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CHIANG MAI, Thailand — A very interesting conference took place earlier last month in Bangkok with the participation of leading publishers from around Asia. As with many such specialized events, its impact mainly reached people in the publishing industry rather than the public at large. But, because of its theme, it also provided food for thought for some government officials directly in touch with this industry.

The topic was most appropriate in this age of the information revolution: “Government’s role and publishers’ efforts toward the development of the publishing industry.” Indeed, at this juncture, all those involved in the fascinating world of books must share a perspective that envisions both government and publishers joining hands in order to assure the development of the book culture. If this is an accepted axiom in general, it is even more valid for Asia where, in spite of monumental problems of poverty, there is a tremendous background of old and unique cultural traditions and a thirst for learning.

Participants, well-versed in the technical issues of costs, taxes, copyrights, book piracy, distribution systems, digital libraries, etc., had fruitful exchanges, taking aim, as it appeared, at the difficult task of seeking and establishing a standard scale of book prices throughout Asia.

Without entering into the technicalities of the discussions, I would like to pick up some of the most interesting points raised in various presentation papers by Asian participants as these contain useful elements even for those outside the industry and the corresponding government sectors — in short, for all those fond of books in general.

First, it seems that there is concern that the survival of the “physical” book, the beautiful, original creation of Aldo Manuzio some 500 years ago, is being threatened by emerging electronic versions. Despite the “threat,” it looks as if the two will find a modus vivendi and manage to coexist.

In the final analysis, a prominent Thai publisher told me, if one compares the costs of downloading, printing, computer time, etc., the “physical” book, apart from its unchallenged beauty and inspiration as man’s best friend, will still come cheaper to the reader.

Then comes the all-important issue of the promotion of reading. Here governments have a crucial role to play, not only amplifying the scope of book fairs, mobile libraries, encouraging learning, etc., but also avoiding being perceived as competitors of private publishers.

“The government should stimulate and encourage publishers to utilize their professional skills and their creativity,” said Asoke Ghosh of India. Of course, he continued, “publishers on their part must fulfill their task . . . encourage the book-buying culture and promote the reading habit.”

The generally prevailing perception that very poor Asian citizens have more pressing priorities than reading does not hold if closely scrutinized: It is really amazing, a Thai publisher told me, that in present-day Vietnam people are literally “crazy” about books. Their publications may be still of rather poor quality, but the cost is also low and the demand is extraordinary and steadily increasing. It seems that the centuries-old traditions of Vietnamese literati have been reborn after decades of war.

I am told by another source that even in Laos, where publications choices are very limited, people enthusiastically absorb any new work of the printing world.

In the Philippines, said Florinia Espiritu Santo of the Philippine Educational Publishers Association, book output may be very low, but the country has “one of the highest literacy rates in the Asian region.”

It is obvious, therefore, that the ground is more than fertile and ready to absorb knowledge. What is needed are corrections and adjustments in publishing policies and the publishers’ “synergistic strength” against a background of some legitimate profit that goes hand in hand with a concept that the industry must have “a sense of mission.”

China’s case is particularly interesting: According to Chinese Publishers’ Association Executive Vice Chairman Chen Weijiang, the book industry there has a history of 2,000 years, starting with the Western Han dynasty. During this period, “a total of 2.6 million titles have been published in China”! As of 2000, there were a total of 565 publishing houses with 143,000 book titles published annually.

The figures are indeed impressive and in accordance with classic traditions of literary distinction. Still, given China’s potential in all spheres of activity, I think that they will most certainly be exceeded in a few years time, in proportion to the development of a vast middle class with a new range of reading interests.

A speaker from South Korea stressed the need to revitalize academic book publishing. This is, indeed, a sector sadly neglected in general as mass circulation titles are an easier target. But scholarly texts will always be needed for the advancement of research and for sustaining scholars who have to “publish or perish,” as the saying goes.

In conclusion, we should hail this initiative of Asian publishers to come together and discuss their common problems, seeking solutions beneficial to all, including their readership.

Even the timing of the meeting was appropriate as today more and more publishers from the developed world have their books printed in Asia because of the lower cost of printing. In an era of “lifelong learning,” the book industry is certainly worthy of greater encouragement and support.

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