, graphic arts. And watches! Illustrated books about watches are massively popular in Thailand! Of course we would love to see our Thai customer base grow, and I believe it will through time.

Is there weakness in the non-fiction book market at the moment? - As I mentioned above, works of non-fiction are selling pretty well at the moment. Not only in the current affairs and biography categories, but also even in the self-help category and trivia category. People love lists and the publishers are obliging with numerous list books such as, 1000 Places To See Before You Die, 1001 Movies To See Before You Die, 1001 Books To Read Before You Die, and on and on. They are actually pretty cool books so I suppose the publishers are simply meeting a pent-up demand for these books. Like anything else, fads come and go. Next year could see an explosion of books about code breaking Martians who have figured out what the current US government is really saying to the people. That could be revealing, if also a bit frightening.

What are the current trends for fiction sales? How is the trend similar to that in the States, England or Europe? - I can only speak for our particular niche in the market: we sell A LOT of mass-market paperback fiction. People on Samui or Phuket want to read crime and thrillers by authors such as Grisham, Andy McNab, Dan Brown, Patterson, and, hey!, CG Moore! Keep writing the crime novels, Chris! Format is also an important factor – on the beach people want light paperbacks they can stuff into a beach bag with all the other beach sundries and then sell it back to a second-hand bookseller on Khao San Road.

Do books in Thailand sell as a result of reviews, advertisement, word of mouth? - Books anywhere sell because of all of the above, although in my opinion advertising without some sort of credible or authoritative voice recommending it is least effective. Look at Da Vinci Code. It was Dan Brown’s 4th book in a run of thrillers with sales that were meager at best then poof! like magic, word of mouth picked it up and it went on to make him a very famous and wealthy author. And honestly, his books aren’t timeless works of fiction. I haven’t found that Raskolnikov character anywhere in his fiction. They’re not even the best in the genre, but all of the sudden everyone is talking about them and his backlist hits the bestseller lists. Of course, that is a very subjective opinion and I would love nothing more than for people to continue buying cartons of them at Bookazine!

What advice would you have local authors wishing to sell their books in Thailand? - Great cover art. Seriously, you might be surprised by the importance of eye-catching cover art. Spend the time and money necessary to producing art that stands out on the shelves while simultaneously attempting to project an image that speaks to the story. A summary of the story on the back cover is the next thing a customer will look for and if it’s concise, exciting and perhaps ends with an imperative to read on the book will make it to the cash register. And if you can get a one-line review blurb from a known author chances are good someone will have a go at reading what you’ve been toiling over for months, if not years. But that’s for the first book. To keep them coming back you better make sure the manuscript is ready to go or you might find yourself a one-hit wonder.

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