Khmer Novels Endangered as Readership Dries Up

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Khmer novel books are now hard to find at the book stores. KT/Va Sonyka

Trade in Khmer-language novels has seen a downturn in recent years, a trend that has sparked concerns that this literary art form will disappear from Cambodia altogether. 

Booksellers claim they have been forced to stop selling Khmer-language novels because the market for them has declined. 

Chin Thyda, who sells books behind Preah Sisowath High School, said demand for Khmer novels is small compared to other types of books. 

“Not so many people ask for Khmer novels; they are very difficult to sell and I earn less income from them,” Ms. Thyda said. 

The bookseller said she also found it very difficult to buy Khmer novels to sell. She needs to spend a lot of money on them compared to translated novels, whose marketing agencies distribute them to her directly in advance. The popularity of translated novels leaves little room in the market for novels written in Khmer, Ms. Thyda said. 

Opsok, Youth and Blue Romance publish novels translated from foreign languages; in most of these the names of the characters are Korean, Japanese or from another culture. The stories mostly revolve around relationships, having fun and youth culture. 

However, Ms. Thyda stocks a few Khmer novels at her newsstand in case someone comes by looking for one. 

Veteran novelist Mao Samnang has expressed concern over the decline in the demand for reading materials. Publishing of novels has been virtually frozen since 2014, forcing novelists to stop writing. And nothing is being done about it, she said. 

Since she started writing in 1981, Ms. Samnang has published more than 100 novels. Two years ago, she decided to stop writing. She said that many of her novels remain unpublished due to a lack of demand for new works in Khmer. There is also a problem with copyright violations; many people share her novels online without permission.

“As a writer, I really want to write, but I can’t get a publishing deal that would allow me to write for Khmer readers anymore because we can’t enforce copyrights [for Khmer-language books],” she said. 

She said writing novels had allowed her to help youth and society through the messages she put in each work.

“Most of my novels have educational messages about the impacts of drug use. If it can’t help educate youth, it can still remind them [of the negative impacts],” she said, adding that she is concerned that young people will no longer receive such educational messages through novels if this form of literature dies out. 

Meysan Sotheary, a novelist and senior executive director of Sabay.com, urged the government to launch a campaign to promote Khmer novelists and raise awareness of Khmer-language books among readers. Ms. Sotheary also wants to see a market survey conducted to assess readers’ preferences. 

“We need to study the market first. And any plan for raising awareness [among readers] will require a budget and public participation.

“As a writer, you need to be aware of trends among readers,” she said.  

Inevitably, technology has affected the reading habits of the young generation. Many people prefer reading electronic books (e-books) to printed books. Ms. Sotheary agreed that most people don’t mind reading on a phone these days. 

Some e-books are provided for free, so readers don’t need to pay every time they want to read something. As a result, demand for e-books has grown in Cambodia in the past few years. 

Along with growth in the e-novel market, Ms. Sotheary has noticed that youth are actually writing e-novels as well. “A lot of youth are participating in writing e-novels. They are able to search for international reading materials, which makes their writing better,” she said. 

Ms. Sotheary wrote approximately 200 novels in her 20-year writing career. One of her novels, “Sratun Munsne” (Charming Love), will soon be made into a movie. 

“[Literary] art always has embedded within it a philosophy that benefits society,” she said, adding that this is why writing is always improved if the author makes an effort to do research before writing a novel.
By doing this, she said, authors can ensure the quality of their novels, which in turn will guarantee that there will always be a market for their work.

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