U Win Nyein is a gentle, soft spoken man in his sixties. I meet him in his office in downtown Yangon. It is on the first floor of an old rundown building. Through the open windows we hear the sounds of the street: the chatting in the tea house next door, the voices of children playing, a few cars.
The room is full of books, magazines, newspapers, they are all spread out on chairs, tables and desks. U Win Nyein is editor in chief of Burma’s leading literary journal. He proudly shows me the latest issue. On the cover are a famous Burmese actress and an actor. There are many stories about movies and singers. In a sixteen-part series, they publish a biography of Angelina Jolie which he translates into Burmese. In the second part of the magazine, there are many short stories by Burmese writers. “We have a lot of young readers, they are crazy about entertainment stories. Those articles are the sugar coating for the literature we publish,” he says with a big smile.
These are exciting times for publishers in Burma. “Before, we had to submit every issue to the censors and ask for permission to print.” U Win Nyein says. “Now we can publish and submit afterwards. If we publish something against the law, we receive a warning. If we do it again, we lose our license.” It is not quite freedom of the press, not yet, but it is a big change for a country that used to have incredibly strict censorship laws. There are more than 200 magazines and journals in the country now; more than 50 have launched within the last few months. The head of the censorship office talks openly about abolishing it altogether.
I give U Win Nyein a copy of The Art of Hearing Heartbeats. He likes the cover and the story. I tell him I would like to have it published in Burmese. He nods. Burmese are passionate readers. You see them reading while waiting for buses. Sitting on the street, in stalls waiting for customers. In their offices.
But that is changing, U Win Nyein says. “There is so much entertainment available. Video games. Computer games. TV. Sports magazines. Twenty years ago a good book could sell fifty thousand copies here. Now it is more likely to sell five thousand.” For authors it is difficult to make a living. They only receive royalties for the first thousand copies.