How many books did you buy for school this year? How about books to read in your free time? If the answer to both these questions is zero, you are among the majority of Cambodia’s population. Add the fact that many of the books that are sold are pirated copies, and it is easy to see why the Cambodian book industry is struggling.
Due to the internet and money-making measures taken by teachers, students are not even buying books for school. Although computers and the internet are still available to only a small segment of Cambodia’s population, it is the same educated population who might otherwise buy books, making the technology trend particularly threatening to the book industry.
“In the past, students bought general academic books that were key to assisting their studies, but now they often prefer to buy worksheets designed by their teachers,” said a teacher at Toul Svay Prey High school who asked not to be named. “The main cause of this problem is the culture of allowing students to cheat during the exams so they need nothing more than their teacher’s worksheet.”
“Only certain types of books, such as history, law, and novels are in demand among students,” said You Samrong, a book wholesaler at O’russey market and other markets. “Cambodians tend to be interested in Khmer history and laws, especially corruption law, and young people like reading novels written by Moa Samnang.” Besides the demand for Cambodian novelists, there is also a high demand for Korean novels translated into Khmer, particularly among young women.
Limited demand has made a big impact on the book industry. “Book selling can only support my living from day to day,” said You Samrong, who added that the downturn in the book industry has led to a precipitous fall in writers and publishers willing to invest their time and money in books. According to experts, Cambodia has the human resources to produce good books, people simply are not motivated to do so.
You Sophea, who has been writing Khmer novels targetting youth for the past 10 years, is one of the rare Cambodian writers who has achieved some level of commercial success. “Most of youths nowadays tend to read Korean novels,” she said. “So we, as authors, should try to attract them to read novels written by Cambodians.” She suggested extensive research on today’s society, writing in an accessible and interesting writing way writing books with deep meaning, good taste and imagination.
According to Toch Kimseang, director of the Association for Supporting Khmer Literature and Culture, finding capable writers is not the problem. “There are many writers, but they aren’t inspired to write because sooner or later their books will be copied and sold,” he said.
In response to this problem, SASTRA Publishing House developed an innovative marketing strategy to reduce illegal book copying by using donor money to sell original books, written by Khmer writers, for less than a copied version. “We provide books to the sellers and let them sell it at an affordable price which benefits them more than selling a copied book,” said Kheng Pythou Kethya, publisher of SASTRA.
The future of the book business is difficult to predict, according to Kheng Pythou Kethya, since copyright laws have never been successfully enforced. Moreover, Cambodia’s readership is particularly low compared with the West. Perhaps as the Kingdom becomes better educated, the hunger for books will grow as well. It is up to today’s youth to decide if there will be great Cambodian writers tomorrow.