Author and journalist Frederic Amat, 45, moved to Cambodia from Vietnam in 1995. After his paper, French weekly Cambodge Soir, shut down in 2010, he and colleague Jerome Moreiniere set up Tuk Tuk Editions, a publishing house that focuses on producing small, travel-friendly books showing the modern face of Cambodia relevant to tourists and expats travelling the region today. He talked to Laura Walters about what he thinks people should be reading about Cambodia, and how he makes this happen.
How do you determine what to publish?
Every month we receive about two manuscripts from foreigners telling their stories of Cambodia. We have also had a few French-Cambodians send us their story under the Khmer Rouge regime. Our editorial line is about trying to focus on Cambodia outside the prism of the Khmer Rouge. This is a new place, in a new world, with interesting artists and culture. What we look for are books that show an understanding and respect for the culture. Having Microsoft Word on your computer does not make you a writer.
What is the process of publishing a book?
We have published five books since we started in 2011. When the book is being produced, it is like a baby. Most of the job involves going through manuscripts and trying to find the books we want to publish. We read through them multiple times, and then we edit, work on the cover design, and then get to printing. It can take up to six months to publish a book from first reading to when it goes out on the shelf, and nearly half of that time is taken up by the printing process. We source the paper for our books from Thailand, but the cover designs and the printing is done locally.
Your book Expatriates’ Strange Lives in Cambodia looks at expats who isolate themselves from the Cambodian people and culture. Did you intend for this to cause the controversy it has?
I am not sure that people are shocked by what I wrote. Maybe they have a different vision of Cambodia than the one I have, maybe I’ve been living here for too long. But I can tell you this is a very soft version of the real expat’s life in Cambodia. The reality is much weirder than the one I have depicted. However, the success of my book, Expatriates’ Strange Lives in Cambodia, was largely due to its reputation. What I said about expatriates not mixing with the Khmer culture was seen as controversial by some. People heard about the book and wanted to read it for themselves. They want to read for themselves how others view their lives.
What books should we expect to see from Tuk Tuk Editions in the future?
I’m also working on another book which tells the story of Cambodia from the 1990s until now. Tourists know what happened until the 1990s, but they don’t know what happened after that. For a journalist, that was a special decade and so many things took place in such a short time. The Khmer Rouge were still active in many parts of the Kingdom, roads were dangerous at night, and not because of traffic, there were almost no tourists in Angkor, Pol Pot was still Brother Number One, and the country was the “paradise” for NGOs and international organisations.
What challenges do you face as a publisher?
As soon as books are published here, they are copied. It is hard to compete with street vendors who copy our books and sell them for a lot less than they are worth. Sometimes a book which is worth $20 will be sold for $3. When you see the power people have to copy books and belittle the time and money you put into legitimately publishing pieces, you understand why there are not a lot of books published in Cambodia
Are books about Cambodia failing to find publishers?
As far as we know, publishers always think twice before they publish something. You do not make much money as a books publisher, but you can lose a lot if you put something on the market that does not interest anybody. But sometimes you can get a best-seller with a very simple idea. One of the best-selling books in Cambodia is a book with pictures of motorbikes carrying all kinds of things.
Your books are currently written in French and English, by people who are foreigners; do you plan to publish work by Khmer people, and target your books towards local people as well as expats and tourists?
A lot of books written by Cambodian people have been published overseas, and most of them are Khmers who have been living abroad for a long time. If we have the opportunity to publish a book written by Khmer we will do it, but it needs to be a fresh piece about contemporary Cambodia. My son, who is a student, wants to translate the book 100 Questions About Cambodia into Khmer, because he thinks it will interest Khmer people. If there is a Khmer publisher who is interested in doing the translation, and publishing, then we are open to it.