Book fair crowds a beacon of hope

Large turnouts, online platform growth spur optimism for reading culture

A girl is attracted to pictures of colourful fish in a Japanese tale during the 2018 International Children's Picture Book Festival at TK Park in CentralWorld shopping complex. Organisers showcase picture books from many countries to encourage kids to read books.  (Photo by Apichit Jinakul)

Over 1.8 million people attended the 46th National Book Fair & 16th Bangkok International Book Fair from March 30 to April 8, leading printing businesses to express optimism that Thailand's reading culture will revive.

The annual fair at Queen Sirikit National Convention Centre hosted over 900 booths selling around 10,000 books. This year's theme was "Read...Again".

With the ongoing appeal of Thailand's smash-hit soap opera Bupphaesannivas (Love Destiny), books on or related to history were among the top sellers at the event. Many children hunted for any information they could find related to the time period during which the show takes place.

"A majority of the 1.8 million people who attended this year's event were children and young adults. All target audiences seemed to have a special interest in history books, as we saw books from the Fine Arts Department wiped off shelves from day one," said Suchada Sahasakul, of the Publishers and Booksellers Association of Thailand (Pubat).

"As an organisation with an important role in encouraging people to become lifelong learners, we see support for our engagement with young people," she said.

"Reading is a sustainable way of supporting [the government's innovation- and hi-tech-focused] 'Thailand 4.0' policy as young people are the most valuable asset for Thailand's future," Ms Suchada said.

Reading enhances the right side of the brain, which accounts for a person's creativity, said Aleen Chalermchaikit, founder and CEO of Daifuku Creator.

Daifuku Creator focuses on character books, self-development content, historical literature and Japanese novels transcribed into Thai.

"Reading helps people develop better skill sets for their creativity and even emotional intelligence. When we grow the right side of the brain, it will also improve how we apply our logical functions, or the left side of the brain," said Ms Aleen, an heiress of the Sukparp Jai Publishing dynasty that gained a reputation for its religious, language and management books.

"Aside from the fact that history books are trending this year, education and how-to books made the biggest sales, which is similar to the past," she said.

"We also see a consistent stream of manga books and novels. However, it is not a significant enough quantity for the printing business due to the economic downtrend, which has long-term implications," Ms Aleen added.

Many brick-and-mortar stores are continuing to face pressure from the global shift towards online platforms. As Thailand's reading culture remains inferior to that of its neighbours, bookmakers are finding innovative ways to stay relevant.

"All printing businesses are adjusting to the online world. We are all integrating towards online platforms as an additional channel for distribution, and attention on the aesthetics of book-making is taking a tremendous step forward. We hope the reading culture will revive," said Tippimol Kiatwateeratana, the manager of Way Magazine.

Based on the Publishers and Booksellers Association of Thailand's 2010 reading rate surveys, Thais read on average five books a year, compared to Malaysia's 40, Singapore's 45 and Japan's 50 books a year.

"Everyone is trying to find or create their own unique selling point. More efforts and detail in production and content are visible in the industry nowadays, and also more investments in design. For us, we focus on political theories and foreign affairs content so our target and direction is clear," Ms Tippimol said.

Online bookstores are paving the way for unprecedented opportunities for new and old writers to tap into any reader in the country who has an internet connection.

"The National Book Fair has been very beneficial to online stores, as not everyone in the country is passing by Bangkok this week. Once certain books make headlines from the event, readers from other provinces will quickly turn to online stores," said Nattakorn Parachai," who owns an online Thai bookstore called Readerye.

"I think the majority of writers and booksellers are moving their products online, as it is a marketplace open to so many streams of advertisements on social media and a platform for recognition," he said.

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