This year’s Indonesia International Book Fair (IIBF) sees five UK publishers showcasing the breadth of their repertoire during a 5-day instalment at Planery Hall Jakarta Convention Centre, in hopes of forging closer ties between UK and Indonesia writers and publishers. “The UK audience might perceive Southeast Asia as a niche market, but I don’t see it that way at all,” says Phil Thatam from Monsoon Books, which specializes on Southeast Asia-themed books. “If you look at Indonesia, it’s the fourth biggest country in the world, and that makes it a very important market. Our company has had some success selling books in Southeast Asia, including in Indonesia, but it’s still a challenge to do the same in the UK. This is why IIBF is a great opportunity for us to discover more Indonesian authors and make new contacts with Indonesian publishers, so we can try and help publish their works in English to the global audience and further promote Indonesia as a literary force to be reckoned with.”
Similarly, Raintree’s Dan Nunn agrees that despite its massive potential, Indonesia remains largely overlooked in the UK market. “Most people in the UK might even find it difficult to locate Indonesia on the map. They would probably be familiar with Bali, for instance, but probably do not know Indonesia,” he comments. This is part of the reason why the publisher focuses on books that touch on issues such as gender equality, religion, ethnicity and disabilities. “Since our main audience is children aged 3 to 14, we want children anywhere to see themselves reflected in our books. This is especially important for children both in the UK and Indonesia, so they are aware that there is a world outside of where they live,” he adds, while pointing out that making reading a more pleasurable and appealing experience for children is also a key objective.
For Kube Publishing, however, the goal is to draw parallels between the two countries’ Muslim communities, especially with Indonesia’s status as the largest Muslim democracy in the world. “It’s interesting to observe the different layers that exist within the Muslim communities in both countries. You notice that the core beliefs might be the same, but there is a big contrast in how they are manifested in terms of appearance and practice,” muses Yosef Smyth, Kube’s children book editor. He opines that Indonesian Muslims in fact tend to be less conservative compared to their UK counterparts in their behavior and attitude. “You can see it in the way they behave, dress or even eat. There is an impression that Indonesian Muslims are not as pressured as British Muslims to appear virtuous. It might have something to do with the fact that Muslims are a majority in Indonesia, and this translates into how they consume our books,” he notes, remarking Indonesian audience’s penchant for illustrations that depict Asian influences. On the other hand, in the UK, readers are more drawn to traditional designs with a lot of hand-drawn images and watercolors.
Emma Wright, founder of Emma Press, also finds illustration to be an essential component in attracting readers. With its focus on publishing “beautiful, thought-provoking” poetry books, Emma believes that by creating beautiful designs for its books, not only does it provide an added value, it also encourages readers to try out different things. “Initially, our manifesto was to come up with books that are sweet, funny and easy on the eye. As we progress, our goal is to attract new audiences through writings that provoke their thoughts and encourage them to be more open-minded,” she admits. Emma discovered that poetry is the perfect vessel to that end while making illustrations for a friend’s collection of love poems. Although at first conceived as a passion project, the collection became the harbinger of Emma Press’ repertoire. “I used to work at a big publishing company in London and often asked myself what I could do to shake things up, be a visible woman and be inspirational. While working on that project, I started thinking about making my own publishing company,” she reminisces. Upon discovering that most publishing companies are named after men – reflective of their leading movers and shakers – she felt even more compelled to realize her aspiration. “I did a bit of research and found a US publisher called Emily Press, and a lightbulb went off in my head. So that’s how Emma Press came about,” she explains.
Going against the grain also informs the modus operandi of Zoblit, which specializes on cookery and tourist books. Using SEO (Search Engine Optimization) and SMO (Social Media Optimization), the company scours for the most popular books in its genres of choice before bundling them with lesser known books. “We wanted to do something different and create our own trend,” says sales director Yahya Thahda, likening the company to a salmon that doesn’t go with the flow of the water. He believes that adopting this model does not only ascertain customer value add-on, it also allows readers to take a risk on lesser known works that they might not be exposed to or take a chance on otherwise. “In the UK, word-of-mouth promotion has been the key to our success. Our audience recommends our books to their family members, friends or colleagues, and this ensures sales of up to 8,000 books per day,” he enthuses. Coming up with unique packaging designs, such as putting books in slipcases or gift boxes during the holiday season, further amps up the company’s profits. Yahya says that this could be the key to improving reading habit among Indonesians. “Indonesians are not used to giving books as a holiday gift or seeing books as a work of art to be celebrated beyond their content. If we are able to inspire Indonesian publishers to do something similar, it might just change the culture,” he concludes.
Changing the culture, both in the UK and Indonesia, is certainly in the minds of all five publishers during their participation in the book fair. During their week-long visit in Jakarta, they meet with a host of Indonesian writers and publishers to strike up possible exchanges and collaborations. “I believe publishing is about connecting people,” says Emma, who is in the process of publishing two books by Indonesian writers Reda Gaudiamo and Rassi Narika. She adds, “Reading and being exposed to different cultures and ways of life through books allows us to develop more empathy as well as get a sense of diversity and ideas that push the culture forward.”