Books ‘Have a Future’

By Kyaw Hsu Mon 19 February 2015

In a changing media landscape, book publishers in Myanmar are trying to stay ahead of the curve. Although overall book sales in the country have declined in recent years, an appetite for reading remains strong. U San Oo, the owner of Seikku Cho Cho publishing house, spoke with The Irrawaddy’s Kyaw Hsu Mon on all things books—from best-sellers to translations and why e-books are a welcome development.

Question: When did you start your publishing house and what kind of books did you publish at that time?

Answer: Our first book was published in 1999. I came to Yangon a year earlier after I had finished working in my native town. Some of my friends were publishing journals and magazines in Yangon and I contacted them. I first worked as a designer at TetLan sports journal. At that time, there were no designers because there were no computer design systems, so I worked by hand. I was also a member of the editorial team. After saving some money, I decided to start publishing books. The first book published was by the economist Khin Mg Nyo. It was a small book of business quotations. Since then, I have published popular books which make money, as well as literature. Now my publishing house business has grown and found a place in the market.

Q: Are you confident in the market for classic books and old authors?

A: To be honest, I didn’t really understand the book market in the early stages. But I decided to publish classic books, not out of business interest, but because I wanted these books to be available on the market. Some books have made good profits while some have not. Sometimes stock has remained in the warehouse.

The Forever Media group contacted me in 2000 and asked me to open bookshops with them. They wanted to create a new e-books market through these bookshops. So I worked as a publisher and at a bookshop at the same time. I got the chance to know what books people like and what I needed to publish for them. After that, I was able to publish many books that people liked and the business grew.

Q: Which category of books are best sellers at the moment? Fiction? Political books?

A: Many of our published books are not immediately popular on the market. But I always choose titles that will be useful for readers. The recent best-selling categories are political books, about, for example, the experience of political prisoners, as well as books about well-known people—with either a good or bad image—in the political field. Then there is Myanmar literature, for example the author Juu. Her book sales are still strong. But for those kinds of books, most of them are self-published.

Q: What percentage of recent book sales are political books?

A: It is hard to say exactly as we don’t have an accurate survey at the moment. But I think at least 30 percent of total book sales recently [have been political books].

Q: How is Seikku Cho Cho performing at the moment?

A: I don’t have a market survey to compare with other publishers. But we are well-placed in the market and continue to publish many books. Normally we publish about 20 books per month.

Q: What is the current situation for translated books?

A: There is a good market for translations, but the number of new translators is not increasing. Therefore it has been hard to introduce new translations to the readers. That’s why old translations of books, written by old authors, are still among the best-sellers. This is not only the case in our country, it has happened in other countries also; classics are always on the book shelves. The sales are always good. Authors’ associations are considering the issue of a lack of new translators. The main requirement is to nurture new and talented translators here.

Q: Who are the best sellers in the classics category?

A: The top classic books are by Mya Than Tint, Mg Tun Thu, Dagon Shwe Myar, Shwe Ou Daung, then Mg Moe Thu, Tin New Maung and Soe Thein. Their masterpieces are still performing strongly.

Q: How would you assess the publishing market over the last 20 years?

A: There are many ways to evaluate the market. Lately, sales are declining. In the past, publishers could publish at least 3,000 to 5,000 copies of a first edition of literature or other books, and all stocks could be sold within one month with nothing left in the warehouse. But now, we start by publishing only 500 to 1,000 copies of new books, and even if they sell out we don’t dare to consider publishing them again. We have to seriously consider whether to publish certain books. From this point of view, the market is declining, but on the other hand, there were not so many different categories of books in the past. There are many now, including technical books. In that regard, the situation has improved.

Q: How are book sales influenced by the cover design?

A: I think 20 percent of sales are due to a good cover design […] That’s why in the international book market, you will see various kinds of appealing cover designs available. They are seriously focused on the overall book design as well. That’s what the market wants. But locally, we publishers are still facing a lot of difficulties. If we can’t get the best quality paper, we can’t produce the best quality books. So we haven’t been able to produce as many quality books as we would have liked in recent times.

Q: How have e-books affected the hardcopy market?

A: The number of e-book readers grew after 2013 because more young people are using smart phones, tablets and other electronic devices. They read books on these devices. It is a threat to hardcopy publishers here, but what we believe is that Myanmar people need to read more books, in any way. Though it might become a major threat to us one day, we welcome people reading books in any form. In other countries, people are reading books on their electronic devices on their way to or from the office […] and at the same time, our people are also [starting to] read on e-devices. It’s an improvement.

Q: How do you see the future of the publishing industry over the next 20 years?

A: I can accept whatever happens in the future as a publisher. But as a book lover, I believe the book market will not disappear quickly. If people acquire the taste for reading books, they will not let it go.

This interview first appeared in the February 2015 issue of The Irrawaddy magazine.