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Book vendors say they must publish or perish

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Small-time booksellers in O'Russei market find themselves forced to act as their own publishers to meet growing demand for rare or copyrighted texts

Photo by: Eleanor Ainge Roy

Kim Eng, an employee at Buntheang's book shop in O'Russei market completes a sale.

PRINTING HOUSES UNCONCERNED

Large printing houses in Phnom Penh say they are unconcerned about the capital's cottage publishing industry, explaining that it operates on such a small scale that it cannot pose a threat to their profits. "It is their right to publish if they want to," said Meng Heang, president of the Phnom Penh Printing House.

"They account for only a very small percentage of the market," he said, adding that the real competition in the commercial printing business came from printers operated by international agencies, which are favoured because their quality is much better than what is available at local print houses.

BUNTHEANG thumbs through a newly printed copy of the popular book, Khmer Literature and Grammar.

The pages, made of thin paper, are crudely printed, their text often skewing into the unevenly cut margins and bound with what appears to be a coarsely glued strip of vinyl holding in place a photocopied jacket.

But the 21-year-old appears happy with this creation, his shop's most recent that has proven immensely popular with students his own age.

Buntheang, who did not give his family name, is one of the booksellers at O'Russei market, the centre of a growing do-it-yourself publishing industry that is catering to an increasing demand for a wide variety of books, from Korean romances to English conversational primers and even instructional parenting pamphlets like How to Raise Your Child With a Brain.

Many of these books are out of print, or published in a foreign language.

Some, like the best-selling English Headway, Third Edition, cannot legally be reproduced, Buntheang says.

But there are ways of skirting the legalities of the publishing world, he says with a grin.

"We print something similar ourselves."

At the heart of the business are a legion of translators - mostly teachers - who like medieval scribes painstakingly reproduce those books that vendors hope will become top sellers.

"We pay teachers to produce similar editions when we gauge that the demand is there," says Buntheang, an graduate in the Royal University of Law and Economics management program.

But this is not cheap, he says.

"We must pay these teachers a lot of money - US$100 to $200 for each book," he explains.

"But then we have exclusive rights and can charge between $1.50 and $2.00 a book," he says - a high sum when pulp novellas and morality tales can be bought for a couple of thousand riels.

Stacked high around him in his large, ordered shop in O'Russei market are books on a vast array of topics - a private library where Buntheang says he learns something new every day about the world around him.

Others, too, appear hungry for the same knowledge. On Sundays, customers crowd the O'russei book stalls, snapping up reprints of old Cambodian novels and comics.

Others are fans of obscure Cambodian authors whose commissioned works can be sold quickly and cheaply by vendors hoping to turn a profit through volume sales.

But Buntheang says his customer are a bit more discerning, choosing instead translations of English-language novels, although dictionaries and language instruction texts are the most popular.

"About 10 percent of the books in my shop are created by me and my father," he says.

"It is good business, and if we didn't print them this way people who buy my books now wouldn't be able to afford them."

IF WE DIDN'T PRINT THEM THIS WAY PEOPLE ... WOULDN'T BE ABLE TO AFFORD THEM.

Lost industry
In 1974, Hong Them, deputy director of the National Institute of Khmerization, estimated that there were about 100 book publishers and printers in Cambodia.

At the time, this was a fairly sophisticated sector, he said, with printing presses provided by the then-Soviet Union and operated by French-trained technicians.

But in the apocalypse that engulfed Cambodia a year later, as many as three-quarters of these are thought to have been either killed by the Khmer Rouge or fled the country. By the time the regime, which targeted especially the intellectual classes for extermination, was overthrown in 1979, Cambodia's once-vibrant publishing industry had ceased to exist.

Nearly 30 years on, the Kingdom's publishing industry is still in shambles. Four years ago, some 80 percent of Cambodia's youth were literate and this figure was on the rise, according to a 2004 Unesco study.

But access to reading materials was still minimal, with libraries often understocked or  disorganised and most Cambodians unwilling to spend more than a few thousand riels on a book.

Two years later, the industry was characterised as "poor", according to the "Publishing in Cambodia" study  undertaken by the Publishing in Cambodia Project, which found that obstacles such as a lack of manpower, the high costs of raw materials and printing presses dating back to the 1940s largely kept books out of the mainstream.

A lack of independent publishers also hobbled the sector, stifling creativity and limiting the breadth of titles available to Cambodian readers.

According to the survey, the most lively corner of Cambodia's publishing was, and remains, the small booksellers such as Buntheang, who by employing translators can cater directly to the needs of the market.

"This is publishing of a rudimentary form, but one of the most active and ... visible segments of the Cambodian publishing sector," the study said.

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