Let’s read: Saving books in the time of pandemic
Originally published in Jakartapost, 17 May 2020
“Why would we care about the No. 48 necessity at this time?”
This sarcastic comment posted on a social media account of author Maman Suherman along with the poster for a virtual panel discussion on the need to save the book industry in this difficult time precisely describes the problems faced by the industry.
As most households are financially strapped as a result of the economic slowdown, buying books – whether physical or digital – has moved further down the priority list, a situation that has undone the many years of efforts by the industry to improve the country’s literacy rate.
In 2018, Indonesia’s adult literacy rate was 95.7 percent, an increase from 81.5 percent in 1990, or about 1.8 percent annual growth on average, mostly thanks to the intensive campaign and promotion by the industry.
According to publisher Laura Bangun Prinsloo, who chaired the National Book Committee until its disbandment in February, the government had yet to take heed of the need to ensure public access to books.
Many concerned publishers, she said, had written to the Education Ministry and the Tourism and Creative Economy Ministry on March 3 after the government allocated Rp 72 billion (US$4.8 million) for social media influencers to promote tourism at the start of the global pandemic.
“In the letter, we requested incentives that have been applied by the governments of countries with high literacy rates,” she said at the virtual panel discussion organized by publishing company Mizan and Yayasan Tujuhbelasribu Pulau Imaji on May 9.
The panel discussion, which was moderated by Maman Suherman and attended by many writers and journalists, presented Laura and Haidar Bagir of Mizan Group as the speakers.
The letter was ignored until April 3, when President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo urged for more effort to increase the literacy rate following a report from a survey held by the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), which showed a decline in reading interest among school students.
The report states that during the latest survey in 2018 the students’ reading comprehension scored 371 and ranked 74th worldwide.
On April 20, Laura and other publishers renewed the letter and addressed it to the President and five government offices but have yet to hear any response.
In the request letter, the book activists asked government support to facilitate free access to online reading materials, to provide funds for libraries to purchase books, and to support writers and publishers to produce health books.
“In other countries, there have been government programs that give access to the public to find reading materials on the COVID-19 phenomenon and to invite scientists and writers to publish works on health issues,” Laura said.
“If the government is serious about increasing the literacy rate then now is the best time to start something. “Although many industry players are still trying to promote reading interest by holding online writing classes or book discussions with many eager participants, there are concerns that the industry will be gone after the pandemic is over,” she said.
Although Indonesia celebrated both National Book Day on May 17 and World Book and Copyright Day on April 23, little attention was paid to the industry.
Maman said that when a publisher asked for a tax reduction recently, the request was met with a cynical response from the tax officer. “The officer doubted the publisher, asking why no one was buying books if fast-food restaurants were still booking a high income during the pandemic,” he said.
Haidar Bagir said he didn’t expect much from the government as the industry had long been considered the least lucrative in the creative economy industry.
“We haven’t received any incentives from the government all this time. Not all industry players focus on profit per se as most of us work with a passion for books. There are much more profitable businesses than running a publishing company,” he said, adding that the net margin from book sales was around 4 percent.
Mizan, which has the largest online bookstore, saw only 20 percent of sales during the pandemic. While keeping all of the employees working from home, the company made a bold move by assigning the editors to work for promotion as well.
“I can only assume that small scale publishing companies are already out of business. The irony is that usually, the least known publishers produce serious, quality books,” said Haidar.