Thais had a growing presence at this year’s Frankfurt Book Fair, but a lot of kids back home are still missing out on the best literature
GERMANS HAVE found October rather warm, but it made Somchet Sattayakitkajohn’s first trip to Europe rather pleasant.
The president of the Institute of Innovative Media for Learning, which has published and sold textbooks and picture books to Thai kindergartens for the past decade, was here to attend the Frankfurt Book Fair, the largest such event in the world.
“We’ve decided to expand to the primary-school level, so I wanted to come and get acquainted with the material produced by the world’s biggest players,” Somchet said. His first visit to the Frankfurt Book Fair coincided with the event’s 70th anniversary.
Unlike the Thailand Book Fair, which focuses on retail, Frankfurt sets the pace for the international publishing industry and showcases trends and innovations. It’s where the world’s publishers and literary agents meet to negotiate deals over translation rights and licensing.
Authors, writers and literary celebrities from across the planet gathered for the 70th Frankfurt Book Fair, billed as “the world’s most important fair for the print and digitalcontent business”. /EPA-EFE
Somchet came looking not just for kindergarten picture books but also textbooks for grades 1 to 6, specifically covering English as a second language.
Any textbook he arranges to sell in Thailand has to be approved by the Ministry of Education and for that it has to be part of a complete set – the textbook, activities book, teachers’ guide and additional materials.
Somchet has agents and distributors presenting him such sets at home, but he knew there’d be much more to see in Frankfurt.
“Sometimes there’s miscommunication or a misunderstanding, or it takes a long time to reach an agreement,” he said, and Frankfurt would likely present both more options and direct contacts with the publishers of the textbooks he’s interested in.
While most people think of established names like Oxford and Cambridge as sources on English-lesson textbooks, Somchet said there are publishers in Singapore, Taiwan, South Korea and European countries like Italy producing high-quality books despite English not being the main language in those places. These companies understand the best ways for non-native speakers to approach English.
At the end of the five-day fair, Somchet said the trip was well worth it. “We were able to see textbooks from publishing houses we’ve never seen before. And there are so many well-made picture books for kindergarten students.”
He vowed to return every year to keep up to date with the trends.
Risuan Aramcharoen, president of Plan for Kids, which publishes children’s books and learning media, agrees with that view, having dispatched her staff specialists on translation rights to Frankfurt for years.
She sees the fair as an opportunity to sell translation rights to other countries too. Plan for Kids has done this with several titles about dinosaurs and the popular character Kung King to buyers in Hong Kong, Macao, Mainland China and Belgium.
But Thais aren’t going to welcome every popular title from the West, Risuan pointed out.
“There’s still a big gap between Thailand and the West in terms of parenting,” she said. “Westerners grow up with books. They don’t ask what you get from reading – they know books are good for kids and help in their development.”
That makes imaginative stories popular in the West, but they don’t sell as well in Thailand.
“Thai parents will look for something closer to daily life, such as teaching kids how to do household chores and brush their teeth or encouraging them to eat vegetables,” said Risuan. This stems from the fact that many Thai parents didn’t grow up with books themselves and don’t understand how books can contribute to a child’s mental and emotional development.
“I’m often asked. ‘Which type of books should I buy?’” she said, and some parents believe there’s no need to give books to children until they’re in school.
But there are more and more Thai parents who understand how books can help pre-schoolers, she said, and that will gradually improve the overall reading culture in Thailand. Kids who grow up with books will get their own children reading early.
Electronic books haven’t had an impact on her publishing house, Risuan said, because young learners need the sight and feel of printed books. “But it’s obvious that adults are now reading books and getting their news on their mobile phones. So the big impact is on the print media that depend on advertising,” she noted, citing the closure of a slew of magazines and newspapers in Thailand.
This year’s Frankfurt Book Fair hosted an Asean Forum for the first time, featuring publishers from Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Vietnam and the Philippines on discussion panels that covered topics as diverse as children’s books and translation funding schemes.
One insight that emerged was that publishers in Southeast Asia are facing similar problems, such as distribution obstacles and universities allocating less funding to their own publishing houses. “We have many good books, but they’re not reaching readers,” said Trasvin Jittidecharak, president and director of Silkworm Books, known for its high-quality English-language titles about Southeast Asia.
Trasvin said selling translation rights to other countries has never been easy for publishers in the region. “We have to accept that there is still a limited number of adult book titles across the entire region, not just Thailand, that can generate international interest,” he said. “We also have many great illustrators doing magnificent work, but we don’t yet have the platforms where they can shine.”
Trasvin is trying to remedy some of these issues by organising with NCC Management and Development the International Children’s Content Rights Fair in Chiang Mai from November 29 to December 2. It’s billed as a marketplace where deals can be struck on creative-content rights and where interest can be stimulated in buying and selling copyrights and content related to children and young adults. Nearly 50 publishers from Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and Brazil have signed up to participate.
For now, Trasvin explained, the Chiang Mai event will be focused on youth literature because the books have big, beautiful pictures and less text, so they’re easier and faster to translate and publish. Hopefully there’ll be an expansion into adult genres in the near future, he said.
“There is still limited exchange among publishers in our region,” Trasvin pointed out. “We hope this event will generate much more interest and interaction. We hope we get to see and appreciate more work by Southeast Asian writers, illustrators and innovators.”