There is No Future without Books

By Fariq Alfaruqi

We are impressed when we read how book sales in France jumped 230% after the government there ended the lockdown, but at the same time, we are sad because it would be impossible for that to happen in Indonesia. Instead of rushing to bookstores when the government relaxes the PSBB (Large-scale Social Restrictions), it seems we would choose to take a vacation at the beach, go to malls, hang out at cafes with friends, or visit salons for haircuts. Visit the closest bookstore? It’s not in our dictionary of daily activities.

But speculation remains speculation, and one of the branches in a part of your mind knows for sure the consequences of uncertainty. It is the grey area, a mixture of the white of hope with the black of fear. What if the pandemic will only end after some years? What if a day before WHO and the government announce that the critical period is over, you become infected with the virus?

Tired of being tense due to uncertainty, you will rescue yourself by thinking of other things. All kinds of activities that are not related directly with life and death. You will search for an activity to keep yourself busy, watching a television series via streaming, contacting the people closest to you using a face to face application, following various on-line classes, reading books that you didn’t have time to read before. 

But recently your concentration for reading only lasts for about five minutes. Not even after a page, other images flash by putting an end to your serious efforts to understand the meaning of the letters. So you go back and forth over the page, while your mind is busy imagining the disaster influencing various economic sectors around the world, and whether it is also impacting the world of books.

As someone who has had a close relationship with books from an early age, how can you not be concerned about this situation? The first scene arising in your memory is the sound of a bicycle bell and the face of a man smiling while offering a Bobo magazine, a moment you waited for each week. 

You also start to search for information about what is happening with the activities of the production and distribution of books and the fate of people whose lives depend on that industry. 

Thinking about that, though bitter, is still better than facing an endless sense of fear. You take your gadget from the tabletop and begin surfing the virtual universe.

With a simple assumption, you know that the first ones to feel the impact are those in distribution. Off-line bookstores, the end of the line for introducing books to readers, must have been immediately paralyzed by the social restrictions recently applied.

You check on the small, indie concept bookstores in several areas, and they are all closed because previously their selling of books was always accompanied by informal chats or discussions about books that required people meeting directly. 

Meanwhile, only a few large bookstores are still in operation, and that is with limited hours and very few customers.

Even though, as you know, the activities in traditional bookstores were previously the heart of book distribution in this country. In other words, bookstores made it possible for the sale of books to take place and the accumulation of that could pump up production. 

If bookstores close or do not operate at maximum capacity, sales could experience a free fall.

Then you will find data from the Indonesian Publishers Association (IKAPI). 

Almost all publishers have experienced a decline in sales, the majority have declined by more than 50% from sales in normal times. Many publishers have decided to stop production and focus on selling the stock of books they already have, with many publishers thinking that they will be laying off their employees. If the situation continues, 60% more publishers will only be able to stay in business for three more months.

Although you are startled, you have decided to satisfy your curiosity about everything that has happened to the world of books during this pandemic period. There must be another way to overcome the decline in the sale of books, besides stopping production or firing employees.

Isn’t it true that in the last several years, online sales in various marketplaces or social media or online platforms have begun to flourish? You recall, some of your friends who work in publishing. Dionisius Wisnu is an editor at Gramedia Pustaka Utama and Suhindrati Shinta is an editor at Noura Publishing. Perhaps from these two friends, you will be able to get a more complete picture or a different perspective.

You prepare a small interview, presenting them with several questions related to conditions in the production division at each of their offices and efforts being made to keep their presses turning. Both of your friends generously share what is happening at each of their places of work.

In line with the data you have previously found, right now they are both struggling with the problems of distributing books. Traditional bookstores, the main channel for their products, cannot function as usual. The specific information from Wisnu is that 48 Gramedia stores have closed and 73 other Gramedia stores are only open for limited hours. And those that have remained open are incredibly quiet, Shinta says. The impact of this has been that for the time being both publishers where your two friends work have temporarily stopped the printing of books.

What about online sales or why not shift to ebook production? After all, doesn’t our society hold the fourth-place position for the number of social media users? You push them on a question that you think might be the solution to this problem. 

According to Wisnu and Shinta selling through various online platforms is the way their offices have been operating at this time. In Wisnu’s office, online sales have increased four-fold in March when compared with online sales in February. In the meantime, where Shinta works there has also been an increase in online book sales, but it cannot take the place of traditional bookstores. Meanwhile, the production of ebooks can also offer hope, but our society still needs time to become accustomed to using them.

It is not much relief, but at least your friends who work in the publishing world are still trying hard to find ways to maximize the sales model and alternative means of production. Besides the usual sales strategies such as offering discounts, other innovations are being tested. All employees at Gramedia Pustaka Utama, Wisnu’s office, take part in promotion through their social media accounts. Even writers want to get involved.

The same that is true for writers at Gramedia Pustaka Utama, writers whose books are published by Noura Publishing are also very cooperative in responding to this situation. According to Shinta, they want to spare time to appear in live Instagram features, for example, or even give advice and propose creative ideas. 

While comparing it with the Indonesian Publishers’ Association data, chatting with Wisnu and Shinta gives you a more holistic picture. Now you are figuring out the best and worst possibilities that can occur in the book world. The best possibility is of course that the pandemic ends quickly and publishing discovers innovations, especially related to the use of digital technology. 

Imagining the worst possibility, you can only remember the faces of your other friends, from writers, editors, translators, designers, people who work in bookstores, to social media retailers.

But to erase those bad thoughts, the faces of your friends, you know the way. 

Another branch in your mind quickly works to find something to hold on to called hope. And you remember again what Wisnu and Shinta said: The main challenge is how great is the decline and what are our creative ways to slow down that decline. And this becomes our efforts together to “fight for” books. 

Yes, hopefully, many publishers also think that this is the time to put aside profit accumulation and make working for the book industry become a struggle worth fighting.

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