Dr Thant Thaw Kaung, bibliophile and bookseller
Dr Thant Thaw Kaung is the chief executive officer of Myanmar Book Centre Co., Ltd and has more than two decades’ experience in the book trade. He spoke to Mizzima Weekly’s Jessica Mudditt about the problems facing the industry and why he remains optimistic about its future.
Until pre-publication censorship was abolished in 2012 every imported book needed the approval of the Press Scrutiny and Registration Division. Many were banned. Have book sales benefitted from greater literary freedom?
Certainly. Sales are on the up. When my wife and I started our business in 1995, censorship was extremely strict, so we were so happy when the situation changed and we no longer had to obtain permission to import every single title.
Nowadays, political works which wouldn’t have seen the light of day are best sellers. There’s been an emergence of new writers, particularly in the Myanmar language, and many are the memoirs of former political prisoners. Ma Thanegi and Ma Thida come to mind, and they’re very talented writers. Just last night I read an excellent book in Myanmar by Kyaw Zwa Moe, the editor of The Irrawaddy, which is titled You Need to Apologise to the People. He recounts a wide range of fascinating interviews he carried out, including an unnamed person who attempted to assassinate the former head of Military Intelligence, Khin Nyunt, as well as monks who were imprisoned for many, many years. I hope it will be translated so that English readers can also enjoy it.
Do you think writers practice self-censorship?
No, I don’t. In fact what I would say is that things are completely different now than they were before 2010, but of course, not everyone is completely satisfied with the speed of progress. I think that some people may be expecting too much too soon, and that change needs to be gradual; Myanmar will eventually become fully democratic. Some feel that after living under oppression for so many years, now is the time to speak up, whenever they like, and sometimes in an extreme way. It’s usually in the form of personal attacks or hate speech; the former of which I read in the media and the latter, on Facebook. I think it’s a very big problem, but it’s not one I’ve found in books.
What types of books dominate Myanmar’s book trade?
If you think of it as a pie chart, books on English language teaching take the biggest chunk. Myanmar Book Centre is the official representative of the ‘big four’: Oxford University Press, MacMillan, Pearson and Sage, the titles of which we print locally. Second to that are education titles for basic and higher education; it’s quite big business here. The reason why is because there is a huge appetite to learn English; just look at the British Council, which is always full. Our society’s aptitude for English is generational; those who are over 70 speak excellent English as many attended convent or missionary schools, while those born following 1960 lived in Ne Win’s era and cannot speak English well because the language was deliberately suppressed and everything was Burmanised. The young generation, and their parents, understand the value of learning English. But the problem is that there is a lack of skilled teachers in public schools, as they come from the previous generation. It’s a big problem, but the benefits of the government’s new policy towards the teaching of English will be seen in four or five years.
Another genre that’s doing very well are English language books that relate to Myanmar, whether it be guide books, historical fiction or biographies, as well as the political works as I mentioned. This is largely driven by the recent influx of tourists.
Is there a shortage of competent translators because of past education policies?
Yes, there is most definitely a shortage of translators, which means that many talented Myanmar writers are unknown in the West, while many contemporary classics are inaccessible to Myanmar readers. There are so few reputable translators that they are overloaded and we sometimes have to wait a few months before they can take on a project.
There are also some inherent difficulties in translating Myanmar to English; the languages are totally different. Translating from Myanmar to English is more difficult, because the translator must be very good at English and be highly familiar with the subject matter. Many translators write well in English, but often their style is more like news reporting than literary.
Since setting up a publishing wing five years ago, Myanmar Book Centre has published ten books translated into Myanmar, including Dr Thant Myint-U’s River of Lost Footsteps and Where China Meets India. We’re selective about the books we choose; only titles which will work here in Myanmar in that they speak to a local audience.
Is piracy a problem?
It’s a huge problem, particularly for us, as our main line of business is in imports and distribution. In Myanmar, only books which are published locally are protected by the Copyright Law of 1914. These pirate guys are clever, they don’t bother pirating local language books because they know it’s against the law, plus the prices of such books are so cheap that it wouldn’t be profitable. I heard recently of a local publisher who published a map that was pirated by a foreign company. The local publisher tried to sue the company but he couldn’t, they simply ignored him because they know there’s no legal remedy.
Piracy is divided into two sectors: the first is books on Myanmar aimed at the tourist market and the other is English language teaching and education books. As I mentioned, education is a big industry, so our business really suffers.
We’re literally losing money every day. There’s a guy who owns his own shop and comes to Myanmar Book Centre on a daily basis to buy single copies of our best-selling education books. Then, about two weeks later, we see those titles being sold for 20 percent less than ours. There are a number of people doing this. I know them well but we can’t take action against them because there’s no law against it. It’s terrible.
Could you not refuse to sell books to this person?
There’s no point. It would be too easy for him to just send someone else and I can’t refuse a customer.
With piracy affecting profitability how does your business remain viable?
We’ve developed close relationships with many private and international schools, such as Yangon International School and Myanmar International School. These institutions strongly support original books, so we import books on their behalf. We also work hard to provide excellent customer service at the retail level, such as by providing catalogues and free samples.
I’d also say that the mentality towards piracy is changing. Of course, there are still those who just want cheap books, but many now want quality. Fortunately there is a growing middle-class who feel this way. We also work hard to offer the most reasonable prices we can. In this regard we’re very lucky, because as we’ve been in the book trade for many years, we’re fully supported by international publishers and they provide us with good discounts. We also source a lot of books from India as the prices there are very reasonable prices; we work with over 50 different publishers in India.
Will the eventual enactment of the Intellectual Property Law end piracy in the book trade?
I’m very confident in the draft law because it really supports investors and importers. It will drive our local publishing industry to new heights and it’s expected to come into effect in 2016. I have given input into the draft during regular meetings with a committee which is led by the Ministry of Science and Technology, which is involved in design and trademark aspects. The Ministry of Information is handling the copyright side.
Do you think it will be difficult to enforce the law?
Well, it will, of course, be the responsibility of the government to enforce it. But luckily for our industry, the pirating of books is done by small-scale players who own shops downtown. This is un-like the pirating of music, which is done on a mass scale and is linked to members of the military.
But when the law is passed, we will have to take action, whether we like it or not, because we are the official representative of various publishers and they will pressure us to do so. Many of the people involved in piracy are my friends. I’ve already spoken to Bagan Book House to ask them to reduce the number of pirated books. I offered to supply them with our imported books to avoid prosecution. However they didn’t really listen to me, because the law isn’t yet in force.
Are Myanmar writers and publishers familiar with contractual rights?
In general, knowledge is very low on both sides. My authors, such as Dr Thant Myint-U don’t need anything explained to them; in fact he himself secured personal copyright for each of his books, which was a very clever move.
But in the majority of cases, authors simply trust their publishers and don’t even discuss who will own the copyright, so the publisher takes everything. Nor are digital rights discussed, though they should be, because eventually e-versions will appear and the rights to them should belong to the author.
Is Myanmar ready for an e-book market?
It’s not the right time to introduce e-version of books. This is because they are already available online, free of charge. As soon as a book becomes popular or famous it is scanned and appears on one of a variety of sites in the Myanmar language. No one can take action against this, so as a business model it wouldn’t be viable. The people who are uploading scanned books aren’t doing it to make money and they don’t see any problem with ‘sharing’ free content, so a lot of education is needed to change such attitudes. The maximum number of copies of any single title published is just 1,000 because there is no demand, no market for more when a book can be downloaded for free. As a result, the writers are dying and the publishers are bleeding a lot. We cannot survive if it continues.
This Article first appeared in the May 14, 2015 edition of Mizzima Weekly.
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