Not by the book

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The pirated Vietnamese version of The New York Times best-selling memoir "Eat, Pray, Love" by American writer Elizabeth Gilbert was on sale just four days after it was published early March.

Another memoir, Le Van, yeu va song (Le Van, love and live) by local writer Le Van was illegally reprinted and being sold on the streets only one day after it was published in 2006.

Yet this is not a record - pirated copies of several books have been sold even before they were published, says prolific translator Cao Viet Dung.

"Maybe there is no place like Vietnam where publishers are more focused on piracy than interesting books, famous writers and marketing their publications well to make a profit," he adds.

The 29-year-old literary translator, who won the Hanoi Writers' Association Translation Award in 2005, said some publishers are rumored to have begged notorious pirates to spare them before printing books promising high profits.

A recent survey found almost every publisher had been affected by piracy, he said.

Many publishers have suffered after winning copyrights of several bestsellers because of piracy, including Tre, Nha Nam and First News publishing houses.

Tre Publishing House reported 45 of its books have been pirated since 2007, not including the seven "Harry Potter" novels and six volumes of the famed self help series "Chicken Soup for the Soul."

The Nha Nam Publishing House said five of their books have been copied and sold illegally since early this year.

Cheating readers

It is easy to buy pirated books being sold illegally and openly by hawkers on the sidewalks of Pham Van Dong and Nguyen Quoc Hoan streets or even in a few bookstores on Dinh Le Street in Hanoi.

However, many people are fooled into spending the same amount of money on pirated books that they would have had to pay for legally published ones.

Most of the time, pirated books are sold at rates around 20 percent less than cover prices.

An illegal Vietnamese copy of Anna Gavalda's "Ensemble, c'est tout" (Together, that's all) is sold at VND80,000 (US$4.50) while the legal copy, published by Nha Nam Publishing House, costs VND100,000 ($5.60).

However, many bookstores offer discounts of between 10-30 percent off the cover prices of the legal copies.

Some even offer discounts of up to 50 percent for secondhand books that are almost as good as new.

When they buy the pirated versions, readers are also likely to be cheated with low quality books.

Thanh Nien found many pirated books were copied using scanners on low quality paper or retyped and printed. The latter versions were very likely to have inaccurate and abridged content, and to be rife with errors.

The pirates carry out each stage of their operations in different locations and transport the books at night or during holidays to avoid being detected.

The illegally printed copies are easy to spot as they are often smaller than the originals, with different or small fonts, and thinner covers with blurred titles.

The paper is also thinner while the printing ink easily comes off or fades on touch.

Long-standing problem, no solution

Publishers singed by piracy typically adopt the strategy of banking on bestsellers to make a profit, but the pace at which illegal copies come out dash their hopes more often than not, Dung says.

Regulations to deal with the problem are insufficient, he adds.

Writer Duong Thuy says the "works of authors are being stolen," noting that the income of local authors is already quite low.

"The media has been highlighting the problem of pirated books for a long time, but nothing has changed," she says. "The authors, publishing houses and readers continue to suffer from this."

Nguyen Van Phuoc, director of First News, says current measures against copyright violations, confiscating the evidence and imposing fines of between VND5 million ($281) and VND10 million ($562), are not much of a deterrent.

"The violation of copyright should be treated the same as producing ‘fake goods' with stricter penalties," he says.

Nguyen Thi Minh Phuong of Ho Chi Minh City's Department of Information and Communications says readers should support the fight against piracy.

"Readers should boycott illegally printed books being sold on sidewalks," she says.

A recent case

Last Wednesday, HCMC police seized some 50,000 illegal Vietnamese copies of current best-selling books in a raid on three houses in Thu Duc District.

Nguyen Van Huan, the owner of one of the houses, said he had bought a large number of the books from different sources on the black market to resell on the street.

The 22-year-old law student was unable to say who had sold him the books. However, Phuong said later investigation found the books had been supplied by a bookstore, identified only as M.D., in Hanoi.

The book titles included Hillary Clinton's "Living History," the popular "Twilight" series, "The American Journey of Barack Obama," and "Chicken Soup for the Soul."

The copyrights for Vietnamese versions of the books had previously been bought by publishers Tre, Tri Viet, First News, Nha Nam and Bach Viet.

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