I found a solution. Since a young age I have always loved books, whether they were being read to me at night by my mother before I went to sleep, or when I proudly finished reading Goldilocks and the Three Bears by myself at the age of four.
Although I use a computer to write every day, I have never been a big fan of reading a book online, or on a laptop or smartphone. It just feels so much nicer to have something physical to hold, feel, read … and smell! Indeed, the smell of a new (or very old) book is satisfying in itself … the content within is the added bonus.
Since the dawn of the digital age the publishing industry has been going through challenging times. I looked at what has been happening in the print industry in the UK since Covi and discovered that the news is upbeat. Just as there has been a big surge in the sale of vinyl music albums so there has also been a boom in purchasing physical books – and the ‘bricks and mortar’ bookshops have been busy, full of customers browsing the shelves, and buying printed books. In 2020, over 200 million print books were sold, the highest number since 2012.
Many people turned to books for entertainment, with some doubling the amount of time they spent reading. The movie industry, Netflix, other streamed services and the TV have also helped. There are a lot of first-time readers who want to delve deeper into the movie they have just watched, or they want to read the book before they go to see the movie.
The pandemic has shown that reading is still an activity highly valued by millions of people, particularly in situations whereby increased leisure time has, and is, becoming the norm. While recent results have shown that the publishing industry is undoubtedly sustainable, it also has to be flexible and innovative.
Are we seeing similar developments in Thailand? Let’s look at independent publisher River Books, and seek the opinions of its owner Khun M.R. Narisa Chakrabongse.
It also publishes Thai-language books on similar subjects, while the River Books Unabridged English-Thai dictionary continues to be reprinted, with electronic versions licensed throughout the world.
River Books regularly organises book-related activities and functions, including the bi-annual Bangkok Edge Festival, which has been interrupted by the pandemic.
It also holds book launches, where you can meet the authors personally, and take home a signed copy to treasure forever.
Khun M.R. Narisa Chakrabongse, River Books.
What is the driving force behind the books you publish on the history, culture and architecture of Thailand’s and other Southeast Asian countries?
I studied Art History at the Courtauld Institute of Art, part of London University. My father was an historian and my mother an amateur artist so both history and art were swirling around in my brain. I started publishing with my first husband on subjects linked to the London Toy and Model Museum. When we divorced, I came back to Thailand and started publishing about Thai subjects. My first real art book was called ‘Palaces of the Gods’ and concerned the Khmer legacy in Thailand. Then I started publishing books on Angkor, which were very successful in the 1990s - so much so that one edition of ‘Ancient Angkor’ can still be seen at all the ancient sites. Sadly it’s a pirated version.
What have been your most successful titles?
In the late 1980s I reissued my father’s autobiography in Thai, Kert Wang Parus, with several hundred of photographs of him as a child and his family. That’s , my best-selling book – probably around 50,000 copies. Recently I re-published the third volume of this trilogy with new photos, and that’s also selling well.
Philip Cornwell-Smith’s ‘Very Thai’ has been through many editions and recently we published ‘Very Bangkok’, which I think will become a classic in years to come.
Sales aren’t the only indicator of success, though. River Books publishes books that others might consider too niche, and we are very proud of those – such as ‘Yangon Echoes’, or the ‘Art of Thai Comics’. I want to preserve vanishing cultures or look at areas that have hitherto been neglected.
I am very interested in architecture and history myself, and have travelled to Penang, Rangoon, Cambodia, and other places in Southeast Asia extensively.
Malaysian and Burmese (before the coup) governments are making great efforts to preserve their heritage. The same does not seem to be the case in Thailand. After promises it would be preserved, the wonderful art-deco Scala Cinema was recently demolished, for example.
What do you think can be done to help preserve important historical sites in Thailand?
That is a very difficult subject. Firstly, I think the budget of the Fine Arts Department is far too small. Secondly, preserving culture is understood in too narrow a way in Thailand. There is so much associated with the concept of Thainess – beautiful temples, monuments that reinforce the accepted history – that other parts of the heritage are neglected. Also, money and power are in the hands of a relatively small group of people. Powerful conglomerates and families control so much property and wealth.
Unfortunately, they seem not to appreciate the architecture of the previous century or understand that another mall with the same designer brands is destroying the diversity of the city. The fact that Chulalongkorn University did not prioritise culture over money, and destroyed the Scala is sadly symbolic of the situation. Education lies at the heart of getting people to appreciate their heritage in a more wide-ranging way.
Does River Books accept unsolicited manuscripts from aspiring writers or do you commission books from authors you already know?
River Books has an editorial board and unsolicited manuscripts are considered if they are broadly in the subject areas we cover – Thai and Southeast Asian history, culture, popular culture and more recently novels. However, we are a small company and have to be careful. Originally most of the titles were in English but in the last few years we have developed the Thai list – often a book will appear in an English edition and a Thai edition simultaneously, such as the books on Bencharong porcelain and Thai Silver and Nielloware, Siam and the First World War and Thai comics.
Our next book, which is groundbreaking for Thailand, will be Bangkok Street Art and Graffiti – Hope Well, Hope Less, Hope Full. This is coming out any moment now and is a very exciting book, full of excellent photographs of Street Art, and a critique of Bangkok mega projects and urban planning,
including interviews with 18 graffiti and street artists.
Covid and its restrictions have given many people more time to rediscover the joy of reading books. Has River Books experienced an uptake in business?
I wish I could say there had been more of an uptake. In the first year (of the pandemic) 2020 we had good sales but this last year has been harder. At first people still had money but the effect of two years’ financial wilderness, and no government support has taken its toll. We used to have far better sales in bookshops than now – the disappearance of tourists has been very bad for English language sales.
Historical fiction has proven to be very popular, both in print and on TV, over the last two or three decades. How does their popularity compare with those rather more academic in your portfolio?
In normal times the historical fiction was starting to do well (it is mostly in English) but it has not done well during the pandemic due to the reasons I just mentioned. Some of the titles were about Cambodia, but sales there have been non-existent for two years. They are also very hard to promote outside Thailand.
However, I do have a new novel by Veeraporn Nitiprapha called ‘Memories of the Memories of the Black Rose Cat’ ( that’s not a misprint, but the book’s actual title) and I am excited about this book. It is somewhat historical, as the story unfolds through the lives of a Chinese family, the patriarch of which arrives in Thailand from China.
I also plan to publish the second volume of Beads on a String by Paul and Yuangrat Wedel, along with a Thai version of it. This book is interesting as it is set in the south of Thailand, an area that features exceedingly less in novels about my country.
As the editor of the Oxford River Books English-Thai dictionary, how do you update it to include ‘new’ words, and is it one of your more successful published titles?
Dictionaries have suffered from the fact that most people consume them online these days. Although we sold several editions of the dictionary to online platforms, it is unfortunate that we have not managed to complete the Thai-English side of the dictionary as planned. It was a huge undertaking to do the first part and as the rest of the company has grown, I’m afraid it became neglected. Oxford is also less keen on large paper dictionaries than before so although it was extremely successful, it may have had its day.
When I look at it now, I cannot believe that I read and edited 130,000 words and phrases at least five times.
You are also the President and founder of the Green World Foundation (GWF). What inspired your interest in the environment?
I founded the GWF when the environment was not a hot topic and over the years I have engaged in a great deal of environmental education in conjunction with schools throughout Thailand. We also had a magazine and published several editions of State of the Thai environment. Under the Chairmanship of Dr Saranarat Kanjanavanit it received grants from Denmark and did a great deal of work on water quality issues. At a certain point it all became too much for me and currently it is in a process of re- establishment under younger leadership.
Can you recommend a couple of books that would serve as a good introduction to River Books?
That’s very difficult, there are so many great ones! Maybe ‘The Art of Thai Comics’, and ‘Katya and the Prince of Siam’.
Thank you, Khun Narisa