Q & A: ‘Publishing Books Isn’t Like Making Instant Noodles’by ipsintern ( )
The book publishing process can be tedious and take years, test the patience of author, editor and publisher, and involve concerns ranging from how interesting the topic is to the weight and colour of the paper used in printing the final product.
But for authors from the Mekong region, especially in countries where there are different or not much of a publishing culture as yet, there are other challenges. These include familiarising writers with developing ideas, as well as how to work with editors, so that more of their voices can be heard - and read - in the world of books.
In this interview with IPS Asia-Pacific and Imaging Our Mekong’s Johanna Son, Trasvin Jittidecharak of Mekong Press (www.mekongpress.com), a Chiang Mai-based non-profit foundation that specialises in Mekong-focused material, talks about working with authors and sharing experiences with different publishing circles in the region. Mekong Press has published 10 works from and about the region (two were in the printer’s at the time of this writing), with topics ranging from culture to water to history, but has yet to publish writing from China and a stand-alone book from Cambodia.
Mekong Press works with Silkworm Books, which created this imprint in 2005 with support from the Rockefeller Foundation, to bring the works of Mekong writers to audiences in South-east Asia and the world beyond.
Building a track record in publishing takes slow, steady work because “the book market is so conservative”, Trasvin explains in a sun-bathed room at her tastefully done office, her mini-Schauzer in tow. “With Silkworm, it took us more than 15 years to establish our brand. . . . Publishing is not a thing that money can buy, you know? You can buy a firm, yes. But to build your brand, it's not going to happen within three or four years.”
She says wants to be proud of all the books Mekong Press publishes, so “I don't want to produce it like instant noodles.”
Trasvin candidly talks about the love-hate relationship that publishers can have with writers and a commitment to avoid publishing material, especially from expatriates, that “encourages Westerners to look at women in this region as sex objects. . . Go to hell!”
Q: When you say you find a manuscript interesting, what does it mean? Is it that you look at it and from that point on, the process is that they write and you edit and back and forth until the printing stage?
A: If it is interesting, then we will say that it has potential. We ask ourselves how much work are we going to put on it to make it publishable, and then we have to evaluate if this author is capable to do the work (the whole book process). I mean if he or she wants to be a writer, you have to do some work. You just can't say, “Okay, you go and do some work and things you like, and get published under my name."
Q: When you look back at Mekong Press, what do you see?
A: In Mekong Press, our aim is to make books a real demand, a real commodity. I hate that word, but you can see all the NGOs and those Thai self-published books -- there is no demand (for them). You publish because you want to publish and no one actually cares to read it. And then people just go and say "Hey, take my book, take my book. (I) give (it as) a present." No, no, the books have to be sold, and the people who want to read them will buy them. It's not like giving away some gifts, souvenirs and forcing people to read them. If you're not interested, you’re not going to read them.
Q: What kind of writers are usually chosen by Mekong Press, and how do they get the opportunity to be published?
A: It's hard to say. People who stumble into Mekong Press do so by networking, like (being introduced) by the Rockefeller people or my authors. For Silkworm, we’ve about 300 titles, so that means I have about 300 authors or contributors. So these people get to us by word of mouth. And then, people who read our books, if they're in South-east Asian studies, they like it that this publishing house has some experience.
Most Asian people don't look in book catalogues. First actually, most publishers in Asia don’t print their own catalogues, but in the west, twice a year, publishers send out their catalogues. If they are academic press, they send them to all people in the universities, colleges. And then these people will look and say, “Which books have potential that I can use them in my class?” And they start to study this publisher and say, if they look at the University of Washington Press, they will say “Oh they’re good in Chinese studies because they have a lot of books, and scholars in China publish with them.” Or they look at Silkworm and they say, "This publishing house has a lot of South-east Asian Studies and they have some big names, that means it's trustable. It's accepted. It's good quality. . . . Then, they say, "Okay, maybe if I write something on this subject, I should approach this publisher."
But there is no such system in Thailand or in South-east Asia, not yet. Maybe in Singapore or Malaysia they have. In Laos, Cambodia, Thailand we’re stumbling through everything. Things in Vietnam disappeared for a big gap. Because of the socialist system, they like publishing books for propaganda but they have some publishing houses but of course, you have to write what they tell you or otherwise, you won’t get published. . . .
Of course, there are a lot of people who want to get published, but to some extent, those works are not publishable. A lot of students, I mean, forget about the master’s degree students, their works aren’t good enough. And if we publish, they might some little thing (book). . . and that's it.
Q: What do you tell the authors you work with about criticism?
A: I tell my authors that once you are published and the book is out, you are standing there on the hill naked and wait to be slammed. What the publisher does is we help to protect you -- we slam you first. We say, "Look, you have a loophole here, you have a loophole there. You have to fill this up, this doesn’t make sense, all sorts of things." And if we tell them that the readers give the comments, they'll still say, "no, no, no I’m sure”. Then we say okay, you’re own your own. You've been thrown into the Colosseum with the lions. And you have no chance to go around and say, "No, no, no, you got it wrong." When it's published, it's either thumbs up or thumbs down.
But if it's good enough that someone cares to even criticise you badly, it's better than nothing because they might not pick up (the books) at all and forget. That's probably the worst situation -- that you published a book and no one ever sees it in their lives.
Q: You were saying that some of the region’s authors aren’t as used to criticism. Is something new for them?
A: You have to know one thing -- English readers are more sophisticated than South-east Asian readers. If you want to do a good book, they read and critique it from the mind. South-east Asian readers are nice and polite. When they read it, they think ‘This book is (bad). They don't say it. They don't write bad or constructive reviews. In Thailand (there is) no bad review. You only praise each other . . . . We don't like confrontation. . .normally we (just) stop and avoid each other. But in Laos you have to write whatever the government likes or approves; otherwise, you can't get published anyway. Same thing in Vietnam and in China. Same thing in Burma. Cambodia is a different case, but I don't read Cambodian. . . . But, in Cambodia there's no such a word like 'editor' exist.
Q: Meaning. . . ?
A: Meaning they don't know what editors do. I talked to a group (at a workshop) that was called the 'book federation' (in Cambodia), which also includes some student volunteers. They want to publish books. And one guy told me, "I wrote 10 books and I published them." I said, "Great, congratulations." And he said, "what’s this workshop about?" So, I said, "you know it's an editorial workshop and we give information on how to improve your manuscripts, standardise them." The guy said, “What does ‘editor’ mean? What does he do?" So, an Australian volunteer helped explain the editor (function), and he said, "oh, we don't have that."
That means you write anything, you just print it. They have a printer and no publisher. This is like Thailand 50 years ago, the printer and the publisher were the same person. Whatever comes in, you print it and it goes out. . . In my early years in Silkworm, I got a lot of calls from Chiang Mai University and they said that they had manuscripts and wanted us to print them. So, I said, "I'm not a printer, go to a printer."
Our job is totally different from the printer’s. We have to think long term. So, every time we work with an author, we have to tell him or her to realise one thing because "You’re going to be stuck with me for at least seven years. You better clear everything. I show you the contract and you don't like it, you should say it now. If we can't work together for the long term, forget it." We have to be patient with each other, you know? Once we get things going, when we demand your answer (about book content), we demand your response, you have to respond. Otherwise, we can't work (together). So, this is a training process. So, it’s slow, from the beginning. . . . .
Q: So you work with publishing houses in the Mekong region?
A: There are only two, three private publishing houses in Laos, so, we worked with NGOs (there) who publish too. In that workshop (we did in Laos), there were NGOs and these private publishers. In Cambodia, I think there would be more private publishers. But they're still a printer, not a publisher. But they should learn something so they know if they’re going to say, "I'm a publisher”. What does it mean? What is involved? What is their service?
Q: So, let’s say that I'm an author from the region. What would be the biggest obstacle I face in getting published? Is it language, or is it a knowledge of how-do-I-go –beyond-my-own-country kind of thing?
A: Language, even writing in your own language. If you can’t write it in the second language, if the first language is good – that's the core. The second is your issue -- do you have anything to say? You see, the good editors cut and trim everything down, take all the fat out, things that are not relevant. In Thai, we have the word that if you're an academic or scholar you tend to want to keep everything because it’s your work but the reader doesn’t care, so the good editors trim everything down. But then when you trim everything down, you would see something, that something is missing, and so they will say, can you add. Or when you read and if the reader doesn't have the same background as the writer, you need to explain more. You have to add (to) it.
Q: Because it's all foreign to them. They might be too close to the topic in that sense.
A: Yep. So, that's a lot of work. And the publisher has to do all sorts of things. But a publisher has to be a combination of a practical person and a creative person, a business (person) and a friend, because your author could go crazy, if you push him too much or if you are too slow.
Q: What’s the longest time that Mekong Press spent working on a book?
A: If we really work on it, it shouldn't be over two years. . . .
Q: How do you work with the editors, the rest of the team?
A: We have two in-house editors. But they are overwhelmed with work at the moment. The thing is, we’re a local publisher. If anything concerns our region, we're very careful. It has to be politically correct. It has to be right. It has to avoid some lawsuit and if it’s about politics, you have to be careful. But if the publisher is in the West, where the publishing laws of freedom and of press and expression are different, they don't know the language and they don't know anyone around here (Asia), they don't care. They wouldn't even notice the mistakes (in manuscripts). But we sort of go through and say, "Hey, this is wrong. This is about Thailand and we're sure we know better than the author,” especially if it concerns the Thai language, and terms. That takes us longer because we pay more attention.
A: Every publisher has its unwritten code of conduct. For example, one of the biggest publishing houses in Germany and actually they’re the biggest in the world, they have said, “This is an unwritten code. But we know we will never publish anything which glorifies war” because of their (historical) background. I say, "I wouldn't publish anything that encourages Westerners to look at women in this region as sex objects. I don't have to write it down. But I said no way, we’re not going to do it. Any writing, especially from expats, that make fun of Thai women . . . . Go to hell!
Q: They can go find another publisher?
A: Yeah, or they can go self-publish. This is kind of badly (done book). . . making stupid fun of us, you know? We may be stupid, but it's not for you to make fun of us. That's it. You can say that I'm biased, I'm biased. Every publisher is biased. There's no unbiased publisher, no way.
Q: How many manuscripts have been submitted to Mekong Press and of these, how many were eventually accepted?
A: Let's say if 20 (manuscripts), we have done 10. So, half and half. There were some people who submitted and were accepted, but withdrew because they could not finish.
Q: How do people get your books, through the bookstores, or here?
A: Yes, they can, but we don't advertise. We want them to go to the bookstores, so you force the trade to accept you. If the authors and other friends go to the bookstores and say, "do you have this book in the bookstore?" and if they say no, they say "can you order it for us?", you create demand. If everyone comes here, the bookstores will ignore us. We don't want that. We want them to know us, to remember us, to know who we are, know that once they order, they will get the book delivered the next day, that you can sell the book and then you make profit. Most people love direct sales, and that is the downfall of the (publishing) community, you know? Because in a community you share, you share profit, you work together, you exist in each other's lives, you are part of each other's lives. But, if you say "No, we love direct sales. We take all the profit", that's monopoly. I love people going to the bookstores. . . .I push the bookstores to stock. Sometimes I fail, sometimes I succeed. . . .
I accept that I'm a minority. I'm not a mainstream publisher. But that's why I survive because I cater to the people who know what they want, who have sophisticated readership. If I started to compete with all 700 mainstream publishers in Bangkok, I would be out of business by now because I can't produce the same kind of books they produce.
In the end, I want to be proud of the books I spent too many hours on. I can explain what this book is about, what that book is about. I can tell you anecdotes of all the little things we went through. I don't want to produce it like instant noodles, you know -- which I don't even eat. That's not fun. If you don't make profit, at least you should enjoy what you do.
Q: Good point.
A: Enjoyment is the luxury in life.
Q: Okay. . .
A: So, you got a philosopher publisher!