Online publishing offers an alternative to ink and print but Cambodia’s novelists are struggling to make a living from their work. Poppy McPherson reports.
When Mak Suong began to upload segments of his detective novels to his blog he was following in the footsteps of some of history’s most successful writers, many of whom serialised their work.
Charles Dickens did it in 19th-century Britain. Russian émigré Vladamir Nabokov did it a hundred years later and Cambodia’s own Nou Hach did it in the 1950s.
Like them, the tactic has won Suong a book deal – albeit with an online entertainment company rather than an ink and paper publisher.
The emergence of fiction online is a boon to the Kingdom’s struggling handful of professional novelists.
“The [print] publishers don’t want to publish any books for now,” Suong said in between sips of a green tea latte at a Phnom Penh coffee shop.
“For the last few years the most popular novel in Cambodia has been some kind of Korean novel – translated from Thai or Korean.
“But now the seller just says they cannot even sell that.”
Suong is a shy and serious 27-year-old who sold his first novel when he was 16. In the years that followed, he also published the first Khmer novel about a gay couple.
But, like many of his contemporaries, the author finds it hard to make a living from his writing amid rampant piracy and limited interest in reading.
Some of the most popular books on the shelves of many of the capital’s stores are badly translated self-help guides that mean far less in mangled Khmer than they do in English or Thai.
Novels are self-published by those who can afford it or else uploaded to Facebook pages and blogs.
It was after authors like Suong and singer-songwriter Sok Chanphal started to publish online that entertainment firm Sabay launched its e-novel project in December 2012.
At least 30 authors are on the company’s books, producing short stories and serialised novels of the ghost, detective and romance genres which attract up to 1,000 page views a day.
Suon Peaklika, manager of the e-novel project at Sabay, said that the idea was to promote Khmer literature and nurture talent.
“Mostly we are working with young authors and we do not care if they are professional or not,” she said.
Suong’s friend and fellow author Hang Borin was forced to self-publish his best-selling Blood from Hell in 2012 after he was unable to find a publisher.
“They asked if your books were well-known. They asked if you had experience with other publications.
“I tried again and again to get published but always refused or published but [it was] free for them.
“To be honest with you, I used to give my stories free to magazines for more than two years.”
Srey Bundong has sold books at Banteay Srei bookshop since 1986.
His business has never had a year as bad as the past one. He blames technology, as phones and iPads become more affordable for wealthier Phnom Penh residents.
“The reader is more likely to read from those things,” he said.
Comic books and notebooks are the best-sellers – not Khmer novels.
“It’s not popular for Khmer people now, because they are interested in Western books or books from other countries like Thailand,” he added.
It hasn’t always been that way.
In the decades before the communist Khmer Rouge regime seized power in 1975, Cambodian literature flourished.
Following the publication of the country’s first novel in 1930, authors wrote feverishly, many under the patronage of the late King Father Norodom Sihanouk.
“In the past time, we had great leaders like King Norodom Sihanouk, he helped and promoted all writers,” Borin explained. “Thousands of books were published in Cambodia, and writers were very famous and respected.
“Most of them were rich, and they always got prizes from the government.”
Like many within the creative community, authors were executed during the Khmer Rouge and even after the regime’s fall the literary scene struggled to recover.
The return to “year zero” quashed literature, said Kall Kann, the country manager of international NGO Room to Read, which is trying to build up literacy levels.
“If you look back to the mid -960s and until 1975, the printing industry was growing fast.
“Of course, the Khmer Rouge came and destroyed everything and for 20 years there were no books.
“Nothing was produced except text books and an entire generation didn’t learn to read.”
Kann blames the government for the failure to nurture reading in the years that followed.
“For three decades, the education system has been learning by memorising, and that’s why you’re not promoting reading.”
Another problem for authors today is widespread copyright infringement.
“The reason why the printing houses don’t want to print is because instead of commissioning they are just taking and copying and stealing,” Kann said.
All this adds to a situation that some say is worse than the 1990s, when a number of authors attracted moderate fame and were awarded cash prizes by Sihanouk.
That was when Socheata Vong, a staffer at the US Embassy and a voracious reader, moved to Phnom Penh and discovered Cambodian literature.
Her favourite novelists include Mao Samnang and Kong Bunchhoeun, who was forced to flee the country in 2000 after publishing a controversial book.
“There were quite a number of Khmer novels during the time of these three novelists as well as some other novelists in 1990s and 2000s,” said Vong.
Today, their numbers have fallen, she added. “There are not many who love Khmer novels.”
Some prefer to read online to spare the expense and time of buying a print copy, she said, adding that internet penetration is still limited.
Peaklika from Sabay, meanwhile, said the e-novel pages were getting more and more readers each day.
“They support what we are doing and we ourselves believe that Cambodian people are likely to read novels online rather than in print.
“They can find it easily and no need to spend money on buying a book.”
As for Suong, while he misses ink and paper books, he appreciates the paycheck which supplements his copywriting income.
He can earn between $300 and $500 from Sabay for each short story.
Despite the challenges Cambodian authors face, avid reader Vong hopes reading will take off again – for the sake of the Cambodian spirit.
“Reading Khmer literature, poetry and novels give readers a deep sense of imagination, thoughtfulness, and healthy minds and souls,” she said.
“‘Reading brings us unknown friends,’ as [French novelist] Honoré de Balzac said.”
Q&A with Vinit Hach, son of Cambodian literary legend Nou Hach
What sort of man was your father?
He was a very kind, generous man. He helped his family and his extended family. His first book, Phka Srapon, was written while he was in Sisowath High School. It was based on his family, his knowledge, the influence of French books. [It was] a fresh breeze and totally different, comparing to all other Khmer books in those years.
Have you read his novels?
I have read Phka Srapon, Mealea Duong Chitt, Rovinn & Lavann. Now, I start to reread them all. One copy of Rovinn & Lavann was found in Phnom Penh a few years ago. A copy in PDF was sent to me with some pages burned or missing. Neari Chea Ti Sneha has not been found yet.
What do you think of the writing?
His writing, his knowledge is amazing. Classics.
Do you read much Cambodian literature today?
Now, we have so many things to read. We have the traditional books, the e-reader, Kindle, the World Wide Web…
Do you know if your father ever struggled with getting his work published, as young writers do today?
I think it is a different circumstance. Phka Srapon was a big hit and accepted for study in Cambodian high schools in 1960. My father’s other books were printed mostly from his own pocket.