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Blog Archive December 2005

Collecting First Editions and Reprints

It is amazing to find copies of the first edition of Cut Out offered for US$39.95 to US$69.31.

I wish I had kept a stock of these early first editions. The print runs were small. It would have made for a good pension plan substitute.

What is even stranger is to find reprints of A Killing Smile selling for US$34.95.

With information about widely available on the Internet for all books, buyers now have a much better idea whether the price for a “rare” book is the market price.

I am a book collector myself and have first editions of several Graham Greene, including The End of The Affair, along with signed copies from friends such as Timothy Mo, Stephen Leather and Barry Eisler

This will be my last posting until 4th January 2006.

Posted: 12/28/2005 3:28:17 AM 


Tsunami Remembrance

The local newspapers have been filled with photos and reports on the first anniversary of the tsunami and that has given everyone living in this region a moment to reflect on the tragedy. The first news reports on 26th December 2004 gave no real indication of the dimension of the number of people killed and the cities leveled. It took hours and then days and weeks for the facts to emerge and to this day only a range is given for the dead: 180,000 to 230,000 people. That is 50,000 people who may have died but no one is sure. In Aceh the dead were buried in mass graves. I watched the BBC for hours as the foreign reports carried news from the entire region. The anguish on the face of survivors and rescue workers remains a haunting image. In Gambling on Magic, the tsunami features in the background, providing a lingering, evil pulse to the actions of one of the characters. Writing these pages was one way for me to understand the scale of this massive number of dead. Six months earlier, my wife and I had spent a week in a resort which, as it turned out, was right in the path of the huge waves. My thoughts turned to the staff of the resort and what must have been a terrible fate.

Posted: 12/27/2005 2:49:46 AM 


Publishing novels: Darwin in a literary species

Every year there is a debate on the number of novels published in the United States and elsewhere. The new technology of POD (Print on Demand) and publishers such as iuniverse make the counting all that more difficult. No one can be certain as to the number of manuscripts that are submitted by writers but an educated guess would be in the hundreds of thousands. M.J. Rose gives a range of between a low of 5,000 to a high of 25,000 published adult novels in the USA for 2004. There is no evidence that the top end of this range will be any lower for 2005. In Thailand, we only have a fraction of this output available at local bookstores. The buyers for the chains of the English language bookstores (for the most part) rely upon stock from the large publishers. The largest 12 houses in the USA, the ones most people would have some vague awareness about e.g., Random, Simon, Harper, and Penguin, accounted for just over 5,000 of the published novels in 2004. A few hundred pocketbook novels from these 12 houses gradually filter through to Bangkok and elsewhere in Thailand.

The figures amount to nearly 300 new adult novels each week. This is enough to cause reviewers to wonder how they can possibly keep up with the torrent of books that appears on their desk every day. The answer is that they can’t keep up. Taking the figure for all novels published, about one-third published in 2004 according to M.J. Rose were reviewed in the major review outlets. That means most books drifted like a small asteroid lost in space.

Then as everything seems doom and despair, there is a school teacher who teaches French in Yorkshire named Diane Setterfield sold her first novel to Orion for 800,000 pound sterling. The Yorkshire Post reported the novel, THE THIRTEENTH TALE, will appear on 20th September 2006.

“The novel follows a reclusive famous author as she tells her life story to a biographer, and is described as a ‘compelling emotional mystery about family secrets and the magic of books and storytelling’.”

Out of the 25,000 plus novels bought in 2005 a handful receive a huge advance, notice and worldwide discussion while the rest march on seeking to avoid extinction. In a Darwinian world, only the most fit survive. In the world of books, if fitness is defined solely by the amount of advance paid, then one bet that Diane Setterfield stands a better chance than most writers whose future is uncertain.

Posted: 12/27/2005 2:43:27 AM 


Naming cities: Saigon or Ho Chi Minh City

An American reader recently wrote to say that it was a mistake for me to use the name “Saigon” as, in his words, everyone knows the name of the city is now Ho Chi Minh City.

If all lives were so simple. Rangoon becomes Yangon. The Lady continues to use Rangoon.

For many readers who don’t live in the region they are likely unaware of the political implications of name changes. Wars bring changes of names in their wake (the names of streets in Phnom Penh are a good example) and dictators can flex their muscles, and demonstrating their absolute power, they can with stroke of a pen change the name of a city. There is magic in a name. Dictators understand this. Doing tricks and sleight of hand are their stock in trade.

For many people Saigon remains forever the name they will always use. Are they locked in a past that no longer exist? Are they making a political statement along the lines that I refuse to accept the name of the man who led to the communist take over of Vietnam? There are many other reasons to explain why someone would wish to continue to use Saigon in 2005. The main point is that changing the name doesn’t change the identity of a place or the heart of people who associate a place with a name that long ago entered their heart and refuses to depart.

Posted: 12/23/2005 2:42:27 AM 


Writing off the radar screen

With the explosion of the number of published books and the fact that time remains constant (a mere 24-hours a day) and other temptations pressing, it is not surprising that many talented writers are little known in the United States. That includes authors who have won serious awards (Pete Dexter and Larry Heinemann each of whom won a National Book Award) or have hundreds of thousands of copies in Europe (Michel Houellebecq)

They are included on a list of underrated writers.

Michel Houellebecq’s The Platform is set in Thailand and was as huge commercial success in France. Lots of sex, anti-capitalism rants, death, violence and more sex. Houellebecqu was also tried (and acquitted) in the French courts for insulting Islam. Larry Heinemann’s Paco’s Story is one of the most powerful novels to come out of the Vietnam War. When I lived in New York I attended the National Book Award the year that Pete Dexter won for Paris Trout, The novel is bleak, socially astute that climbs the dark corners of noir.

I can’t think of any better holiday present that these three books for someone who loves reading.

Posted: 12/22/2005 3:27:34 AM 


Foreign Film Makers in Thailand

From 2Bangkok.com is an AFP story captioned, “Foreign filmmakers flocking to Thailand,” but Hollywood apparently is staying away. Filmmakers always looking at the bottom line are good at requesting and receiving concessions from countries as a pre-condition to filming on location.

A Hollywood feature film brings a great deal of money into the local economy and this gives the large studios bargaining power and they have no difficulty squeezing out the last possible tax break. From the AFP story it is clear that other countries such as Fiji where Anaconda 2 was shot and Australia where Batman Begins was shot decided against Thailand in order to reap the larger tax concessions offered by these two countries.

The result is fewer large budget feature films and less money is being spent in Thailand. Those who insure film productions have also hiked their premium for films shot in Thailand. The regulatory red tape is another factor that keeps Hollywood away.

So who is coming to Thailand to film? According to AFP, filmmakers from Japan, Europe (they give no breakdown by country), India, South Korea and the United States. If Thailand is going to compete in the film industry, it will need to reconsider the licensing system now in place and the tax incentives offered to filmmakers.

Posted: 12/20/2005 4:05:00 AM 


Bangkok Blues – Norwegian edition of Spirit House

Each time a foreign language edition appears I have a good feeling that a number of new readers will be able to read my books. The reality is not everyone can read the original English version of any novel. Selling foreign rights expands the audience.

The Norwegian publishers Giga Forlag has released the Norwegian edition of Spirit House under the title of Bangkok Blues. I am sometimes asked why I change a title for a foreign edition. Like most authors, I have nothing to do with the publication of a foreign edition. My publisher sells the translation rights to a foreign language publisher. The local publisher who bought the rights arranges for everything for translation to cover and name of the book are in their control. The next Calvino novel to appear in Norwegian will be Cold Hit. That translation is scheduled to appear in 2006.

Posted: 12/18/2005 11:45:23 PM 


Pattaya City Expat Club

On Sunday 13 December 2005 I spoke before about 100 members of the Pattaya City Expat Club. I read from Gambling on Magic, and later signed books. There were a lot of questions from the floor, including how I go about planning, writing a book, and how long it takes to finish a draft. I also spoke about the connection between gambling, magic and creativity.

In the days when I had to take a visa run every three months, I set myself a goal: complete a draft and the visa run was the reward.

Pattaya has grown beyond all recognition. Many new shops, bars, hotels, and restaurants have opened. The real estate market is bubbling with expats buying condos and houses. Pattaya is place full of energy, hustle, and excitement. Having set one of the Calvino novels in Pattaya, I’ve been asked whether I have another novel in the works that might be, at least in part, once again take place in Pattaya. Certainly as a locale for stories concerning expat lives, it is difficult to think of a better place for a writer to find inspiration.

Ralf Tooten © 2005

Ralf Tooten © 2005

Posted: 12/16/2005 1:50:21 AM 


The Business of selling Books in Thailand: Part II

Here is the second installment of questions and answers with Bookazine’s Robert Pfaff. Bob has provided insight in the process of how books are selected for the English speaking audience. He also has an interesting take on how books which are set in Asia or have an Asian theme are perceived by publishers, editors, and booksellers outside of Thailand.

How do you explain the success of books like Bangkok 8?
- Well I do know that someone high up at Random House decided to publish it, along with a significant marketing spend to ensure some measure of success. It basically had a champion of it on the inside of the industry. So it helps when a company with massive resources decides to back a book, whatever the category. Some people have really liked the book, others thought it was drivel, I can’t really say. I did read it when I was in the States but it didn’t really have anything memorable about it so I can’t remember if I liked it! We’ve certainly sold quite a few over the past couple of years, and his new one, Bangkok Tattoo, is steadily selling in larger C format but will do better once it’s out in paperback.

When you speak to book publishers and editors from abroad, what is there view of books set in Asia?
- To be honest the conversations at book fairs and meetings with publishers are usually about the performance of international books in the Thai market. Novels set in Asia seem an afterthought to Penguins, Simon & Schuster, TimeWarners of the world. It has come up a few times and the comments have generally been dismissive insofar as that they are not confident in a novel set in Asia selling 50,000 copies in the UK or US. So they basically tend to ignore the genre. Of course, they’ve picked up a few here and there, and made some mistakes in not picking up others, but it’s really a difficult perception to change.

Do novels set elsewhere in Asia such as China and Japan sell through in Thailand?
- Yes, there are a few that sell well here. The Palace of Heavenly Pleasure, by Adam Williams has sold very well. It’s an excellent historical adventure set during the time of the Boxer Rebellion in China. But we sell more works of non-fiction histories about China and Japan, such as The Rape of Nanking, by Iris Chang.

There are a fair number of booksellers in Thailand. Is the market becoming overcrowded?
- In my opinion the market is fragmenting a bit, especially along the Sukhumvit – Silom corridor. Think about it: along Sukhumvit and Silom you have 9 Bookazines, 11 Asia Books, 2 or 3 B2S stores, a few new Nanmee stores, the new Playground bookstore, Basheer Books, and a host of used bookstores. Granted there are a lot of people traveling through these areas but I just don’t believe that level of saturation is sustainable. The only think we can focus on in such a competitive environment is ourselves. In other words, if we continue to bring an interesting range of titles into our stores, along with great staff to help customers discover anything they might want to read and run our fair share of promotions I believe we’ll be fine. There may be a few casualties the coming year or two.

How does Bookazine’s bookstores differ from its competitors in selecting books to sell? For instance, do you rely heavily on New York Times bestseller lists or do you have other means for selecting the books you stock?
- We carry most of the NYTimes bestsellers, and look to other bestseller lists like the Guardian, USA Today, Amazon.com, etc. We also rely heavily on suggestions from our customers and anyone else who cares to recommend a book. We also attend the Frankfurt Bookfair and receive visits from all of the major publishing houses twice a year that showcase the books they plan to focus on in the way of marketing and media. There is a process behind it, but it can be very subjective from title to title.

I understand that Bookazine may consider an annual award for books published in Thailand. Is this something we can expect in 2006?
- That’s true! A very good friend of mine suggested the idea and I think it would be an excellent way to create some excitement about books here. While art is not supposed to be a competitive sport, and we’re not going to give away bags of cash like Man Booker, I think the idea of an annual award could create some buzz and provide local authors some additional exposure. It could be another great blurb to sell one’s books. I still have some thinking to do on it but it’s really a great recommendation.

Bookazine also offers a service for people living in Thailand who buy books from amazon.com and as I understand it, you offer the books available at amazon at a lower price with the same time for delivery. Please explain how this works.
- We are in the process of rolling out a Special Orders service making it easier for customers to buy books we don’t carry in our stores and that may be hard to find in Thailand. It’s quite simple: anyone can find an in-print book, whether on Amazon’s site or elsewhere, bring the information into a local Bookazine, leave a small deposit, and then come around to pick it up in a couple of weeks. Because we ship so many books and magazines from the US, our freight provider is a much cheaper alternative to the shipping charges associated with a book from Amazon and we can extend that discount on to our customers. Just ask our staff and they will show you how easy it is.

Posted: 12/15/2005 1:52:20 AM 


The Business of selling Books in Thailand

I’ve have asked Bookazine’s Robert Pfaff a number of questions about the state of the book business in Thailand. Bookazine is one of the leading booksellers in Thailand with a chain of bookstores in Thailand. This is the first part of the Q and A. The second part will be posted tomorrow.

What is the breakdown of Thai, expat and tourists buying books at Bookazine?
- I’m not sure we know the specific breakdown, and it certainly varies across the entire chain. For example, we know the splits – Thai/Farang - are closer to 50/50 throughout the 9 Bangkok stores but probably about 90% of our 8 stores outside of Bangkok cater to the farang tourists and expat markets. We have 3 stores in Pattaya, 2 on Samui, 1 on Phuket, 1 in Chiang Mai, and 1 in Hua Hin and those customers are naturally tourists. We sell predominately English-language books and magazines, but we also cater to a smaller group of Europeans looking for German, French, and Italian-language books and magazines, and there is also a growing group of Russian and Swedish-speaking customers.

Are the sales for fiction up or down over last year?
- Fiction sales are down, which is really rather surprising this year in which a number of literary heavyweights published new novels. Honestly it should have been a phenomenal year for fiction, with a slew of great new books – many earning awards – from Rushdie, Ishiguro, Ian McEwan, Cormac Mccarthy, and many others. Apparently this is also true for booksellers in the US and UK markets. I just read an article in the NYTimes yesterday that confirmed sales of fiction are down in the US market. The article quotes some of the larger publishing houses in suggesting that, since the events of 9/11, readers have become more interested in works of non-fiction. That corresponds with our experiences over the last couple of years. Through the US elections we were selling large numbers of books about the US, and Bush in particular. Since the elections we’ve seen an increase sales of books about Islam, the war in Iraq, critiques of America’s use of power around the globe, etc. It’s really too bad because many of the new novels this year have been great. Salman Rushdie’s Shalimar the Clown is an amazing book crafted by a true giant of an author. Read it if you find the time.

Are your Thai customers buying English language fiction?
- Yes. In the fiction category, our Thai customers are reading some of the usual suspects – Da Vinci Code, Angels and Demons, Rule of Four, and at the most recent Queen Sirikit fair we sold a large number of chick-lit type titles to Thai teenaged girls and even some older Thai women. However our Thai customers tend to spend their money with us on magazines and illustrated books, in categories such as fashion, photography, graphic arts. And watches! Illustrated books about watches are massively popular in Thailand! Of course we would love to see our Thai customer base grow, and I believe it will through time.

Is there weakness in the non-fiction book market at the moment?
- As I mentioned above, works of non-fiction are selling pretty well at the moment. Not only in the current affairs and biography categories, but also even in the self-help category and trivia category. People love lists and the publishers are obliging with numerous list books such as, 1000 Places To See Before You Die, 1001 Movies To See Before You Die, 1001 Books To Read Before You Die, and on and on. They are actually pretty cool books so I suppose the publishers are simply meeting a pent-up demand for these books. Like anything else, fads come and go. Next year could see an explosion of books about code breaking Martians who have figured out what the current US government is really saying to the people. That could be revealing, if also a bit frightening.

What are the current trends for fiction sales? How is the trend similar to that in the States, England or Europe?
- I can only speak for our particular niche in the market: we sell A LOT of mass-market paperback fiction. People on Samui or Phuket want to read crime and thrillers by authors such as Grisham, Andy McNab, Dan Brown, Patterson, and, hey!, CG Moore! Keep writing the crime novels, Chris! Format is also an important factor – on the beach people want light paperbacks they can stuff into a beach bag with all the other beach sundries and then sell it back to a second-hand bookseller on Khao San Road.

Do books in Thailand sell as a result of reviews, advertisement, word of mouth?
- Books anywhere sell because of all of the above, although in my opinion advertising without some sort of credible or authoritative voice recommending it is least effective. Look at Da Vinci Code. It was Dan Brown’s 4th book in a run of thrillers with sales that were meager at best then poof! like magic, word of mouth picked it up and it went on to make him a very famous and wealthy author. And honestly, his books aren’t timeless works of fiction. I haven’t found that Raskolnikov character anywhere in his fiction. They’re not even the best in the genre, but all of the sudden everyone is talking about them and his backlist hits the bestseller lists. Of course, that is a very subjective opinion and I would love nothing more than for people to continue buying cartons of them at Bookazine!

What advice would you have local authors wishing to sell their books in Thailand?
- Great cover art. Seriously, you might be surprised by the importance of eye-catching cover art. Spend the time and money necessary to producing art that stands out on the shelves while simultaneously attempting to project an image that speaks to the story. A summary of the story on the back cover is the next thing a customer will look for and if it’s concise, exciting and perhaps ends with an imperative to read on the book will make it to the cash register. And if you can get a one-line review blurb from a known author chances are good someone will have a go at reading what you’ve been toiling over for months, if not years. But that’s for the first book. To keep them coming back you better make sure the manuscript is ready to go or you might find yourself a one-hit wonder.

Posted: 12/14/2005 2:18:07 AM 


Erawan Shrine, German TV Doc, Winning Lottery Ticket

The third week of November, I worked with a German TV documentary film crew who came to shoot a shot film about Vincent Calvino’s world. After the crew finished shooting a sequence at Erawan Shrine, we moved to outside the entrance gate. A vendor had stand on the pavement. As the camera rolled, I bought lottery tickets. I found out yesterday, that two the ten tickets were winners. The amount is only baht 4,000 (USD 100). Hopefully this is a good omen for the New Year and for the TV documentary to be aired next year in Germany. This week I will return to Erawan Shrine to make an offering for my good fortune. Erawan Shrine features in the first of the Calvino novels, Spirit House.

Posted: 12/7/2005 4:02:54 AM 


The Kettle Calling the Pot Black

John Burdett, author of Bangkok 8 and Bangkok Tattoo , has reviewed The Third Brother by Nick McDonell (Grove) for the Washington Post. Burdett has this to say about The Third Brother:

“Sadly, for his second novel, The Third Brother, he has flown to Bangkok, a city he does not know or understand, and made it the centerpiece of his narrative for the first 158 pages. So we find ourselves in an incomprehensible landscape without a backup plan as various moronic, dope-driven backpackers come and go without explanation; a woman blows darts from her vagina; marijuana and yaa baa (methamphetamine) are everywhere…”

Burdett told a CNN interviewer that: "I never stop reading, watching and listening," he said. "I am learning Thai as quickly as I can and even attempting the alphabet which consists of 73 letters, not including the accents."

This statement is amusing as in the Thai language there are 44 consonants and 32 vowels, and five tones. Most novelists writing in or about Thailand have had such lapses. Even on a good day, I have made such mistakes. That is understandable as living in Thailand as foreigners much of what happens is beyond our ability to fully understand or comprehend. Personally I was amused by the first 50 pages of Bangkok 8 as the eccentric views of geography, culture (and sub-culture), social norms, and language introduced a Thailand that around the edges I tried to recognize.

A large dose of humility is not a bad thing when judging the novels of other writers who attempt to get straight the world within worlds of Bangkok and Thailand.

Posted: 12/7/2005 4:00:16 AM 


Pattaya City Expats Club talk and book signing

On Sunday 12 December 2005 I have been invited to speak at THE PATTAYA CITY EXPATS CLUB. The venue is 'HENRY J. BEANS' Restaurant & Grill, at the AMARI ORCHID RESORT, at the north end of Beach Road. There will be a Buffet available from 9:30 AM. I will talk about Gambling on Magic starting about 10:30 AM. I will be signing copies of Gambling on Magic. Bookazine will have a table with all of my books available. Bookazine usually give a 5% discount at these events. So if you are in Pattaya over the weekend, stop by Henry J. Beans and say hello and buy a book.

Posted: 12/6/2005 12:00:43 AM 


Calvino Number 9: The Start of the process

This week ends with my first attempt to breath form and substance into a new Calvino novels. Call it the kiss of life. The act that brings a story kicking and screaming into the world. I don’t have a title for this new baby. I usually wait until after I finish the second draft before finding a title that fits the book. I am a long way from a first draft. The main challenge of writing a series is to keep the continuing characters engaged in a fresh, novel story that does justice to the crime fiction genre and to the place where I live: Thailand. Finding a right story that is both original and entertaining is always a challenge. I have outlined the first eight chapters of the book (I can never get beyond that point in any book I start), and have done a bio sketch for the new characters (so I can figure out who they are and what they want). At this point in the writing, I try to understand the relationship of the new characters to the continuing cast of Calvino, Pratt, Ratana, and MacPhail, and the points of conflict between all of the characters. There is a line in the planning of the novel beyond which an author can’t really go. You can only plan to ski down a slope so long but until you take the plunge you don’t know whether you will make it to the bottom of the mountain in one piece. Novels chronicle the passions and feelings of the people who inhabitant the pages. While the new Calvino novel is set in Bangkok, the setting is not always the most important part of the book. It is the fidelity of the emotions of the characters to the things that are happening (or not happening) to them. When a farang comes up against the invisible cultural barriers in Thailand, suddenly hitting that glass window can and does create conflict. At this juncture, if I had 60 clear days, I could finish a first draft. With the earlier books I had more free time (or so it seems now).

Posted: 12/2/2005 4:40:04 AM 



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