Marketing Indonesian titles, a challenge in the digital time

As COVID-19 ravages nations and the untimely demise of the National Book Committee (KBN), what has become of Indonesian titles in the global market?

With the London Book Fair canceled less than a week before its scheduled opening in March, all eyes are now on the Frankfurt Book Fair 2020, slated to run from Oct. 14 to 18.

The Frankfurter Buchmesse, as it’s called in German, touted as the largest book fair in the world, dates back to the 15th century when Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press.

This year marks the 72nd edition of the fair, although it will be a scaled-down affair because of the pandemic and has been dubbed a “special edition”.

Originally, a physical presence would still be maintained on-site, while a majority of events taking place online on Oct. 17 as the “BOOKFEST Digital” that offers free access to anyone with an internet connection.

Frankfurter Buchmesse director Juergen Boos said in a webinar that it was “a very tough decision” to proceed with the physical fair, but that stakeholders viewed the fair as a “beacon of hope” that culture and the publishing industry would survive.

“So we decided to go ahead with it, all while knowing that a lot of people will not be able to travel. Some people might be afraid to attend such a public event,” Boos explained, adding that some of the larger publishing houses and international conglomerates had decided not to attend.

But all on-site exhibitions were canceled in September, as current travel restrictions have proved an impediment to the planned country stands. Quarantine requirements enforced on Oct. 1 have also made it unfeasible for both European visitors and exhibitors alike to travel to the fair.

Canada, the guest of honor for this year’s Frankfurter Buchmesse, has postponed its presence until next year.

Indonesia, the 2015 guest of honor with the slogan “17,000 Islands of Imagination”, will not have a stand at this year’s fair, either. Even so, there is still hope for Indonesian titles.

Beyond books: Jakarta Content Week, organized by the Tujuhbelasribu Pulau Imaji Foundation in collaboration with the Frankfurt Book Fair, is set to run from Nov. 11 to 15 in Jakarta. (Courtesy of Tujuhbelasribu Pulau Imaji Foundation/-)

Laura Bangun Prinsloo, the chair of the nonprofit literary organization Tujuhbelasribu Pulau Imaji Foundation and former chair of the now defunct National Book Committee (KBN), told The Jakarta Post that most countries would be represented at the Frankfurter Buchmesse 2020 by their embassies.

“At the Education and Culture Ministry, back when the KBN was still around, we always worked closely with the [relevant] embassies in question for any event in a [host] country,” she recalled. “However, I don’t know whether our embassy will be willing to do the task without the KBN.”

The KBN, formed in early 2016 to curate Indonesian titles for international book fairs, was disbanded in February this year. The ministerial decree regulating it expired in December 2019 and was not renewed.

Laura said that while the KBN’s contributions were difficult to calculate, its activities during four years of operation had resulted in a significant amount of sales. With more than 1,500 titles sold to date, she noted that this was no small achievement for a Southeast Asian nation.

“However, it’s still tiny compared to South Korea or China with their consistent sales [figures], so we still have a long way to go. I don’t know whether our lack of presence at Frankfurt, both digital and physical, will work in favor of pushing Indonesian content,” she added, as Indonesia would not have a country stand at Frankfurt this year.

Making ties: Frankfurt Book Fair president Juergen Boos (left) and Tujuhbelasribu Pulau Imaji Foundation chairwoman Laura Bangun Prinsloo sign an agreement on their partnership for Jakarta Content Week in February this year in Jakarta. (Courtesy of Tujuhbelasribu Pulau Imaji Foundation/-)

Laura said that the Frankfurt fair was important for the Indonesian publishing industry, which was relatively new to the international scene.

“Every year, the [book sales] discussions start at [the Bologna Children’s Book Fair and the London Book Fair] in March and April, but signing and closing the deals usually take place in Frankfurt, as most rights traders attend the Frankfurt Book Fair. Even if they were unable to attend London, they would always be at Frankfurt without fail, as it is the largest,” she said.

Even though BOOKFEST digital was free, Laura said that Indonesian publishers might not consider it a priority, as publishing agents and the KBN usually handled book rights trading.

“As Boos said earlier, [the event] is free of charge and anyone can attend, but I’m not sure that those who have never traded rights before would be willing or capable. Sometimes we have great content, but we don’t know how to sell it,” she said.

“Once the [BOOKFEST] platform goes live and is open to everyone, can you imagine the millions of books there? If [visitors] are unfamiliar with an agent or a publishing houses, they won’t take a look [at the titles], as there’s too much content available.”

Going global: One of the main purposes of book fairs is to trade rights for literary titles. Publishing agents and the National Book Committee (KBN) used to handle rights trading for Indonesian titles, but the KBN was disbanded in February 2020. (Courtesy of Tujuhbelasribu Pulau Imaji Foundation/-)

But Indonesian fare will be front and center during Jakarta Content Week from Nov. 11 to 15, organized by the Tujuhbelasribu Pulau Imaji Foundation in partnership with the Frankfurt Buchmesse, in Jakarta. The weeklong exhibition will highlight a variety of Indonesian content, from books to movies, even cosplay and culinary events.

“We thought that even without government support, we still have to move forward. We partnered with the Frankfurt Book Fair and convinced them to invest in Indonesia.

“In creating an event like Frankfurt for the Asia-Pacific region, we went with every possible reason that Jakarta is the place to host it,” Laura explained, citing the success of the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair for Middle Eastern literature and the Cape Town Book Fair for African literature.

Expanding Jakarta Content Week to include more than just books was also intentional, with Laura noting that the publishing landscape had extended beyond print books and e-books.

“It’s such a cliché to say ‘content is king’, but that’s just how it is. We’re talking about selling stories in a variety of forms,” she said. (ste)

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