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Press Conference: Saving the Book Industries of Southeast Asia during the Pandemic

On Friday, April 24th, several people involved in the book industries of South East Asia and surrounding regions held an online discussion for World Book Day which always falls on April 23rd. The discussion was initiated by Publishers Without Borders, a group established at the outset of the coronavirus pandemic by Simon de Jocas from Editions Les 400 Coups based in Montreal, Canada and managed with assistance from Prashant Pathak of Wonder House Books India, Fatimah Abbas of Fala Agency in Egypt, and Emma House, an international publishing consultant based in England.

On Friday, April 24th, Publishers Without Borders held four virtual discussion sessions in which Indonesia was invited to become a speaker in the first session at 15.00 WIB with the theme “A Look Into The Publishing World in South East Asia” inviting three figures involved with books, Laura Bangun Prinsloo, Director of the National Book Committee 2016-2019 and Director of Seventeen Thousand Islands of Imagination Foundation; Arief Hakim Sani, President Malaysian Book Publishers Association and Managing Director PTS Media Group based in Selangor, Malaysia; and Maria Karina Africa Bolasco, Director Ateneo University Press. The three speakers explained how bad book sales had become since the pandemic and due to that government support is urgently needed. The discussion can be followed at https://youtu.be/9JKno7HgUh0.   

In Malaysia, Arief Hakim explained that the government of Malaysia this year as part of celebrating Kuala Lumpur as the Unesco World Book Capital City 2021, has been holding a national reading campaign every morning at 11 o’clock. Because of the corona pandemic, all the celebrations of Unesco World Book Capital City to be held on April 24, have been changed to become online events. In Malaysia, the sale of books fell 80-90 percent because all bookstores were closed causing the cash flow of business owners to decrease drastically. “After the lockdown, many people will have lost their jobs and several publishers will have closed,” Arief Hakim explained.

Until now the Malaysian government has assisted small and medium scale publishers in the form of bank loans for 6 months and subsidies for book industry workers’ salaries. “We are hoping for assistance in the form of buying books and permission for bookstores to open for a certain period because our income still depends very much on the sales of physical books,” Arief said. 

In the Philippines the situation is similar. April should be a celebration of Philippine literacy in the form of the International Literary Festival which this year would have been in its eleventh year but had to be canceled. However, they tried to overcome the situation in several ways, for example, programs for giving away free books every week in Naga province, in conjunction with supermarket and restaurant food delivery services.

Later in September, they hope to be able to hold an annual book exhibition which this year will be in its 41st year. 

“Hopefully the situation will improve so that the festival can still be held, although the government may take back its support,” stated Karina Bolasco who hopes by August, when schools start to open, publishers will be able to resume selling in bookstores. 

“Because in the Philippines, most publishers are publishers of textbooks and educational books,” Karina added.

In Indonesia, Laura Bangun Prinsloo said that the Seventeen Thousand Islands of Imagination Foundation had sent a proposal letter to President Joko Widodo through the Presidential Staff Office on April 15, 2020, and to the staff of ministries related to books (Coordinating Ministry for the Fields of Human and Cultural Development, Ministry of Education and Culture, and the Ministry of Tourism and Creative Economy), to instigate the necessary steps to rescue the book industry in Indonesia. The six proposals were as follows:

  1. Provide financial support for people in the book industry to open access to free online reading and to convert their published books into digital, audio, video formats, and for online programs that are easy to access during the period of #dirumahaja.

  2. Provide financial support for libraries, educational institutions, and community centers to buy books, digital books, audiobooks from publishers to encourage reading at home.

  3. Provide financial support to those in the book industry to publish books with health and hygienic living themes for target readers starting from young children to the elderly to improve the public’s healthy lifestyles.

  4. Prepare a campaign together by forming a more intensive communication network to promote a reading culture through social media and other platforms for mass communication.

  5. Provide financial support for those in the book industry for the free mailing of physical books to community book centers, regional libraries, and literacy communities that need them, so that every level of society can still have access to books.

  6. Provide financial support both for publishing companies to continue their production and promotion activities as well as to work together across sectors to revive the book industry and also the creative industry in general. 

These six proposals referred to the amount of government support provided to the book industries in several countries. Among them: 

  1. The Czech Republic: The Czech Republic’s National Library bought electronic books (e-books) from publishers valued at 370,000 Euro throughout the pandemic when bookstores in the country were closed.

  2. Britain: The government provided funds to public libraries of 1 million Pounds sterling to buy electronics and audiobooks.

  3. Ireland: The government provided 200,000 Euros in additional funds to buy 5,000 electronic books and audiobooks for public libraries. 

The Foundation made these proposals to the government after seeing conditions in the book industry in Indonesia worsen. As an example, by closing 61 Gramedia bookstores, on average publishers experienced a decrease in sales of 40-70 percent since March 2020. “If the government does not give attention to these conditions as soon as possible, several small and medium-sized publishers will not be able to keep their companies alive,” Laura Bangun Prinsloo explained. Moreover, if publishers must adapt their businesses with the current social distancing conditions, it will also require a significant amount of funds. “Converting books to become electronic books (e-books) or audiobooks (audio-books) is not quick and easy from the aspect of costs. Meanwhile, not all publishers are prepared with the means for e-commerce,” Laura said. 

Because of this situation, the Seventeen Thousand Islands of Imagination Foundation has established cooperation with several creative industry platforms and book industry networks at the Asia region as well as international levels to be involved in the event, Jakarta Content Week in November 2020 which will be held by the foundation together with the Frankfurt Book Fair. The hope is that this event can arouse and regenerate and at the same time bring together those involved in the book industry and content who have been impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic.

For further information: contact@pulauimaji.org Dewi Ria Utari (+62 813 1465 1475) Benedicta (+62 818 807 506)

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