LiteratureVietnamese Culture in English

VIETNAM’S BOOK MARKET (2): PUBLISHING A BOOK IS EASY AND HARD AT THE SAME TIME

Publishing a book in Vietnam now is easier than ever before. The cost is low, many kinds of permit are available, for a price, and publicizing the book is affordable.  In short, an author who publishes a book no longer enjoys the pride of having broad knowledge and being acclaimed for the endeavor, instead, it’s a mere game of profit. Some years ago, people kept talking about establishing a “brand name” for a writer. I smirked then at the thought that an author’s wisdom and passion could be convertible into some kind of currency – something inherently unworthy of what the author had put into the effort. In fact, it’s upsetting when everyone can publish a book and employ all kinds of tricks to create a brand name. Easy publishing leads to serious confusion of quality, a big mixed bag in the book market.

How to publish a book

You have a manuscript? No need to worry, there are many ways to publish it. If you are well-off, it is even easier. If you are truly talented but hard-up, this will be extremely complicated.

When the manuscript is finished, the first step you have to take is sending it to publishers to be granted a permit.   However, existing publishers’ financial health is very poor due to unwise publishing and marketing plans, so they must make a living by granting permits. There are only a few publishers who can make ends meet in the current book market, such as: Vietnam Education Publishing House Co., Ltd (no surprise, printing textbooks make huge profits), Tre Publishing House, Kim Dong Publishing House, Knowledge Publishing House, Hong Duc Publishing House, Women’ Publishing House …. (by “make ends meet” I mean they print books and sell them in the marketplace, instead of living under subsidiaries or “selling” permits). Hence a more profitable/convenient “rear door” appears for some. They are book-selling-and-distributing companies such as Nhã Nam, Đông Tây, Alpha Book, Đinh Tị, Thái Hà…  Their prime function should be distribution, i.e. handing out books to bookstores.

However, state-owned publishers with poor business skills are not able to operate as their function requires. Some book-selling companies having good business skills and good relations with authors and translators become publishers. This has posed a question:  why don’t they work as a true publisher, as this name indicates? This question is hard to answer because Vietnam prohibits private publishers. Book-selling companies alone cannot grant permits.  So inevitably they must “buy” permits from state-owned publishers.

The second step that follows is waiting. If you use your own money to print the book, the waiting time is shortened. You only have to wait for a permit from the publisher. If your book does not relate to politics and your name has not been on the authorities’ blacklist, this step is a piece of cake. It costs you from 1 to 3 million VND, depending on the book’s thickness and the publisher’s prestige. If you are not very well-off, you have to wait for the editor’s approval. If your book is marketable and you both can come to an agreement, your book agent will then bring your book to a publisher and ask for a permit. The most time-consuming stage is the time the editor needs to test the book’s marketability. This task is filled with risks and full of ambiguity, for the editorial staff at book agencies are not very good at manuscript appraisal. Most evaluation is subjective and without any criteria. If you are willing to settle up with the publisher, you can easily pass this gate.

They are two most challenging steps.  Everything gets simpler with the task of editing, formatting and finalizing. As usual, money quickens the process. I have published four books on the self-paid basis.  One of them took two years, another took just a year. Waiting time seems to last forever, in the same way you wait for your beloved one. I decided to publish my latest poem collection on a self-paid basis at every step, from getting the license to designing, formatting, and printing. All this took three months, including the two-week Tet holiday.

After printing, the next task is marketing your book to its readers. If your book can catch the eye of book agencies or publishers, it’s much easier. They are in charge of distributing your book to every channel they can. Press releases appear on several websites.  Good contacts within journalist and critics circles can be helpful. You can even politely and secretly ask one of them to write a (good) review of your book (free or for a fee). If you have neither money nor contacts, your book will surely be neglected no matter how good it is. That’s why publishers favor authors with a “brand name,” for they can take advantage of them without paying for PR campaigns.

In short, if you have both money and contacts to have your book reviewed favorably in newspapers, to host some introductory events, to run some advertisements on media and so on, your book is fated to become famous regardless of its poor quality. Otherwise, even if your writing is really good, your book inevitably will sink into the chaotic seas of the book market.

The book market – a huge mixed bag

Loose regulations as mentioned above lead to an abundance in the market with books printed in massive numbers. However, this also makes the book market a mixed bag.  This situation results from the irresponsible roles of all involved parties.

Firstly, regarding the permit-granting process used by publishers, they all check one criterion only:  no sensitivity. “Sensitivity” is a word used with extremely broad meaning. At present, this only means political sensitivity. Any books, as long as they do not criticize the Communist Party, Ho Chi Minh, and competent authorities are eligible for permits. Meanwhile, the actual responsibilities of publishers are to verify intellectual property rights, proper use of language (Vietnamese), and proper use of facts. Few publishers care about these responsibilities when granting permits.

Secondly, regarding editing staff or content advisors, most of them are not officially trained in publishing, editing, evaluating markets or appraising manuscripts. All assessments are subjective, based on personal opinions or relations during the selection process. It is even worse when the author is willing to pay for the printing cost and the editorial staff or content counsellers don’t take what the book means seriously. Currently, there are a few book agencies with qualified editing staffs or content counselors, though “qualified” here is mostly good subjective opinion, not a good sense of marketability.

Thirdly, regarding the critics, their reviews and judgments no longer come with fairness or real appreciation for books and knowledge. It’s simply because they are asked to do so by clients or friends. There is no true criticism, it’s all about PR and promotion. Readers have no choice but to believe that the more the book is talked about, the better it is.  They assume, “if the book is not good, why would the publisher pay for the advertisements?” But as you can see from what you’ve read above, book promoting is not a simple story.

Fourthly, readers like you and me are also a factor creating turmoil in the market. In particular, if we believe what we look at without continuously exercising self-teaching and self-reflecting, it’s difficult to establish a standard of reading of our own. In other words, our bad habits in shopping for books partly contribute to market chaos.

A year ago, Book Hunter and Chinese Online Novels – Reviews and Criticism provided clear evidence of plagiarism in the novel Thanh Ky Y. I mention this because the novel is a classic example of existing problems in the book market. I don’t want to comment on the quality of its content, I just want to indicate its obvious errors. In the very first chapter of the book, grammatical errors are rampant, sentences are without beginning and ending. How much worse could it be in the next chapters? More unacceptably, this book is seriously plagiarized, not only from another book but also from traveling posts on the Internet. That’s not to mention to misstatements of historical facts. You may wonder how it could be appraised by Dong A, granted a permit by Literature Publisher, and praised as one of the best historical novels written by a Vietnamese. (Read more at an article written in Vietnamese here http://bookhunterclub.com/tuong-thuat-scandal-dao-van-va-lua-dao-cong-dong-cua-du-an-tieu-thuyet-thanh-ky-y/ )

Even when netizens raised their voices, headlines ran in the newspapers, letters of objection with thousands of signatures were submitted to the Authority of Publication, Printing and Distribution (Ministry of Information and Communication), the book still was circulated and volume 2 is going to be published.

So, when visiting a bookstore or surfing book-sharing/selling websites, you may easily fall victim to this market chaos. If anyone thinks the culture of reading in Vietnam is flourishing since books are various in types and abundant in quantity, he or she actually does not have insight into book publishing and the trend among many to just make a profit from this market.

In brief, give these matters serious consideration when you’re buying a book.

Author: Hà Thuỷ Nguyên

Translator: Vương Minh Thu

Editor: Chuck Searcy

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