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Seven Questions: William Bagley

William Bagley, Monument Books group purchasing manager for Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar, speaks to 7Days about the market in Cambodia, piracy, how the Cambodian postal stymies competition from Amazon and the rise of Kindle and downloading competition.

What is distinct about the market for English-language books in Cambodia compared to, say, Thailand?
Most of the people who buy books in our stores are foreigners – I am constantly told that Cambodians don’t like reading. In Thailand books are popular with a significant minority of Thais. Here we sell a wider range of literary fiction and Cambodian history where the big categories in Thailand are thrillers and romance.

What are the challenges a bookstore in Cambodia faces when dealing with global publishing companies?
Shipping is very expensive and can be unreliable too. Publishers can be quite blind to the opportunities in this market and let’s not even mention the supplier who told me they didn’t have many customers in South America.

There’s also a lot of piracy here. How quickly do books get photocopied and sold, and does this have much of an effect on your sales?
The new Lonely Planet Cambodia will start popping up four to six weeks after publication – though beware, it might just be the new cover stuck onto a previous edition. Other titles can take a lot longer as they need to be successful to interest the pirates.

Monument has added a few sections over the past few years to meet demand for books about development, education as well as books about the Vietnam War. How do you anticipate emerging trends, and what’s next?
We tend to adapt to what other retailers are doing – whatever we do we make is as high quality as possible. Watch out for more educational books and toy combinations in the near future.

It’s next to impossible to find books about Cambodia that are not written by expats or Cambodian returnees. It seems like there is an entire narrative about Cambodia that remains hidden from most expats because it is not written in English. Is this because the infrastructure for publishing is underdeveloped, or a lack of translators?
Lack of infrastructure for sure, but also abuse of copyright means writers cannot earn a living and poor quality reproduction means books are not valued.

In most Western countries bookstores are shutting due to rising sales online, but Monument is thriving. How have you managed to accomplish this?
We are lucky to have few competitors and even Amazon struggles to overcome the vagaries of the Cambodian postal system – we also listen well to the customers

Do you have a strategy for competing with Kindle and online sites that allow readers to download books? Do you anticipate the digital future will be your biggest challenge?
We certainly see the e-book as an opportunity and are actively looking for the right partnership to develop a download offering. This new venture will dominate our agenda for the next year at least.

To contact the reporter on this story: Wiliam Bagley at newsroom@phnompenhpost.com

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