Silkworm Books is a general publisher based in Chiang Mai, Thailand. We specialize in select markets and quality English-language books, primarily on topics related to mainland Southeast Asia. Founded in 1989, we are the foremost publisher of serious books on Thailand in English. To date, we have published more than 250 English titles.
We have licensed English-language rights, purchased translation rights, and, less frequently, commissioned writers. Our books are distributed in North America, U.K., and Australia through the University of Washington Press, and in Asia by local distributors
JULY 6, 2001
A tiny, genteel publisher in the boondocks of Thailand has ventured into the land of the travel-guide giants. Is Silkworm Books biting off more than it can chew?
By JULIAN GEARING
It's a strange little ivory tower that Trasvin Jittidecharak inhabits. Tucked away in laid-back Chiang Mai, the 43-year-old Thai publisher putters along with just six staff members, producing a modest catalog of mainly English-language books. Most are serious tomes, focusing on socio-economic changes in the region — subjects that large, commercial publishers rarely touch. Trasvin is proud of the fact that Silkworm Books, the company she set up a decade ago, reflects her values. Social responsibility is high on her agenda, and her office exudes a serene, scholarly air. "Small is beautiful, right?" she says. At least, it was until she announced her bombshell.
Trasvin's employees were appalled. Suddenly, the boss was proposing to publish a mass-market travel guide. "Nobody wanted to do it," Trasvin confesses. "My editor stood up and asked: 'Are we going to change our principles?' " The publisher calmed the revolt by pointing out a few home truths. Silkworm wasn't making any money. The 1997 financial crisis had squeezed the niche market for its titles, and other boutique publishers were reacting aggressively to protect their shares. With Silkworm's future threatened, a strategic rethink was needed, Trasvin explained. But a travel book? Staff members shook their heads. How could Silkworm possibly compete with the likes of Lonely Planet, the giant of backpackers' guides?
Trasvin isn't sure yet. But she's not discouraged. Silkworm's first travel book, Adventure Cambodia, by Matt Jacobson and Frank Visakay ($18), has just hit the local bookshelves. Trasvin produced 3,000 copies first up — double her normal print run — and now plans to release Adventure Vietnam by the end of the year. Other travel titles are in the works. "Okay, there is the champion and we are the new kids on the block," says Trasvin. "But I don't want a bookshop to say: 'No way, we have Lonely Planet.' Just put our guide alongside." People need choice, she adds.
A design and publishing graduate, Trasvin grew up surrounded by piles of books. Her family runs a major bookstore in Chiang Mai and, happily, she says, "I love words." During a visit to Germany 10 years ago, Trasvin noticed a clutch of small publishers "with a turnover the size of a big department store — I thought that was the ideal." She immediately set up Silkworm with $8,000 from her own savings, added two partners to hold 10% of the business and began to publish.
Thailand's Boom, a damning critique of the country's economy, was her first success. She ran into its author, political scientist Pasuk Phongpaichit at a lecture. Pasuk and her husband had just finished writing the draft but discovered that their views about politics, the mafia and the distribution of wealth made publishers uncomfortable. "Trasvin took the manuscript slightly nervously, read it on the plane back to Chiang Mai and rang us the next morning to ask when we could give her the final version," says Pasuk. It sold 10,000 copies. But when Trasvin published the sequel, Thailand's Boom and Bust, the grim message it carried forced her to pay more attention to her sales figures. A new direction was born. "I had to do something as captain of this ship," says Trasvin, "provide good earnings and make all my colleagues secure."
Silkworm still has to build its international reputation. Peter Jackson, an Australian academic who has worked with Trasvin, notes that the company has improved its production quality, choice of texts and distribution. Trasvin is trying to do more to promote her titles, too. But she means to stay balanced on the "tightrope" between salability and ethics. "I want to make money with a positive heart. I don't want to make anyone feel bad," she says — for instance, with travel commentary that patronizes local cultures.
Despite the reservations of her staff, the travel guides are not so far removed from Trasvin's principles. She wants to "make the gap smaller" between people by fostering communication. Meanwhile, she sleeps with a calculator tucked under her pillow as she searches for ways to trim costs. Trasvin expects to make her first post-economic crisis profit this year. The page is turning for Silkworm, and she's determined to stick around for the next installment.