Interview with Trasvin Jittidecharak
Recorded at Digital Book World Conference
For podcast release Monday, April 11, 2016
KENNEALLY: As an honored fellow attending the Digital Book World Conference in New York City, Trasvin Jittidecharak is as eager as any to learn how technology is transforming the book business. Her perspective, though, makes Trasvin’s reactions especially worth hearing.
Welcome to Copyright Clearance Center’s podcast series. I’m Christopher Kenneally for Beyond The Book, reporting from the Digital Book World Conference in New York. Trasvin Jittidecharak traveled here from her native Thailand, where a generation of young readers enjoyed greater access than ever to reading on their smartphones and other devices. She founded Silkworm Books in 1987, and over nearly three decades Silkworm and Jittidecharak have earned a reputation for producing quality English language books on the culture and society of Southeast Asia. Trasvin Jittidecharak began learning the art of the book trade from a very young age, when her parents founded the Suriwong Book Center, the first bookstore in Thailand outside of Bangkok, in her hometown of Chiang Mai in northern Thailand. And Trasvin Jittidecharak joins me now. Welcome to Beyond The Book.
JITTIDECHARAK: Hello. Good to be here.
KENNEALLY: Well, it’s good to have you join us, because we found each other at lunch and started chatting about the world of books, the digital book world, and you were telling me about some of the interesting experiences and perspective that you have coming from Thailand and from Asia, and I thought it would be important for listeners to hear from you about that, because really it’s so difficult these days to remind ourselves of the global nature of everything we do. We’re local and global at the same time. And a smartphone is a smartphone, the Internet is the Internet wherever you go, but people’s practices, the culture, all of those are different. And they make a real difference, I’m sure, in the media world. So I guess I would like to start with by saying, as you travel from Thailand to the United States, what’s the first thing you notice that’s different about publishing, about the book world?
JITTIDECHARAK: I think that the significance, actually it’s in this conference. I think the (inaudible) are more or less the same. However, in Thailand and in Southeast Asia as a whole, we don’t have the distribution system as strong as in the States and in the Western world. Therefore, the practice, it’s quite different. For example, there’s no seasonal sales, that’s one thing. Second thing is that a sales report is quite different. I can speak to that, because I have my book distributed in the States, so I know how big difference they are between the two worlds. And in digital world, it’s not as big as in the States, of course, even though I think they said statistically urban Thai owns two smartphones. But our involvement in digital, besides social media, I think it’s less than how you integrate it in your life.
KENNEALLY: And for the book world, it must be a moment of great opportunity for you, because in the print side of things, distribution channels, networks, those are all difficult to build, very expensive. And in a country developing as Thailand is, there are other priorities. But once you can put that smartphone into the hand of a youth, whether they are in an urban area or in a rural area, they suddenly have tremendous access.
JITTIDECHARAK: Exactly. The world is open for them. But whether it has translated into real life and whether it’s generated revenues or it have other impact, right now that I can say that using Internet have a lot of social impact, and e-commerce has started to springs in Southeast Asia. But because of the banking system, transfer money and transaction is still not convenient, and yet there’s a lot of rooms to grow.
KENNEALLY: And the players in Asia, in Thailand specifically, but across the continent, which is, of course, speaking for a great many countries and a great many cultures, the players are different. The U.S. players are there, I’m sure – Google and Amazon and Facebook and even Apple. But are they the predominant players? Are there names that we would not recognize?
JITTIDECHARAK: No. But Amazon is not yet in Southeast Asia. I think they quite big in terms of selling digital books in Singapore, but not the rest of the region. And I think that’s had to do with copyrights and territories’ rights and that sort of thing, and languages, that’s playing a key role. But Google, it’s very big. And Apple, because of the hardware, its iPhones and iPads and other devices. But no, unlike China that they have Alibaba and other, another one is (inaudible). But no, in Thailand it’s still not. And every service provider have to go through, what do you call it, telephone providers?
KENNEALLY: Is there a language barrier? Do average Thais, then, have to be able to go back and forth between communicating and reading and consuming media in their own language and then perhaps in another more international language, like English? Do they have to make that bridge all the time?
JITTIDECHARAK: For Thailand, yes, because we have our alphabet. And Vietnamese or Bahasa Indonesia and Bahasa Malay that they used to use Roman, so for Roman alphabet, to transform into digital books, it’s easier. But for Thai, it’s very complicated. And this also apply for Myanmar language, Cambodians, and Laos.
KENNEALLY: What then are the local people doing to be able to consume media? Are they limited in their choices? Are they creating work themselves? Are they publishing work themselves?
JITTIDECHARAK: We publish work ourselves. But this is in Thailand. I think in Laos, there’s still limitations. And Cambodia and Burma also, that has limitations.
KENNEALLY: But are you seeing the rise of independent publishing or even self-publishing as well?
JITTIDECHARAK: Oh, yes. Definitely, of course. Especially in Thailand, I think self-publishing become sort of coming up. But it’s unlike the West. In the States and in UK, self-publishing was become significant in the past five years. But in our part of the world, because of the publishing system and the distribution system is not that strong, people do self-publish all the time, and nothing wrong with that. So at the previous IPA Congress in Bangkok, we were debating whether self-publishing should be an issue, and I said that will be interest of Thai audience, because we have been doing it for, I don’t know, since I was born half a century ago, something like that.
KENNEALLY: So there’s no stigma attached to it. People feel like, well, if I want to express myself, I’ll just publish a book.
JITTIDECHARAK: Exactly. Exactly.
KENNEALLY: Take us back to when you were learning the book trade in that bookstore that your parents owned in Chiang Mai. Paint the picture of that. What was it like? Was there a very limited selection? I imagine it must have been a real challenge just to get books around the country.
JITTIDECHARAK: Oh, yes, because logistics is also an issue at the time. We used to have to – everything was transporting by train, and later on the highway was built and it was faster with delivery trucks and etc. But my father has imported books since the ’60s, so I grew up and have color comics come from UK and the U.S., so that was fine. But at the time, we haven’t had televisions. But I do get comics from the UK, so that was cool.
KENNEALLY: So you had an idea of Western culture based on the comic books.
JITTIDECHARAK: Exactly. I still remember my first Peanuts and other Marvel’s comics.
KENNEALLY: That’s wonderful. The other question that is much on the minds of people here at Digital Book World is about the rights that are available to them to publish work around the world. There is clearly a global demand, but it’s up against all the various types of national contracts and regional contracts that have been traditional in publishing, and those are beginning to break down. But it still is an important business point and an important legal point. Is that seen as a challenge? How do people confront the copyright issue in your part of the world?
JITTIDECHARAK: The piracy rate has been very high. In Thailand, for printed, for publishing, it’s improving. People are more aware of copyright, but in terms of other products. I think we still on a, what do you call it, world trade organized watch, or you name it. And recently we have a huge, huge dispute across the border between Thai and Cambodia. They were the border market. And they sell all of the, what do you call it, fake the brand name. And the French embassy was making a lot of complaint to the Thai government, so Thai government send people from intellectual property department to crack down the market. And the Cambodian vendor fought back. And actually, they hurt the officer, they beat up the government vehicles. And lately, they even put up the protests that they couldn’t make a living if Thai government keep cracking down on them. So it’s kind of a riot.
But then we have the social media and people comment that, look, you infringe copyright and you still want to make a protest? And the Cambodian government was so upset, not with Thai government, but with their own people, with their attitude that they don’t get it. And my book that’s on Cambodian titles and Cambodian history was heavily pirated in Cambodia.
KENNEALLY: I suppose you should take it as a sign of popularity and all of that, but clearly there’s an issue there. Your practice is to respect rights and to obtain the kinds of permissions you need for licensing, and you’d want to see others do that as well. So you think – and I know you hold workshops. In 2005, you organized a kind of a regional publishing group, called the Mekong Press, which is working throughout that area in Myanmar, otherwise known as Burma, in Laos and Vietnam and so forth, and you conduct workshops and seminars. Is this question of copyright and piracy and licensing a topic that is much discussed?
JITTIDECHARAK: Yes and no. People would like to know it, but at the same time the economic reason that people attempting to violate it, but they don’t want to say. That is still very embarrassing, but it’s not that they can totally avoid the temptations. And we will try to explain that it will hurt us in the long run and we have to think in the opposite way, that especially for Thai people, that we have more creativities economy than our neighbors. And we are the one to being violated, and we should protect it at the same time. Point it out to our neighbor that one day all their talent will pop up, and it will hurt them as much as they have been hurting us, or the same way that we’ve been pinching words from the Western world or from Japan and Korean. This is the same thing.
KENNEALLY: So in a sense, you’re trying to develop a pride of ownership.
JITTIDECHARAK: Exactly. Exactly. And the more that the governments in the region want to promote creative economy, then copyright have to be respect.
KENNEALLY: Well, we’ve been chatting with Trasvin Jittidecharak, who is the founder of Silkworm Books in Northern Thailand. And Trasvin, as we close out, I want you to help give a picture for the listeners of the changing world in Thailand and throughout Southeast Asia. What does it look like when you see people reading today?
JITTIDECHARAK: I think it’s amazing, in the sense that you would see people with their smartphone or device all the time, but I would like to let you know that my recent trip to Yangon, the cap – not capital, it’s no longer the capital, but I say the biggest city of Myanmar, that I saw one young woman in her sarong, the Burmese traditional clothing, on the rickshaw, reading her smartphone in the broad sunlight. But my feeling when I saw that, I’m worried about her eyesight and the entire generation’s eyesight, that if everyone keep reading smartphone in the broad daylight, we might go blind. The whole reason we’ll go blind eventually.
KENNEALLY: Well, we’re always encouraging people to read, but not quite that way. At least, try to do it with some sunglasses or something like that. Well, Trasvin Jittidecharak, who is the founder of Silkworm Press and a Digital Book World fellow at this year’s 2016 conference, thank you so much for joining me on Beyond The Book.
JITTIDECHARAK: My pleasure.
KENNEALLY: Beyond the Book is produced by Copyright Clearance Center, a global rights licensing, technology and content workflow organization. At CCC, we serve more than 35,000 customers and 15,000 copyright holders worldwide. We manage over 950 million rights in the world’s most sought after journals, books, blogs, movies and more. You can follow Beyond The Book on Twitter, like us on Facebook, and subscribe to the free podcast series on iTunes or at our Website, beyondthebook.com. Our engineer and co-producer is Jeremy Brieske of Burst Marketing. I’m Christopher Kenneally. Join us again soon on Beyond The Book.