Despite several recent mega-bookstore openings, Robert J Pfaff, the boss of small chain Bookazine, doesn't seem perturbed by what appears to be a very competitive book trade in Thailand.
Having run the 17-year-old chain for the past three and a half years, Pfaff, an American, sees bright prospects for Bookazine. He expects Bangkok's growing middle-class and educated readers - especially its burgeoning graphic-design sector - to propel the English-language book-selling scene into a lucrative future.
"When I joined Bookazine we had 12 stores; now we have 23, including two new ones due to open in Pattaya soon. The number of Thais reading English-language books is growing. You have a much more educated group of readers than 10 years ago. The opportunities are still very good,'' he says, referring to a growing base of predominantly Thai customers in Bangkok.
"Now you see young girls reading 'chic-lit', 'The Da Vinci Code', Harry Potter books, while lots of Thais in the growing fashion and graphic design industries are looking for the great design books that we have to offer,'' he says.
Pfaff may be optimistic, but his knowledge of publishing trade, and of Thailand itself, extends beyond common-sense observations. While an undergraduate at the University of Wisconsin, Pfaff joined the institution's College Year in Thailand Programme in 1994 and studied Thai language, history and Buddhism at Chiang Mai University.
Returning to the US, Pfaff went for a master's degree in Southeast Asian studies at the University of Michigan and, while a graduate student, worked for three years for the Southeast Asia division of the Hatcher Graduate Library, one of the top five research libraries in the world.
"I've been involved in books for most of my life and was an academic for a while,'' he says with a grin.
Pfaff speaks proudly of his prominent role at the online bookseller Amazon.com in Seattle. As Amazon's project manager and information architect from 1999, he helped build the e-commerce website and in September 2000 went to Tokyo for four months to start the Amazon Japan site.
"My job was to provide a user interface for customers to search for what they want from a million products."
During his time at Amazon he was exposed to a passionate, fun and intelligent group of people. Pfaff says that through its high-standard hiring process, Amazon is a company with many PhD holders in their mid- or late 20s. During the interview for the job, he was asked questions that gauged his ability to think arithmetically - like "How many ping-pong balls does it take to fill a 747 jet?"
"I remember my first day walking through the parking lot and seeing dozens of expensive vehicles, and then getting into the office and seeing kids running around in T-shirts and shorts with their dogs or eating pizza.
"When you put together a bunch of really smart people who are given the flexibility to innovate, the model is very much to just do it and ask for forgiveness later if it doesn't work out,'' he recalls.
After three years at Amazon, Pfaff moved back to his hometown of Detroit, Michigan, to join an advertising agency. But one year into his new role at J Walter Thompson, he took a break and, while in Thailand, found himself interviewing for a management position at Bookazine. The job proved so attractive that he rushed back to Detroit to resign from his position at JWT.
"When I joined Bookazine, it was a natural progression to take on greater responsibility, but it was also a way of staying in the book industry,'' he says.
Besides international bestsellers, Bookazine imports and distributes magazines and newspapers in Thailand and neighbouring countries. Highlighting Bookazine's difference, Pfaff points to a variety of good reads from around the world, not just in English, but in French, Italian and Swedish as well.
"We are trying to make sure that our products will give us a competitive advantage in terms of multiple languages available."
Pfaff reckons developments in the English-language book scene in Thailand have been interesting, with "an explosion" of booksellers selling English-language books in the Sukhumvit-Silom corridor and the rise of bookshops "cannibalising" each other.
To Pfaff, the growth of English-language booksellers in town is a blessing. "As we import and distribute, we are happy to see new bookstores opening. We don't see an overly competitive market in that sense. Customers are growing, so the sale of newspapers and magazines is growing too," he says.
With opportunities arising outside Bangkok and the rise of big English-language bookstores in town, Pfaff believes one has to be careful in opening more bookstores. "Our drift is far more towards the middle-class, educated Thais."
The real pressure comes from the international, rather than local, publishing frenzy. Having visited both the Frankfurt and London book fairs, Pfaff noticed that publishing houses churn out far too many books in English, including the average 100,000 titles released each year in Britain, for instance.
"The explosion of books published in English makes for very challenging circumstances for our buying team. We can't carry everything in our 90-square-metre bookstores."
He adds that coffee-table books in the graphic design category are well received, and books by Asian authors are also gaining momentum. "A lot of interesting literary works are coming out of India, great translations from China."
But this year, he notes, we are sure to remain under the spell of Harry Potter, Dan Brown's follow-up to "The Da Vinci Code" and works by literary heavyweights like Norman Mailer and Salman Rushdie.
"It'll be an interesting year."