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 the truth. 

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 is."

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 see out. 



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 life.

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 life.

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 King.






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, indeed.

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 investors).  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 buying department. 

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 see inside. 

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.



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.


My 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.


I worked in Kent, Sussex, Wiltshire & Shropshire before packing it all in due to personal problems

Retired 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 Thailand?


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.


I did 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.


I bought 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 months.


Then in 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.


I then 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.


Since 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.


I studied 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 deal.


Q.  How about future plans?


A.  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 exchanged.


I must 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.


Q.  How many books do you have now?


A.  We have now approximately 25,000 books and the stock is growing all the time and I am forever searching for more sources for stock.





***********************  ***********************

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!  www.bangkokbooks.com





Writers' Interviews

David Young

Colin Cotterill

Harold Stephens


Book Distribution in America

The Simple Art of Murder (in Thailand)

Writers Lead Stable Lives

Tennessee Williams on expatriate writers

Charles Bukowski On Writing

A Hollywood interview with Dean Barrett on Hangman's Point

New York Times article on self-publishing: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/01/28/books/28selfpub.html?em=&pagewanted=print


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