A WRITER'S NOTES
So you've read my books and the books of others and decided you could do a
hell of a lot better? Good for you! Here are a few thoughts which
appeared in my columns. You might want to consider them before sitting
down and writing the Great Thailand Novel. Here you will also find
interviews with other writers, booksellers and publishers. I'll add material to this page
from time to time.
I am getting more and more e-mails from people who are talking
about writing their own novel, especially one set in Thailand. I think it
is a fine idea to attempt writing a novel but from the questions they ask, it is
clear they don't understand the enormous odds against writers becoming
successful; successful in the sense of making a living from their writing.
Especially fiction. So here I offer some background or advice to those entering the
profession for the first time. A bit about how it works (or doesn't, as
the case may be), agents, editors, publishers, distributors and all those evil
varmints. Most of the material below is general enough for anyone
interested in writing; some, such as the article on book distribution in
Thailand, is mainly of interest to those of us living in the Land of Smiles.
The Myth of "Talent Will Out"
One of the things that bothers writers, artists, composers, etc., the most is
when we hear people say, "Talent will out." They mean that if someone is
really talented he or she will certainly be published or get their movie made or
get their play staged, etc. To use a cliché, nothing could be further from
Over the years, various people, including some famous writers themselves,
have sent out partial or full manuscripts with phony titles and author's names
to agents and publishers; usually modern novels which were famous and incredibly well
written. The idea was to see how quickly modern literature's best novels
disguised as novels written by unknowns would be snapped up by today's agents
and publishers. Well, needless to say, they weren't. In fact, most
agents and publishers never even recognized the fact that the novels were modern
classics which had already been published. Here is a short summary of the latest
test as reported in the New York Times:
Submitted to 20 publishers and agents, the typed manuscripts of the opening
chapters of two books were assumed to be the work of aspiring novelists. Of 21
replies, all but one were rejections. Sent by The Sunday Times of London, the
manuscripts were the opening chapters of novels that won Booker Prizes in the
1970's. One was "Holiday," by Stanley Middleton; the other was "In a Free
State," by Sir V. S. Naipaul, winner of the 2001 Nobel Prize in Literature.
Mr. Middleton said he wasn't surprised. "People don't seem to know what a good
novel is nowadays," he said. Mr. Naipaul said: "To see something is well
written and appetizingly written takes a lot of talent, and there is not a
great deal of that around. With all the other forms of entertainment today,
there are very few people around who would understand what a good paragraph
And, believe me, it is the same in theater. When I lived in Manhattan a
composer and I worked for many years on our musical set in Hong Kong in 1857,
Fragrant Harbour. We were even selected to show a sample of the musical to
producers on 42nd Street. We did get interest but we also got
woken up to what determines whether or not a project will be staged or not.
And, unfortunately, talent plays only a very small part.
One producer told me that having an Asian woman in the lead was "not
bankable." He meant we needed someone famous (read: white female singer)
in order to bring in financial backers. And if you are thinking about
Miss Saigon, remember Cameron Macintosh put his own millions into that one
and didn't need backers. Other producers from regional theaters loved our
musical but were doing mainly revivals because doing known musicals from the
past like Oklahoma is sure to get an audience. And when some said they were interested
in "new" musicals, what they meant was something like a cast of 8 people
babbling American-style about "relationships"; not a Broadway style musical with
a cast of over 20 set in Hong Kong in 1857.
And then of course there was the political correctness issue. The same
issue which almost prevented Miss Saigon from being staged in New York
City. Thank God Cameron Macintosh had the guts to stand up to the
political correctness assholes. Half of my actors were Asian and half were
Caucasian. They worked with us for very little pay because they loved the
project and they understood I am a specialist in that period of Chinese history. In fact, some of the
actors from Miss Saigon were in our
show whenever Miss Saigon had a day off. I could not praise these
people enough. But there is a small but very vocal number of
Asian-Americans who don't like white folks writing about Asia and they don't
like musicals or novels or whatever in which an Asian woman falls in love with a
white guy rather than an Asian guy. And, believe me, people like these are
doing quite a bit of damage to the arts today.
And I haven't even begun to speak about the damage the feminazis are doing in
the arts and how a man-hating lesbian director once told me that "in theater today you
cannot criticize anybody except white, heterosexual males." Lovely.
As we all know, Van Gogh sold only one of his paintings in his lifetime
although now his paintings can fetch over US$40 million. So one could
argue his is a case of talent will out but I'm not sure how much good that did
him. Same with so many writers, of course, such as the 18th century
British poet of genius Thomas Chatterton who committed suicide at 17 years of
age. Only one of his poems was published in his lifetime. And of
course there are many very talented writers who died with very few people
hearing of them during their lifetime or after.
Nope, no one in the arts was ever promised a rose garden or an orchid farm or
anything else. But we do know that the odds of even extremely talented people
succeeding are slim indeed, and we know luck plays quite a role as well; and we especially know that people who say "talent
will out" have their heads so far up their ass they need a glass belly button to
Just a Bit more Ranting on the Writing Profession
So: You want to be a writer? Sure, but first take off the rose-colored
glasses. Don't look now but we live in a world of dumbed-down news, MTV-watching,
sports-obsessed, quiz show-watching, assholes-on-stranded-island-loving, wrestling-watching,
extreme-sports-crazy, computer-obsessed societies. Even in America most people
wouldn't know the difference between Pearl Harbor and Pearl Buck. (The
cliché in the writing profession is that there have been two great disasters in
American history: Pearl Harbor and Pearl Buck.)
There are many extremely talented writers in America and elsewhere who can
barely pay the rent on what they make from their writing. And when some
jock with the IQ of a dying water buffalo makes tens of millions for throwing or
kicking a ball into a net even I can figure out that something is off center
besides the Knicks in their last game.
The way I see it, we writers must have done some pretty bad things in our past lives, or
at least in the last one, and so now we are paying the price. I have vague
memories from my past life of being a female frog in a noxious swamp assuring
nearby flies that I wouldn't harm them and then doing them in as soon as they
got within range. OK, so I got what I deserve - I became a writer in this
But did you hear the latest from Rumor-Control Headquarters?
Rumor-Control Headquarters has it that so many people are getting into trouble
and becoming felons, and so many of them are writing a book, that if a convicted
criminal can't attract a literary agent, the court will appoint one for him.
I have had plays staged in New York City and been published in New York but, like
every writer, I have enough rejection slips to fill every drink bin on Soi
Cowboy. Over the years, editors have told me things like they "regret
passing on this novel." Even the occasional "We truly regret not being
able to take this on." And even "You write so well, Mr. Barrett, it is
really with regret that..."
Editors are always "regretting" passing on my material to the extent that I
often wonder if they wouldn't be happier if they just published the damn stuff and be
done with it. I hate to think of the amount of "regret" I have caused in
New York editors over the years; no doubt it will affect my karma in the next
As the years pass and we get older, we have some hits as well as misses and
we develop the ability to laugh at even the most ridiculous responses.
Perhaps the most common are what I like to refer to as the "binary star"
rejections. That is when on Monday you receive a rejection slip telling
you how wonderful your plot is but unfortunately there is a problem with the
characterization. And on Tuesday you receive a rejection slip from another
publisher (for exactly the same novel) which compliments you on the colorful and
wonderful characters but they have to "with regret" pass because "the plot
failed to develop as we hoped." (So why don't they write their own damn
book and develop their own damn plot as they hoped?)
And of course the inevitable: "It's a wonderful novel, Mr. Barnett, but
I'm afraid it's a bit uneven." So's the New Testament, you
22-year-old, innocent, callow, wide-eyed, well-intentioned but infuriating
editorial assistant sweetheart from Smith College, you, so how come that
gets published! And the last I looked it was "Barrett" not "Barnett."
I wonder if the Dummies series would like me to write the title, Rejection
Slips for Dummies.
And, finally, a few quotes on this subject from the NY Times: FRUIT FROM THE LITERARY TREE
"Gautama Chopra freely admits that his last name helped
sell his novel. His first agent was a friend of his father, the best‑selling
New Age guru deepak Chopra. His publisher, Amber‑Allen, was the publisher of
his father's blockbuster...His father even wrote the foreword to the novel..."
The Times lists several offspring of famous writers and
says, "All were born with the most valuable asset a writer can have:
access....Agents know they have a better chance of selling a mediocre
book by a person with a recognizable name than selling a very good book by a
person who's unknown..."
So there it is, folks. And all this time you thought
the most valuable asset a writer can have is talent. Now you know.
Still want to be a writer? I would say
more but I'm on my way to the Bangkok courthouse to change my name to Stephen
Only the Best People Read Dean Barrett books
Yes, folks, from hill tribe long-necked Karen in Thailand's mysterious Far
North to dressed-to-the-nines Bangkok ladyboys to cute little Asian girls on America's
West Coast to a Hooters girl in Beijing - just about everyone is reading Dean Barrett books. So hesitate no
longer; join the hi-so crowd: buy a DB book today!
The Submission Process: How it Works (or Doesn't)
1. After years of research and writing, you have finished your novel.
Relief, joy, amazement, almost giddy, even a strange feeling of loss and
emptiness. You slowly reenter the outside world as if you have been
in a coma for a very long time. People you have created and spent enormous
time with, people you know so well and who know you so well, you must now send
out into the world. And, most likely it will be a cold world for them,
You send a query letter to a major publisher's imprint editor. After
much time passes, during which the gingko leaves in front of your house change
from green to yellow and then from yellow to bare branches, during which your
cellphone has been stolen, your girlfriend has moved on, and your favorite go go
dancer has been taken to America, you will receive:
A. Nothing at all
B. A form letter telling you basically to get an agent or get a life
C. A letter from a 22-year-old assistant editor or 16-year-old
editorial assistant asking to see (some) (all) of your novel.
2. Assuming C above, you send in your novel. You will receive:
A. Nothing at all
B. Most of what you sent in with coffee stains and with a nice note
about how well you write but how in the current (economic) (political)
(metaphysical) (sexual) climate, they are taking on fewer authors and best of
British luck somewhere else.
3. Assuming A. above, when the Gingko leaves are back and bright green
again, and your favorite go go dancer has left her boyfriend/husband in the
States and is dancing in a Bangkok bar again, and you have still received nothing at all, you will muster up your guns
and call the 22-year-old assistant editor who asked to see your novel. You
will be told that he/she is no longer working there and nobody knows where your
novel is and from the tone of the editor's voice she is wondering why you
bothered her with this, anyway. And you find in the next Publishers
Weekly that the editor is leaving to set up her own literary agency (perhaps
because she can lose writer's manuscripts faster that way), the 22-year-old
assistant editor has just landed a huge advance for a chick-lit novel she was writing
during the time she should have been reading novels such as yours.
4. You down a few Wild Turkeys on the Rocks, damn your spouse for
talking you into becoming a writer (even though he/she didn't), insult strangers
on the Skytrain for no reason, cancel your check to Amnesty International, stop
leaving tips in go go bars and massage parlors, stop telling strangers how cute
their dogs are and insist they clean up their dogs' messes, think of and carry
out clever putdowns for anyone trying to sell you anything on the phone, tell
your Thai friends that you read in a scientific journal how the more people
smile the more chance they have of getting incurable diseases, crinkle candy
wrappers during plays and movies, cough loudly during concerts, respond
sarcastically to any letters that come in regarding your website, damn all
publishers for being avaricious, moribund, decadent, bourgeois, capitalist,
imperialist, slime-ball paper tiger-egg suckers, and begin the novel-writing process again.
(Actually, writers can no longer approach publishers; writers need an agent.
But the agencies are busier than the publishers are take on very few new writers
compared with the number of query letters they get.)
As the final installment attempting to aid writers
who wish to write on Thailand or those living in Thailand who wish to become
writers it's time to deal with the inevitable:
Book Distribution in Thailand
Why can’t I find the book I want?
Maybe I Should Read this before I Write the Great Bangkok Novel
Distribution of any
product in any field is crucial, as is display of the product, but in the field
of books, in just about every country you can name, it is always a nightmare.
Alas, Thailand is no exception to the rule. There are pitfalls for publishers
who supply the books, i.e.,“suppliers,” and for book buyers browsing in stores as well. I’ll try
to look at the situation from both points of view.
First and foremost, there is Kinokuniya. This is a group
of three stores in Bangkok, the largest English language bookstores in
Thailand. And, thanks to ample space to display books, one has to say these
stores are the best. The last of the three opened recently at Siam Paragon but
my favorite is still the one in the Emporium. There are (not too comfortable)
benches to sit on while browsing through the Marquis De Sade or Bukowski or
Chandler. The store comes closest to what we expect from a Barnes and Noble or
a great independent bookstore in the United States and other countries. And
until we do get a great independent bookstore or a branch of B&N or
Books-a-Million, this store will have to do. So for selection of books, these
stores are best. Their prices seem in line with the others, possibly even
cheaper as their space allows them to offer different imprints of the same title,
each of which has a different price.
From the point of view of a publisher, the store also pays
its bills and pays them on time. Unfortunately, orders are small as there are
only three stores. The people in the store do not have the love of and
knowledge of books you will find in Tattered Cover Bookstore or one of the other
great independents in the West, but they are polite and helpful.
Next there is Asia Books. This chain of bookstores has been
around for over a quarter of a century and probably a lot longer because I first
started dealing with them in 1980 when The Girls of Thailand photobook
appeared. The stores were started by Khun Vinai Suttharoj and over the years
became quite successful. For a long time all suppliers had a wonderful
relationship with Asia Books but (and you probably figured there would be a
but in this sentence) then years ago Asia Books began publishing
its own books and, when it came to display, gradually the stores’ center shelves
devoted to books on Thailand were given over to those books AB published, giving
other books on Thailand less than a fair playing field. Much less.
I once received a phone call from someone at AB insisting
they had faxed me an order at a time when I had no fax machine. And, after
having seriously damaged sales of Skytrain to Murder by not delivering the number of books the stores
were asking for, an AB girl told me “I think the book stopped selling when your
friends stopped buying it.” That was the dumbest statement anyone ever
said to me in my 35 years of publishing and the closest I ever came to killing
someone. It was also an example of that oldtime religion foreigners sometimes
come across in Thailand: DRBTF (Deny Reality Blame The Farang).
Asia Books has most of the book-selling spaces at the
airport, has hundreds of Asia Books racks around the country and supplies books
to the racks in hotel stores. But – and, please, would-be novelists on Thailand, pay attention: Asia
Books has now stopped publishing fiction. One assumes there is more profit and
less hassle in non-fiction and that is why. (In fact, generally speaking, there is more
profit in non-fiction and less hassle everywhere else too.) But the point is if
Asia Books with its own stores and racks and catalogue and display advantages
and advertising advantages cannot make a decent profit with a novel on Thailand,
how do you expect your Great Novel on Thailand to do? (Asia Books
has now stopped publishing books altogether.)
From a book buyer’s point of view, some of the Asia Books
stores have lots to offer in the Thailand field and are certainly worth
visiting, such as the one on Sukhumvit near soi 17. Shane, the former Thai manager
there, is one of the nicest guys in the business. And of course they have
a large store at Siam Paragon as has Kinokuniya. Whether AB books are more
expensive or less expensive than other stores probably depends on the book.
In general, people in Asia Books stores are very nice
although my idea of how to sell a book often differs from theirs. For example,
I know several people who have gone to the Emporium Asia Books branch and asked
for one or another of my titles and been told they are sold out but it is in
such-and-such Asia Books branch. Do they really think people are going to dash
out in Bangkok traffic and rush to another Asia Books branch to buy the book
when Kinokuniya is on the same floor as AB, just down the hall?
So, then, Asia Books comes across rather negatively, no?
But wait! Why is Asia Books spoken well of by so many publishers?Simple:
because Asia Books not only pays their suppliers (publishers), and pays them on
time, but often notifies them by e-mail that the money has been deposited in
their bank account. If there are any heroes in the Thailand book business they
reside in the accounting department in Asia Books. Over a 35-year-period, I
have never had to chase them to pay a bill. And that ain't shabby.
Finally, there is the chain of Bookazine stores started by
Richard Murray, a Canadian (who has now retired and sold the chain to wealthy
This chain (owned by Distri-Thai) now boasts more stores than Asia Books but, in truth, some of their
“stores”are about as big as a walk-in closet on Manhattan’s Upper East Side.
(Check out the one in Samitivej Hospital on Sukhumvit, soi 49, for example.)
And it is Asia Books whose racks appear across Thailand, not Bookazine.
They do, however, import magazines and sell them to Asia Books as well.
But the two companies have now merged and there is only one
The people working in Bookazine stores are always friendly
and fun to chat with; and will do what they can to locate a book for you but, alas, many of their stores are
simply too small with too little stock to be of interest. Another strange quirk of this chain is
their penchant for shrinkwrapping books. When I used to have a publisher’s
stand at the Frankfurt Bookfair I remember other publishers and distributors
(including Khun Vinai) saying that the best way to not sell a book is to
shrinkwrap it. And yet at Bookazine several categories from novels to art books
are all wrapped up tight like Victorian Age virgins so potential buyers cannot
One used book store owner, who also loved to shrinkwrap
books, once told me that, if people asked, he would unwrap it for them. I
explained that most people won't ask because they then feel obligated to buy the
book. He disagreed. The store went out of business. Anyone who thinks
paperback novels need to be shrinkwrapped needs a shrink. (Exceptions are
in beach resorts such as Pattaya where the sun and sand might get at the books.) And,
as I said above,
in late 2007, Asia Books and Bookazine merged into one company, with Bookazine
apparently the junior partner. Although the stores will for now keep their
individual names, ordering is done by Asia Books so there is now little or no
competition between Asia Books and Bookazine.
And, so, for both bookbuyers and publishers of books, the
Thailand book scene is a mixed bag. Not great, but it could be worse. There
are also some stores of DK books around including two in Pattaya, the large B2S
chain and a few other chains but most of them
specialize in Thai language books or in textbooks. And, yes, Chiang Mai
is known for having some good used bookstores and there are a few used
bookstores in Bangkok with decent selections. Another thought: the
discounts Amazon.com give usually more than make up for shipping costs so
internet shopping for books on Thailand is yet another option. And of
course now there is Kindle, Smashwords, Kobo, etc. As for he who
wishes to write the Great Thailand Novel, remember that writing the book is the
easy part. And remember what lies ahead. Read below to read of one
bookstore owner based in Pattaya and of one publisher based in Bangkok.
DAVID COLLIER, OWNER - CANTERBURY TALES BOOKS, PATTAYA
Q. So tell me about
yourself. Where did you grow up?
A. I'm 51
and born in Canterbury, Kent in the Southeast of England.
passion as a child was nature and in particular collecting wild bird’s eggs and
I had a large collection. I used to bump into an old Gamekeeper then and became
interested in his work and slowly he taught me the ways of the Gamekeeper,
rearing Pheasants Partridges & ducks for Game shooting and all the way of life
that went with it.
in Kent, Sussex, Wiltshire & Shropshire before packing it all in due to personal
from that over 10 years ago now, went through a marriage breakup, took on some
voluntary work, with deaf & disabled, and studied Psychology and did courses in
counseling. I also volunteered for 4 years with Canterbury Samaritans and
ran a prison Listener scheme.
Q. So what brought you to
A. I Came
to Thailand with a friend for the first time about 10 years ago, loved the
country, the people and the way of life. Met a Thai nurse in the UK and
spent nearly 3 years in the UK living together, moved to Bangkok Thailand in
2004 with her, got married but was only together here six months before parting.
some Voluntary English Teaching in BKK and met Yao who was teaching at the
International School Pattaya. We became friends and after 1 year living in
Bangkok decided to move to Pattaya and buy and renovate a building with the view
to reselling it.
a property in Soi Chaiyapoon, took about 3 months to completely renovate it and
opened it as Canterbury Tales Cafe in 2006, had no experience in that sort of
thing but common sense, hard work and a bit of luck got us through the first few
September 2006 the building we are in now became available which at the time was
a sign makers and bookshop in a double shop house, it seemed a natural move from
the original building, a single shop house as we had quickly outgrown it.
I made an
offer and took over the building, it had quite a few books, about 5,000 but
noticeably a lot of old tatty novels which I sorted out and sold off very
cheaply, I very early on decided I either should scrap the idea altogether with
the books or as my nature pushes me, if a jobs worth doing its worth doing well
so I spent hours studying what stock I had, also asking all my customers
comments on the books they bought and returned, thus learning all I could.
started busying myself on the net and soon started to pick up more and more
stock, not only from the secondhand books for sale adds but from Publishers and
distributors as well as Authors themselves.
them I have captured a large part of the Pattaya used book market with daily
dozens and some days scores of books coming in, I buy a lot and always offer a
good deal and if for exchange I am notably offering the highest rate in Pattaya.
all my competition and over the past few months we've been knocking 20/40/60
baht off all books returned, thus making us the cheapest used bookshop in
Pattaya on average for the quality of books on our shelves. We became so
successful we opened another branch in Pattaya, Bookcafe, with exactly the same
How about future plans?
We're in the process of securing a deal on
another property in another part of Pattaya which will become bookshop number 3.
We're also just about to launch an idea I have had for a long time, the mobile
Bookshop, simply a motorbike and specially adapted sidecar that can carry and
display a few dozen books of a wide variation of topics, and will double as an
advertising tool for the existing bookshops. This will travel on regular
routes around Pattaya, some days will visit North Pattaya where there are many
German tourists and expats; books can be purchased direct from this and also
admit I have become more and more interested in books and more and more keen to
offer the best book service in Pattaya. We have on our website a small
bookshop and a wish list, we also offer a postal service, where if you are
looking for a particular book and living far afield in Thailand and I have the
book or can locate it I will post it on to you.
How many books do you have now?
We have now approximately 25,000 books and the
stock is growing all the time and I am forever searching for more sources for
George Gensbichler, Publisher
When you think about publishers in Bangkok - and you
probably don't very often - you might think of White Lotus or Asia Books (no
longer in publishing) or whoever. And yet under the radar and doing very well
indeed is The Bangkok Book House founded and owned by George Gensbichler, an
energetic 39-year-old from Salzburg, Austria, who has been here for ten years.
And if you have browsed the bookstores you may have noticed that more and more
language books and even some novels were published by Bangkok Book House. Alas,
it is true, novels sell more slowly than the practical titles such as the
language books and some of the better written novels George has published, by
his own admission, sell far more slowly than those of lesser quality with sexy
covers. And whereas with a novel there might be a printrun of two or three
thousand, with language and other practical books the run might be five or ten
thousand, keeping the unit cost way down. But Bangkok Book House is forging
ahead on all fronts and will soon be publishing maps of various areas of
Thailand as well, first Bangkok (already out) and then Pattaya (end of August)
and then elsewhere. The maps will be tourist maps, not driving maps, a bit
similar to the "Groovy" map series.
How does a company publishing a new book every ten days manage to keep
costs down? By outsourcing. The three editors are freelance, the accountant is
part time, and there is only one permanent secretary. The freelance editors
read the manuscripts as they come in and the ones which are in good shape are
edited then passed on to George who reads all titles before they are published.
George also uses various design companies for the covers and book design.
A few years ago George began a small retail bookstore called Bangkok Book
House in Nana Square, Sukhumvit, soi 3. He had 60 per cent of the store and he
wanted the space to show what the company was doing. He did it not with the
illusions of making any huge profit but to learn still more about the retail
side of the business and to know what books actually sell. His idea was to
either expand into a chain like Bookazine or Asia Books or else to eventually
sell the store and to get out of the retail business. He realized rents were
too high for bookstores in the best locations and he abandoned the idea of
expanding. Furthermore, if people in high quality locations have never heard of
your bookstore they don't want you, they would rather have a store name they
know such as Asia Books or Bookazine or Kinokinuya. After a year he sold the
store but he had learned a great deal and had decided to concentrate on the
publishing side which would be greatly expanded.
The company already has titles which sell in Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore
with at least 40 of the company's titles are already selling in Singapore. Once
all is solidified in those markets, George will look very seriously at the
possibility of distribution in Australia. He knows there is a market there for
the books he publishes because his website receives many orders from Australia.
In the beginning, the company was very small and published only two or three
books a year. At the beginning of the year, the company had about 60 titles and
sold 50,000 or 60,000 books (nearly all on Thailand) but George estimates that
by the end of this year he will have 100 titles and expects to have 100,000
books sold in 2007. Arrangements with authors are all different and can range
from royalty to an outright buy of the manuscript. The company is expanding
rapidly and with the closure of Asia Book's publishing program more and more
manuscripts are heading George's way. Random House watch out!
Distribution in America
The Simple Art of Murder
Writers Lead Stable