What is the Future of the World of Books in Indonesia After the Pandemic

By Dewi Ria Utari

Imagining the future of our book industry after this pandemic, whether we want it or not, we will need many characters like Liesel in the film The Book Thief taken from the novel of the same name by Markus Zusak. For those who have never read that novel or seen the film, Liesel is a young girl who understands the world she is facing, the world during the second world war, through her love of books. When the Germans ban the circulation of books regarded as endangering the government’s position, Liesel secretly learns to read from a Jewish youth who her step-parents are hiding in the basement of their house. When her ability to read starts to improve, Liesel finds an oasis of knowledge in the books she secretly borrows from the wife of the city mayor.

credit: vulcanpost
credit: vulcanpost

In terms of access to reading materials, the situation of this pandemic we are experiencing is not as critical as what Liesel experienced. We still have the freedom to read anything in any format: print, electronic, or audio. What is restricted in our ability to go to bookstores and libraries to choose the books we wish to read directly. Because of that, in this situation when we can’t go anywhere, will we have as strong an urge to read as Liesel? 

From before, we needed many Liesels to increase the interest in reading amongst people in Indonesia which has an embarrassing position in rankings. And even more so right now, when our book industry is unable to campaign as they should, because of the situation with everything being a concern. Promotions involving physical meetings are now impossible. So what else can people in the industry do to promote the sale of books?

Logically speaking, we can say that this time at home is the time to read books. However, books must compete with many entertainment platforms that can be accessed at home. All the different types of platforms try to grab our attention—that didn’t exist during Liesel’s time—from youtube, social media, television news broadcasts that continually broadcast the latest news about COVID-19, to the subscription film applications such as Netflix, Amazon, Prime, Viu, and others.

It’s natural if the competition between different entertainment platforms such as these has caused worrisome losses for book publishers. Moreover, if we add to that people’s declining buying power due to the global economic situation worsened by the pandemic. “Books, we must admit, no matter what, are not a basic need for Indonesian people, so time at home is not being used to read books,” says Ronny Agustinus, owner of the indie publisher, Marjinkiri.

The decline in sales has been a bitter pill to swallow since March of this year. Marjinkiri has experienced a 55% decline in sales. “It’s been made worse by the dollar going up in value. 

Meanwhile, the price of paper, printing materials, and other imports are all set to the dollar,” Ronny explained.

In the meantime, Kesaint Blanc experienced a decline of about 31% for sales at its bookstore. “We were helped a bit by sales at BBW (Big Bad Wolf) last March,” Alvinta Purba, Director of Kesaint Blanc said. Mizan also reported that their sale of physical books was also helped at the BBW last March, although they have still had to accept a 40% decline in sales for March 2020. “If the situation continues like this, we estimate that April will see a decline up to 60%,” explained Ditta Sekar Cempaka, PR Corporate PT Mizan Pustaka. Gramedia Group also experienced a decline in the percentage of sales, with one part of which Gramedia Pustaka Utama seeing a decline of 70% after 61 Gramedia bookstores closed temporarily.

Although it hasn’t been much, the pandemic has brought an increase in online book sales, including the sale of books in electronic format. “The sale of e-books on google playbook increased by about 15%,” Siti Gretiani, General Manager of Gramedia Pustaka Utama said. 

The sale of books online through the Gramedia Pustaka Utama website also increased as much as 300%. Kesaint Blanc also saw a slight increase in online sales. 

Meanwhile, Mizan has done a lot of promotion of online sales. “In early April there was a program mizanstore with discounts of 30-70%. We have also initiated a program out of the box, working with Shopee and Tokopedia, by giving discounts of 25 to 90%, with 90% for old books,” Ditta said.

Even though it is not a lot and doesn’t compare yet to sales at normal times and through bookstores, actually the pandemic situation has shown an opportunity to increase the sale of books online and electronic format books. The habit of reading books in paper format may slowly change, although in this case, we need a different campaign regarding copyright. In this corona period, a worrisome phenomenon has also appeared in which many people are illegally distributing books in pdf format.

Looking at a situation like this, several countries have anticipated it. They have activated libraries so they can be accessed online by the public, including providing incentives for libraries to buy online books from publishers and including purchasing electronic and audiobooks from publishers.

The government of the Czech Republic gave the central library funds of € 370,000 to buy e-books from publishers. The British government gave their libraries funds worth £ 1 million to buy e-books and audiobooks. And the Irish government spent € 200,000 to buy 5,000 e-books and audiobooks for the public library.

Of course, people involved in the book industry in Indonesia are hoping for something similar. Incentives from the government like those that are given in many other countries are greatly needed, including tax relief. If we still want people in this country to have an interest in reading and increased literacy skills, we hope such government incentives can be realized. Moreover, because the majority of Indonesian book companies are still small to medium scale in size.

If the pandemic conditions continue, even until the end of the year or next year, and there is no aid from the government, the majority of publishers may close down. Marjinkiri is trying to stay afloat by cutting the salary of its editor. “What is subtracted may be paid later when conditions have improved,” Ronny said. The cash flow at Kesaint Blanc is also estimated to only last until May if the situation in the country doesn’t improve. “We’ve already told our employees that, and maybe their thirteenth-month bonus will be paid in December,” Avinta explained. Both Mizan and Gramedia as more established publishers are also starting to consider some scenarios to be able to survive, among them perhaps decreasing components of salaries at some of the higher levels. 

Seeing this disturbing situation, Ronny has put his hope in the government quickly implementing a bulk buying for libraries and community reading centers. 

And also tax relief. “Even making small and medium-sized publishing companies free from paying taxes during this epidemic from March until June, would be so helpful,” Ronny said. Incentives to encourage the public to buy books are also needed.

To survive during the period of this pandemic is not just focused on physical ability. We should also be preparing the ability to reason and think critically to be able to continue in the post-pandemic world with all the changes in the situation and conditions that will occur. And for that, we will continue to need books. There is one message from Max Vandenburg, the Jewish youth in The Book Thief to Liesel. “Words are life, Liesel. In the beliefs of my religion, we are taught that everything alive, every leaf, every bird, is only alive because they have a secret word about life. That is the one difference between us and a lump of mud. That is words. Words are life.”

Will we trust in these –words, texts, books—to save our lives after these dark times?

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