Are Burmese Booksellers in Trouble?

Frontier magazine ran an interesting article on the fate of booksellers at Yangons Book Street and book-selling in general the other month.

Book Street began in January 2017 with the support of author and Minister of Information U Pe Myint, to provide an accessible and open air market for readers at the east end of the Secretariat. It runs until the opening of the monsoon, with sellers charged fees for their stalls …

Despite the initial enthusiasm for the initiative, like a lot of concepts in Yangon, the third installment has seen declining foot fall and sales, symptomatic, according to the article, of a common enemy of booksellers. The internet and the smartphone.

booksellers in the downtown area also lament that the internet and smartphones are diverting the attention of readers.

This is not a new criticism.  Blame has been lain at the door of the internet since at least 2013, when the internet penetration rate in Myanmar was barely nudging double figures.  What is interesting is the inclusion of a third barrier:

The decline in sales is mainly because of the countrys economy, Aung Soe said, alluding to a slowdown in growth since 2016 and a sharper downturn in business sentiment.

I find this curious, considering how so many writers I work with look back on previous years, before the NLD, and under the military administrations as a golden era for writing.  Certainly not in terms of freedom to write, but in the money to be made.  In the 1980s a single short story could be sold for a fee that was equivalent to a teachers monthly salary, now a short story, even in the most prestigious of literary magazines, wouldnt fetch more than 10 to 20 dollars (though perhaps this is more a reflection on the appalling salaries teachers were paid 30 years ago).

Writers seldom live off their writing.  In the past they could and yet, Myanmars economy is healthier than it once was.

So are booksellers doomed?  Will their demise be brought about by a nation turning to their phones rather than pages?

I am not so sure.

Every day, I find it incredible that a country that has lived through one of the longest and most insidious censorship apparatus known could, at the end of all that, emerge with a surprisingly healthy literary industry and eager readership.

Claudia Kaiser, from the Frankfurt Book Fair, in an illuminating article in Publishing Perspectives provides some figures on the bookselling industry here (collected by the Myanmar Publishers and Booksellers Association), listing 25 independent booksellers in the de-facto capital.  The number is given as a lament, to show the challenges facing the literary industry.

It certainly sounds dire.  25 independent booksellers (comparable numbers for London are hard to come by but in 2018, there were 886 independent bookstores in the UK).

But that is not the whole story.  As there are no share-listed bookshops in Myanmar, no local equivalents of Waterstones, Barnes and Noble, Kinokuniya, all booksellers, by default, are independent (with the exception of the State run Sarpay Beikman).  And independent, at least in the UK, usually denotes just a single shop, as no bookstore owner generally makes enough to warrant a second store.  And yet in Myanmar, with the absence of the corporate international chains, that is exactly what has happened.

Of those 25 independent booksellers, 5 of them: Myanmar Book Centre, Sarpay Lawka, Sar Pyae, TAB and Today have probably close to 35 locations between them in Yangon.  Nor do I think that figure of 25 includes second hand bookstore owners, or religious book sellers, such as the CLC, nor publishers who operate a bookshop, such as Seikku Cho Cho.

Counting all these, plus book pallet stalls, book cafes and supermarket bookshelves, there are 25 physical places (all independent) that sell books just in Kyauktada Township alone.

Bookshops in Yangon, certainly face challenges though:

Rising rental rates:  While rents are not reaching the stratospheric prices from 2013, office space is still not cheap.  I cant imagine many of the smaller shops are making their quota.

Production Price:  Ink and paper is imported, spare parts for printing presses are imported. It is costly to publish here.  In the UK, on a print run of 1000 copies it would cost about 2 USD.  For a publication of the same quality, it would cost roughly the same, in a country that is no way economically equal to the UK.

Selling Price: To recoup the cost of publishing, international standard quality books are sold at almost the daily minimum wage.  Imagine paying over 50 pounds in the UK for a standard paperback!

Increased Competition: As the article points out, there are growing outlets for literature, especially from supermarkets (though with the titles and prices I have seen on offer from City Mart, I cant imagine it is in any way a competition to booksellers here as Tescos is in the UK with their larger stock and massive, bulk discount pricing.  At least not yet).

Distribution Challenges:  There are not many bookshops outside the power centre of Yangon and Mandalay, though most state capitals (with the exception of Hakha) have at least one.  For bookshops in the states and regions their survival is much more precarious than in Yangon.  The cost of bussing the books along highways and trains, the cost of upfront payments to the publishers, every layer adds more kyat to an already expensive product.

So what can the booksellers do?

Get Creative:  Some of the larger centres, such as Sarpay Lawka and Yar Pyae are good at engaging with customers on their social media accounts but fail to exploit the very thing that sets them apart from online competitors.  The store itself.   Take the Hive bookshop in Norwich for example.  Every day the bookstore will hold events to bring the customers in.  One day the shop will be open after dark where people can come and read a book with a glass of wine.  The next day a reading event with a local author.  The day after that a cooking class combined with a sale on cookery books.  Writing workshops.  After-school activities.  Myanmar Book Centres Book Buffet is an excellent example of creative engagement, while Myay Hmone Lwin at the Myanmar Book Plaza is doing some good stuff.

Diversify:  I have never held to the belief that a bookshop should only sell books, that if they do expand they have somehow failed in their mission and to do so is gleeful proof that printed books are a dying medium.  No other industry is held to such a patronising ideal.  A mobile phone shop doesnt just sell phones, it offer cases, covers, charges, accessories, top up cards and plans.  Clarks is a well-known shoe shop in the UK.  They dont just sell shoes, but shoe protectors, polish, polish brushes, shoe horns.  The last time my wife went in one she came out with a rather nice Clark branded rucksack.  Bookshops have to diversify to survive.  Bookmarks.  Book-ends.  Branded cases and slips and bags.

State Support:  The draft copyright law needs to be ratified.  ISBN numbers need to be more than copyright symbols.  A central recording system needs to be built, where a national bestseller means exactly that and not just the book that has sold the most copies from a particular bookshop.  Myanmar Post and Telecommunications and private delivery firms need to work in tandem with bookshops to allow books to reach readers across the country which wont impoverish them.  More funding is needed.  A National Arts Portfolio, with grants to bookshops and publishers.  Since the NLD came to power there has been an 80% cut in Arts funding.  U Pe Myint, has tried, the Book Street, ethnic lit festivals, but what can he achieve with such a diminished pot of money to work with?

International Support:  Sectors have been identified as a priority by INGO and Western state backed donor agencies: Health.  Education.  Rule of Law.  Media.  None are concerned with literature.  Media development alone has benefited from several millions of dollars from over a dozen organisations and more committed in the years to come.  Literature, and Arts in general is forgotten.  Or ignored.

Bookshops in Myanmar are not doomed.  Some will go.  Others will come.  They survived 1962 to 2012.  They can survive what is coming next.