Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Bookshops face a tough sell as reading habits change

 English books and educational material are bright spots in an otherwise gloomy market, writes Myat Noe Oo.

Selling e-books street-side is a little tougher. Photo: Aung Htay HlaingSelling e-books street-side is a little tougher. Photo: Aung Htay Hlaing

The purveyor of used books is not happy. It is nearly 1pm and the vendor, set up on the sidewalk in Pabedan township since the early morning, has not yet sold a single copy.

“People are always using the internet these days,” he said angrily. “They just don’t buy books anymore.”

His concerns are not unique to Myanmar. Readership of traditional books has been in decline internationally, as more diversions compete for attention – and Myanmar is no different, as first radio and television and now the internet have taken hold.

“Students don’t read books for fun anymore – even comic books,” said school teacher Daw Khin Mar Lwin.

“Instead they are busy with their mobile phones and listening to mp3s.”

Unless forced to read by their parents, who are too often distracted by their own work, children have little inclination to crack open a novel, she said.

Local vendors say they are suffering. A host of shops depended on high readership, and their market seems to be shrinking.

U Phoe Htaung in Thingangyun township opened a book-binding business five years ago. Business is strong when schools are in session, but weak when it is closed, as most of its customers buy school books.

The market is so poor when school is out that U Phoe Htaung says he must find other work.

Even admitted bookworms say they are drifting away from physical books. Ma Shwe Yee Win is an avid reader, but has switched to e-books on her laptop.

“I never buy Myanmar books because they’re too expensive, so I download what I want,” she said. She added she only buys school books because she cannot download them.

Yet considering the peril business are put in by the drift toward e-books and the general downturn in readership, the market is not without its bright spots. Workers in the book industry say there is robust and growing demand for educational and English-language books, as people are increasingly keen to access more knowledge.

Myanmar Book Center owner U Thant Kyaw Kaung said that with Myanmar’s opening there is growing interest in English books – not just language instruction books, though those are popular, but also general topics.

The firm operates a wholesale division selling English books directly to local schools, which is becoming a more lucrative business as more private schools open in the country.

U Thant Kyaw Kaung said he estimates he presently supplies about 90 percent of the educational market.

“In my shop there are only English books – though I plan to sell rare Myanmar books,” he said. “The tourist market is also picking up, but near 80pc of my customers are students.”

Its competitor Monument Books is also moving into the educational and school market.

Monument’s books and ELT manager U Pye Phyoe Min said a lot of the firm’s revenue comes from international schools where students study in English, as well as from expats and tourists.

Piracy – such as illegally photocopying books – is less of a problem for its retail sales and a bigger concern for its business in education books.

“It does hurt our business a bit when a school of a thousand buys one copy,” he said. Still, U Pye Phyoe Min said parents are looking for genuine products when choosing a school for their children.

On the retail front, the firm has regular sellers like Game of Thrones and the Hunger Games series, though they are generally popular because they have been portrayed in other media such as movies or television series.

Fault in our Stars is another recent title with a movie version that has been quite popular, he said.

U Pye Phyoe Min said some books get overlooked as there is no film version, despite being a strong title with its own merits. However, with the growth of the internet it is becoming easier to research titles.

Monument also contends with concerns the shop is too expensive. “But it’s not true,” he said. “We sell anything from US$1 up to US$100.”

Although the English and education market segments are seeing growth, there are still limits. U Thant Thaw Kaung said the company has tried to donate English books to rural villages, which did not work out, so it instead holds a book fair and donates the proceeds.

The book business can be challenging, but U Pye Phyoe Min said it is ultimately about the reward.

“In the book business you’re not going to make millions and millions of dollars, so you can forget about that,” he said. “But what you don’t make in millions you get back in your soul.”

– Additional reporting by Jeremy Mullins

Find the best of Yangon’s English book shops on Page 55