The New Normal for the Book Industry
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.
Whether or not there is a pandemic, for us the issue of books and reading cannot be said to be in good shape. With a population of 66 million people, in France, about 430 million books are sold annually.
Meanwhile, with a population of about 250 million people, in Indonesia annual book sales only reach about 30 million copies (based on sales data from Gramedia), or even if added together with sales in other bookstores, it will not be more than 50 million copies, as 61% of books sold in Indonesia are sold directly at Gramedia bookstores.
With an area of 643,801 km², France has around 3,300 independent bookstores, not including large scale bookstores with branches throughout the country. Meanwhile, with an area of 1,905 million km², Indonesia has 1,200 bookstores in all, both large and small.
We can extend that data and comparison, not just with “advanced” countries, but with some other “developing” countries such as Thailand and Vietnam, for example, and we are still behind. But if we want to question whether such industrial data can truly become a measurement for looking at the world of books in Indonesia, go ahead and check our data on visits to libraries. Indonesia is in second to the last place of 69 countries as a society that is the least likely to visit a library. Or, we can look at Indonesian students’ interest in reading with a score of 371 ranking 74th in the world.
In simplistic terms, we can point to the fact that the reading culture among Indonesians is very low. Meanwhile, on the other hand, our consumptive culture is very high? But the question that comes to the fore should be, why has that condition been able to develop, what factors have caused us to lack interest in books, in knowledge, but to be so enamored of spending money at boutiques and exploring exotic locations.
Of course, we know, both the culture of reading as well as the consumptive culture are not innate and inherited character traits, they are the result of economic and political constructs.
When Covid-19 was still just beginning to be felt in Indonesia, the government had the plan to allocate 298.5 billion rupiahs to anticipate the impact of the pandemic on the tourism sector. Long before that, the government had indeed declared that tourism would become one of the biggest contributors to the state budget. Recently, we have also heard that the government is very concerned about the impact on our tourism sector after this pandemic.
From that, we can see how serious the Indonesian government is in promoting the tourism sector. But on the other hand, even before the pandemic, there was almost no policy from the government for this period related to books, except to abolish the National Book Committee. If there was any policy through the Agency for Research and Development and Books, it was directed only at textbooks, which we know have their complex problems.
Thus, the government plays the most important role in determining whether an economic sector will develop quickly or if it will be stalled and die, which then has implications for the culture of reading or the culture of shopping which has become a characteristic of our society. Of course, ideally, we know, the government doesn’t just follow what the market wants, but must also consider the needs of the nation.
Last May 17th about National Book Day, President Joko Widodo, through his official social media account, advised people to read books during this period of the pandemic. “These moments we have more time to read books, both physical books as well as digital ones,” he wrote. But unfortunately, Jokowi’s statement just seems ironic, if not a mere empty pleasantry, if his ministerial staff related to this isn’t aware how dire the conditions of our book world have become and how battered those involved in the book industry are during this pandemic and is not taking an appropriate strategy for that.
In a discussion titled “Saving Our Book Industry During the Pandemic,” held by the 17,000 Islands of Imagination Foundation and Mizan Publishing, the absence of the government in various issues related to the world of books in Indonesia was also discussed by the two speakers, Laura Bangun Prinsloo and Haidar Bagir.
According to Laura, the decline in book sales in Indonesia has reached 60-90%, a far greater fall compared to several European countries which are around 20%, and it is made worse by the lack of government incentives for the book industry. The same point was stressed by Haidar Bagir, that the world of books as the basis for the nation’s literacy must be fully supported by the government. That is what happens in countries with high levels of literacy.
Let’s compare again with France. In a normal period, we know how their government employs “safeguards” so that those 3,300 small scale independent bookstores are always in operation and are not consumed by giant distributors such as Amazon. In facing the pandemic period, their government allocated emergency funds for the book industry of 5 million euro, or about 81 billion rupiahs, about 25 percent of the total emergency budget for their cultural sector.
Besides that, we can also look for information about how other countries such as England, Ireland, or the Czech Republic have provided incentives to libraries to buy books from publishers, both print and digital, so their industries don’t die. Or in our neighboring countries like Malaysia, for example, the government gives funding in the form of loans and subsidies for the salaries of those employed in the book industry.
Before the lockdown was lifted in France, several publishers and bookstores, followed guidance from the government, to work together for the campaign on new rules for people who want to visit bookstores. They enthusiastically took part in installing stands with hand sanitizer and making posters saying, “The Only Thing You’ll Catch Here Is Good Books,” which were spread to over 500 bookstores and are still being replicated.
Now, the Indonesian government is preparing to apply a new normal for activities. Several provinces, districts, and cities will begin to be asked to relax the Large-scale Social Restrictions for important sectors. In particular, for those involved in the world of books in Indonesia, the new normal for activities will later begin with the questions, how can we continue to exist with the sale of books declining by up to 90%, with several employees laid off, and with a society that has been allowed to continue to lack interest in books?