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Vietnam’s Book Markets: When books are worth pennies

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For a reader, a discount of 10% or 20% off the price of a book brings happiness – even more happiness if the discount is 50-60%!  But best of all may be the one-price-for-all season, when all books are priced at just 5,000 VND or 10,000 VND (about 20 to 40 US cents). In a challenging print material market, where publishers are constantly competing with electronic sources, the discounted book market is fighting back, and with rather unpleasant consequences.

As an author, my heart hurts when I find my own book on the discounted shelf.  Not only my book, but also those by well-known Vietnamese writers, celebrated global figures, sublime philosophers, scientific geniuses, great enlighteners and the like, all are for sale for hardly any money from newsstands and bookstores. It reminds me of unwanted produce left in supermarkets or ragged old clothes at a flea market.

It was different when I was a child, when I was taken to bookstores by my father.  Since I was in high school, I could ride my bike to the bookstores on Dinh Le and Nguyen Xi, streets well-known for books discounted at 30-40%. At that moment I knew they were printed by the publishing companies themselves.  But I would never buy books on those streets now. I don’t want to save a little money only to indirectly support counterfeit bookmakers since I know how hard it is for an author or a translator to write or translate a book. Each book you buy is just a thank-you for their great effort and endeavor. If I buy those illegally printed books, the authors and translators receive nothing back. 

When my very first book, Dragons of the Mysterious Southern Land, was published, I had a chance to get closer to the publishing industry. I realized that the glory days for illegally printed books in Dinh Le and Ng Xi Streets would soon be over. Thanks to better book markets? No. Because publishing companies are deliberately printing more books than they are permitted. This means the number of books actually printed is much greater than the number for the legal deposit. For instance, if they have to deposit 1,000 copies, they will print 5,000 to 10,000 copies. With 1,000 deposit copies, the taxation is much lower (the royalty for authors and/or for translators is just at 7-10% of the price on a book cover).1,000 deposit copies go to the national library and provincial ones, the state-owned distribution channels. The rest go to Dinh Le, Ng Xi and other unlawful outlets. Without tax payments and royalties, the discount of 30-40% still makes a profit. (Not to mention the fact that printing in such a large number makes the cost much cheaper). Therefore, there is limited chance for reissuing. Moreover, if the book is out of stock, the company will reprint (instead of reissue) and reprinted books are not counted in royalty.

Since 2010, the booming period for the Vietnamese book market has been long gone. Sales revenues have fallen remarkably while the cost of printing is higher. The counterfeit books no longer bring useful profits. To have 2,000 copies sell out is a success. However, discounted books remain at a discounted level of 20-25%. Is this a positive sign? Not really. The price was boosted by double or triple before being discounted to guarantee a profit.

“Discount” is becoming an effective marketing tool to attract readers who prefer a cheaper price. Book sale seasons and book fairs offering discounts of 50-60% are actually a time for bookstores and publishers to clear their stock. If you notice, book sale seasons take place monthly and make readers rush to buy, without knowing that this is the strategy of big publishers to capture the market and restrain their competitors.

Many people argue that discounted books are contributing to Vietnam’s better intellectual standard. This is completely wrong.  They are degrading it. Discounted books result in many negative effects in readers’ mindset about book value and the quality of a book itself.

A large number of book buyers are acquiring the habit of buying cheap ones, instead of good ones.  Gradually, they are like housewives who are willing to buy cheap food regardless of the consequences. (Although there are many good books on discount, it does not help if the reader cannot see the difference.)

Discounted books sold in large numbers make a higher profit for publishers and bookstores. In this way, they will take advantage of low taste and poor quality and please the majority of readers. As a result, more books are available, but the knowledge and fulfillment for the reader are diminished.  It is the market of discounted books with cheapened taste and poor quality that stimulates a preference for less reasoning and judgment among readers.